Monday, June 11, 2007

Learn to cook, it is worthwhile

Last night N and I cooked up a few things: green beans, and pulav and rajma. It took us about half an hour to get everything prepared, and we had a lot of fun doing it.

I began cooking many years ago, when my mom needed kitchen help. It started out with simple things: I learnt how to chop vegetables, since this was something I could help her with often. Then there was a long period of no learning. I would assist my mom, but didn't venture into trying to cook myself. I think this is in part because my mom is a fantastic cook (whose mom isn't?) and no matter what I tried, it was disastrous in comparison.

Fast forward a few years, and I found myself living alone, and missing Indian food completely. I enjoy a variety of flavors, but for everyday cooking: I need my usual dal and rice, or some veggie with some kind of wheat. So I started experimenting. My first Indian dish was cauliflower, cooked Indian style. It was absolutely horrendous, and I had to throw it all away. Luckily, that phase was very short. I soon learnt how to make basic food first: dal and rice, and then I moved on to more difficult food: like gourmet chicken curry.

Cooking food at home has a lot of benefits, and specially Indian food. First, home cooked food is nearly always healthier than eating out. Restaurants compete on price and flavor (in addition to service), and the easy way to make something tasty (and cheap) is to be generous with butter and other fats. McDonalds gets a bad rep for this basic idea: they're greasy, but for a brief while, the food is tasty. Even Indian restaurants abroad have greasier food than Indian homes abroad. And if you want to eat salad in restaurants, you can just as easily eat salad at home.

More importantly, a lot of Indian food can be cooked in advance, and stored for future consumption. This is not true of a lot of Western food, for instance, which must be prepared fresh. A prime example is a hamburger, or steaks, or pasta. You cannot prepare a week's pasta in advance, and stick it in the fridge. A few Indian foods are like this: dosas, bhel-puri, kachori. But in general, a lot of it refrigerates quite well. This means that you can make 2x the quantity, and avoid cooking on the second meal. Or even better, make 5x the quantity, and make two dishes, and stagger the meals so that you have one thing for lunch, and the other for dinner. An hour's cooking will easily last a few days. You only spend time cooking once, and for the remaining time all you have to do is fire up the stove, or the microwave, and food takes no time to prepare.

It is also cheaper - in terms of money, and in terms of the time involved in making the food. And since raw foodstuff is much cheaper than prepared foodstuff, you can buy the very best ingredients, and still come out ahead. Eating higher quality chicken at home is cheaper than eating poor quality chicken outside.

Cooking is a very social thing. Some of my nicest memories have been cooking with friends, or learning to cook their favorite foods. In most cases, helping someone prepare dinner, and the associated conversation has always been more interesting than if we had gone out for dinner. It is even better if the dining room and the kitchen aren't separated. Half my recipes have been learnt through such sessions. Such gatherings are even better when people have different backgrounds. These are the sessions that give rise to Macaroni Masala, and Pasta Bhaji.

It is surprisingly easy once you get started on the basics. Most North Indian cooking follows two or three basic principles. Once you know how to make one dal passably, it is almost trivial to cook the others. Rotis and naans are tricky, and I haven't practiced enough to make them well, but I make do with substitutes like rice, or bread. Even meats are quite easy, though the rules are slightly different. With little effort, one can whip up a killer chicken curry, with almost no grease, as spicy as you like, and with genuine flavor.

A lot of old traditional Indians laugh when my wife says that I'm just as good a cook as her. To them the idea of a man cooking alongside his wife might be amusing, but they have no idea what they're missing. We cook things twice as fast, experiment with new ideas, and have fun cooking together.

It's like playing with clay, or making music. Just that you get to eat it afterwards.