Oven and I

Like most teenagers who didn’t have many friends to hang out with after work, I developed an interest in cooking as a way to entertain myself. Almost every recipe I saw (that I liked) involved tools I didn’t have access to, like a grill, a waffle maker, stand mixers, oven—you get the idea.

Most Asian homes don’t have those appliances—and more importantly, they have no use for them in their kitchens. Generations of Indians lived full, healthy, and happy lives eating wholesome meals without even setting eyes on a microwave or an oven. Cooking heat came from firewood stoves and kerosene or oil lamp burners, both almost extinct now. Modern homes have induction or gas stoves. As a child I sat beside my mother watching her blow through a kerosene stove awaiting the water to boil.

On a side note, she also had a vintage oven in which she baked buns—buttered with a sesame-strewn crust—for us each week, but it was still a phenomenon in a society far more accustomed to traditional cooking methods.

By the time I was old enough to understand its functionality, my mother’s oven had fallen prey to rust and disuse. That’s why the oven fascinated me so. When I saw a video of bread rising behind the glass, as a flower to the sun, my heart swelled in longing. Buying an oven went right on top my list.

But it was also an investment and my inner miser took long enough to weigh the benefits and the possibilities of me making optimum use of the purchase. After years of being on my need-to-buy list, my inner logic won, pushing the oven to the more idealistic nice-to-have-but-high-maintenance list. And so, despite spending almost four years wishing, I never bought an oven.

Then as planned my move to Australia, I realised an oven was a household staple in the first world. Of course, that’s why every recipe called for preheating at 400 degrees F or 200 degrees C. My joy knew no bounds. I couldn’t wait to get started, to bake my aches away, to watch bread that I kneaded rise to the occasion.

Except, it took me over two months to pluck the courage to open the oven.

It was the first thing I saw in the kitchen. Unmissable, wide and thick-skinned, with knobs and symbols, and a clock that showed the wrong time—the oven was too much to take.

The oven, an appliance I’d imagined to love and cherish, felt alien and condescending. For the love of bread I couldn’t figure out what the symbols meant. How hard was it to add explanatory text in there? And why was the fan so big, staring at me as I peeped in, as though from behind soot-studded bars?

It was scary. I forgot all about the wonderful recipes I’d planned—choosing instead to cradle the comfort of the pot. Who needs roasted pumpkins when you could boil them instead? After all, the result was the same—softness, edibility.

And so it was a whole two months before my housemate, trying hard not to snigger at my ancient reluctance to modern equipment, explained the symbols and nudged me to live a little.

And since then I’ve been roasting chickpeas, baking crackers from intended cookie dough, making crispy onion flowers, and toasting oats with tahini and Vegemite (trust me, it’s good stuff if you like savoury stuff). I’ve been on an experimental rampage, throwing everything in the oven, testing temperatures, resting my palms in the glass as winter raged outdoors, and appreciating the oven for its might.

Then one day, too confident to wear oven mitts, I used a cloth to pull out the tray, singeing a small part of skin on the tray above it. It wasn’t painful for I’d pulled my hand out instantly. But the scar lingers, as a visual reminder of my adventures with the oven, with the power of heat, a power beyond my control, a power that I took for granted—that we all often take for granted.

As I look at the scar now, weeks later, I think of my carelessness, but also my growth as an individual. In just a few months, I’d gone from not knowing what an oven is to being so comfortable that I shrug off a small burn without a flinch.

Not to underestimate the importance of kitchen safety, but I can’t help but amuse myself of how ingrained the oven’s become in my life. It’s a reflection of a bigger picture—a sign of my adapting to a new society, and melding in without much friction.

We seldom realise it in our everyday rush, but when you’ve moved to a new place, things that once overwhelmed you soon become part of you. I paused to realise: that’s how oven and I are now.

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Alternative reality

“I’ll have a flat white with an extra shot and almond milk, please.”

For most of us, that’s just another coffee order. A custom drink unlike the regular rather milky beverage.

However, until recently, that was more than a luxury for me. Before I moved to Australia, I took my coffee black or with home-made oat milk, which I wasn’t a huge fan of anyway. I’m vegan, and so my only option back in India was to go black or go home. I didn’t mind much, because I’ve always felt that functional coffee should be strong, sugarless, and black.

Still, it would’ve been nice to blend a splash of almond milk in my coffee.

Sure, I could still get it off one of those niche supermarkets that almost no one goes to, where they stock about two or three cartons of alternative milk every six months. The reason—almond milk is an imported good. And so, naturally it was far too expensive for my lifestyle. It remained a rare and pricey trinket I could observe from a distance, without ever a hope of possession.

Coffee shops stood no chance of offering it.

Does that sound pathetic?

Because it is.

Now though, I have three cartons of almond milk in my pantry. Yes, it costs little more than regular milk, but it’s still abundant and accessible. That’s first-world privilege.

