The art of food

Growing up in an Indian household, grains, wheat, and meat were staples. Split red lentil soup with rice or bread was dinner on most days. I thrived in that environment.

I used to wake up to tea—strong leaf tea infused with full-fat cow’s milk—that’s what I survived on. And I always told myself the uncomfortable gassiness, bloating, and smelly farts were normal.

Until I grew up. For one health reason, I decided to go vegan about three-four years ago. And since, for many socio-economic reasons, I’ve continued a vegan lifestyle.

Not long after my transition, I realised that there was another sect of people reacting to gluten the same was as I did to dairy.

Now, I have friends who can’t eat gluten. I’ve cooked for them, and shared meal with them. And so, I’ve become more attuned to the amount of wheat and gluten I consume.

That’s why I like challenging myself to make gluten-free meals. After all, I cook for myself. How bad could it be?

So a couple of days ago, I tried to make gluten-free pasta. I aimed for a simple rice-flour-based spaghetti-like noodle. I realised soon enough that the flour wasn’t as pliable as wheat. Of course, it had no gluten—what was I expecting?

However, after some rigorous kneading, rolling, and scrunching it all up into a ball, I chose the easy way out. Surely, little blobs of dough would still make bite-worthy pasta? I ended up making gnocchi, without a single traditional gnocchi ingredient.

I used a vegetable and tomato curry as a sauce, and to my surprise, it came out well. I was even proud of how quickly everything came together—it was faster than any basic baking endeavour that requires proofing and waiting overnight.

Mix, roll, cut, and shape. Why, it was easier than deciding what sauce to make for the pasta!
Today, at the supermarket, as I looked at the price of gluten-free pastas, I couldn’t help but laugh in my head. Now that I’d done it once, I knew I could make much more for much less.

Food shouldn’t be about convenience. That’s the unhealthy mentality that leads to food-related issues. Instead, when you pursue it with precise care, food becomes art, and that art can sustain us.

Cookies!

I’ve done quite a lot of baking since moving to Australia. But I’m no baker. I’ve never made delectable goods people would want to buy. 

I’ve baked vegetables, pumpkin seeds, and oat clusters. I’m a complete novice otherwise.

I volunteer at a co-operative food shop. Yesterday, one of the managers walked up to me as I cleaned the counter and asked me how I felt about baking. 

Unprepared. Unconfident.

And then, for the first time, I was asked to bake something. It was to be either banana bread or cookies. Nothing new or unheard of—we had s pre-designed recipe. I just had to follow instructions. If it said to boil two cups of salt, well… you know. 

I wouldn’t boil two cups of salt.

But I was making chocolate chip and tahini cookies. 

This wasn’t my usual marinate-vegetables-and-shove-in-the-oven recipe. It wasn’t anything like the pumpkin and oats mixture I bake all the time. To put it simply, it wasn’t simple.

cookies in the making

However, on paper, the recipe was pretty straightforward. It had fewer steps than the banana bread, and even though I’d have chosen the bread to stuff my face in, the cookies seemed far less intimidating to make.

I read the instructions over and over just to make sure I didn’t forget the salt or the vanilla, the oil, or the milk. 

It was a vegan recipe, and only a few days ago, I’d seen the recipe’s author bake some cookies herself. So I had a reasonable idea of how they were supposed to look. I recalled awe-ing at how flawlessly the cookies had spread and how much people enjoyed chewing them.

It was a lot to live up to. And that terrified me. Even though it was just flour, baking soda, and salt for the dry and oil, tahini, milk, and sugars for the wet, I still felt an enormous pressure over my head as I measured the ingredients, battling with myself over the difference between a heaped and flattened cup.

The recipe suggested 15 cookies. And as I balled up the cookie dough, smiling to myself at how much it resembled the cookie doughs I’d seen on television, I realised I was making far too many—I’d made thirty small balls instead of 15 big ones. Anxious, but still proud of my mixing capabilities, I greased the trays, arranged the balls, and popped them into a waiting oven. 

freshly baked cookies

For the next fifteen minutes, I was thankfully too distracted to bite my nails and check in on the cookies every two minutes. When they came out, smaller than I expected, they were more like blobs of chocolate-topped brownish flour than flat disks of chewy goodness. 

My heart sank. Perhaps I’d sunk the cookies.

The first taste-tester said it was good. But he’s a nice guy. The second affirmed the first guy’s comment, adding that the cookies were crunchy and crumbly—which is good, if you like crumbly cookies.

They were both more than less than helpful. I still couldn’t tell if the cookies were any good. And I didn’t trust myself to eat any.

We sold out of cookies in a day.

Many people appreciated my cookies. And yet, as a novice baker and an incredibly-doubtful person, it’s hard to believe.

Perhaps it wasn’t so bad.

Perhaps I’m not such a terrible baker, after all.

Perhaps I could do more…

Taken for granted

roasted vegetables - Unsplash

Living in South Asia, cooking was one of the biggest concerns for my mother. She’d wake up at 4 am to prepare breakfast from scratch. She’d feed us, and once my brother and I left for school and our father to work, she’d clean up and start making lunch. When we got back home, not only would we have a plate of wholesome rice, vegetables, and the occasional meaty or fishy treat, but we’d also have perfectly-proportioned tea and a snack to get us through our homework. While we gorged on the spring rolls, cutlets, or some other goodness, she’d set up the kitchen for dinner. From kneading the dough to rolling it out and cooking it, my mother would spend at least two to three hours sweating over each meal, painstakingly poring over the rolling pin, making sure each flatbread was even on all sides, not too thick or they wouldn’t cook in the middle, but not too thin either for they’d then become too crispy and brittle-like. All the while, she’d ignore the sweltering heat emitting from the stove as her skin and life burned.

She wouldn’t go to bed until after 11 pm.

In a day, she’d spend at least 6 to 8 hours prepping, cooking, and cleaning up. To say she was tied to the stove is an understatement.

She wasn’t the only one. A lot of Indian families had a similar lifestyle. A lot of Indian mothers never had time for a ladies’ night out or even to go to the bathroom at times—because their toddler would wail if they leave the room.

I grew up observing my mother. And although I wouldn’t have had the same life as her, I would’ve still spent a lot of my life cooking and scrubbing had I stuck around the same societal mentality.

When I moved to Australia, I couldn’t believe how easy the food was. I’m not referring to the abundant restaurants. Cooking itself is now effortless. I rarely eat out—it’s way too expensive. But I do cook a lot. It’s too easy. Canned pulses, frozen fruit and vegetables, and oven-friendly meals have transformed cooking from a chore to a ritual as simple as pulling on a favourite t-shirt in the morning. I don’t cook three meals a day either—I make a pot of beans and use it for three days. People think it gets boring, but it doesn’t. I always have some fruit and vegetable lying around for a quick snack or meal. My meat-eating brother gets chicken wings and shoves them in the oven. It takes less than an hour to prepare a weeks’ worth of meals. It’s fast food without the harmful ingredients and effects you’d associate with fast food. Because everyday meals are so quick and easy, I get a lot of time to work on my hobbies and endeavours—to experiment with new recipes, to read and write, to prepare an elaborate meal once a while, or just to wander the streets, aimless. It’s such a nice feeling not to be a slave to the kitchen.

It’s all too late for my mother, though. Sadly, she didn’t have the convenience that I now have. 

That’s the problem of modern life—we take so many things for granted that we fail to realise that even the seemingly instantaneous chopped tomatoes weren’t always that instant.


Image: Melissa Walker Horn on Unsplash

And we’re rolling

Enrolled self-assured

as each enchilada rolled

a skeptic unrolled

Just for Yolks

The one thing I learnt living in a hostel that called it a “paying guest” system, is how much I miss cooking. Even it were just poaching an egg, I craved to do it myself, in my way.

Cooking not only ensures the flavours you want, but also brings out the vibrance of your skills. Plus, of course, egg yolks are vibrant when poached.

vibrant

Oh, that oozing yolk makes my head spin!