We don’t often realise that even the most negligible aspects of our everyday life is such a big deal for the rest of the world. Coming from the rest of the world, I am stunned at the level of eschewal in society. Of course, I don’t expect people to worship the alternative milk aisle, but instead, I realise I’ve become more grateful than I thought I could be. It’s a strange side of my character I didn’t know I had—a side that’s so conscious and appreciative of the little things in life.

But let’s talk about something more important.

A child from an average household in a developing country wouldn’t need or want alternative milk.

I didn’t until I went vegan. Although I didn’t grow up vegetarian, my family thrived on vegetable nutrition at least 6 days of the week. Sundays were special—lamb days. Or chicken. Or eating out. You get the idea. 

But, milk was the beverage staple, just as rice was for meals. It was a habit I grew into as I got older, because that’s the way we’ve always done things. No questions asked. It also helps that most Indian foods are largely plant-based. Alternatives weren’t part of the culture, and so weren’t an available option anywhere.

Someone once told me that health-conscious dietary practices are first-world problems. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised it’s true. A family that survives on gruel twice a day wouldn’t bargain or complain about not getting almond milk. Any milk is blessing. 

And when you’re growing up in such an environment, you don’t always know or listen to your body. You’ll just shrug off the bloat from gluten and the gas from milk as just another bad day. Because you’ve never experienced gluten-free, vegan, or raw food habits.

Lack of awareness leads to lack of wants. Which may seem like a good idea, but it also leads to unhealthy practices and lifestyles. Which is the disappointing reality in many of our so-called under-developed countries.

Cupcakes for sale at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport in Miami

Deep

Embedded unseen

as butter in a cupcake

are some traditions

An endless search

I walked out of the doctor’s room, dazed. Nothing made sense anymore. Of all the people I knew, I was meticulous, and the most watchful about what I eat and drink.

Some would say I bordered on neurotic obsession. I’d be mindful not to overindulge in deep-fried butter or pigs in a blanket blanketed with pork fat. And yet, there I was, despite stringent diets and careful observations, holding a report that deemed my cholesterol levels nigh too high.

I lamented. 

At 22, I knew no one as careful with their diet as I. I had to, too—diabetes, heart complications, blood pressure, and a hint of a brain tumour induced comma, all clogged my mother’s bloodline. I inherited, along with a few crumbling, unintelligible letters and premature graying, a lengthy list of disorders that could make my adult life miserable.

Therefore I took enough precautions to keep diseases away for as long as I could. I succeeded too-by choosing more fiber-rich alternatives to white rice and flour. I thrived on vegetables, millets, red rice, and bananas. Lamb meat and chicken were occasional because we’d get fresh meat every time I visited my parents.

Life seemed good-except for my weakness for peanut brittle, I’d become comfortable without artificial sugar, empty carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats. 

And then came the verdict: high cholesterol.

My doctor denied medicines. He suggested I stick to a proper diet, instead, and that everything should be fine then. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits, he said. “Eat,” he cupped his palm to indicate portion control, “but don’t overeat, meat. And get regular exercise, too” he raised his eyebrows at me, who hasn’t skipped yoga even for a day in the last five years.

What he didn’t know, and wouldn’t listen either, is that I’d been doing everything he said since 19.

Still, something had to change, I knew. Sure, I was cautious, but caution wasn’t enough anymore. I looked through my habits yet again. I was taking eggs and a generous amount of milk every day, in addition to a decent amount of meat every week, and a tad bit too much of it every two weeks. It seemed to me that I wasn’t distributing my meals as efficient as I should, and because of that, I was getting too much of one thing and too little of the other. 

Oh, trust me, you can have a careful diet and still be way off course.

I tried quitting eggs. It wasn’t hard because I never liked them much anyway. They involved too much work cleaning up without a stink that it was a relief not to deal with that anymore.

I felt good.

I wanted to keep feeling good and forget the fiasco that was my cholesterol.

I tried quitting milk. It would’ve failed had I woken up one day and stopped drinking tea altogether. It would’ve driven me mad. Instead, I switched to low-fat milk. I scanned labels analysing differences between skimmed milk, 2%, and fortified milk. But I soon learnt the risks of skimmed milk, and not too long afterwards, the vague health verdicts on milk altogether. I realised it could do more harm than good. From full-cream milk, to skim, to skim milk powder, I hopped on and off, before getting tired of them all. 

Good food shouldn’t be so hard to get. By the time I realised the potential risks of consuming adulterated daily and meat, I no longer craved it.

I was beginning to feel great.

Black lemon tea and drip coffee never tasted better after that.

I crave other things now-stuff that has little to no room for contamination or heated debates in lifestyle magazines-vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Not only did they taste great, but these foods also made eating a less stressful practice. The idea of relying on a plant-based diet freed up my mind from worrying about the side effects they could cause in future.

Now that I’ve acquired a taste for plants, I don’t think I’d want to go back to a meaty diet, to feeling bloated every morning or being uncomfortable after lunch on Sundays.

The best part is that I’m discovering new plant-based foods every day. My options, unlike popular notions, are abundant even to the point of overwhelming. This search could never end.

Red wine in a glass - happy new year

Cheers!

Food, booze, reflection

a night like any Friday

oh, happy new year