I am not a natural in the kitchen.
I have spent many minutes staring at a bubbling pot of curry, asking why it’s a different colour from the last time I made it. Or making a pulao that looks great but does not have even a pinch of salt.
That’s why recipes make perfect sense to me. Here are the ingredients, right down to the gram. Here is the method, with every swish and sauté accounted for.
My mum, however, does not appreciate their painstaking efficiency. Over the years, whenever I have asked her for a recipe of a childhood favourite, I have received a handwritten note, or a WhatsApp voice note that’s full of mysteries. No millilitres or grams for mum! Her language of measurement involves words like “a little”, “some”, and “just enough”.
Whenever I ask her to be more specific, I get the dreaded phrase: “Beta (child), use your intuition!”
I think it is very difficult to explain to good cooks that not everyone has a good sense of judgment when cooking. That je ne sais quoi is second nature to them – an admirable quality that remains a mystery to the rest of us.
As years passed and our mutual exasperation gave way to an understanding (mostly because of my pleading), mum’s voice notes have gotten more helpful. Now, she uses slightly more specific vocabulary, like “a handful of…” or gives me a ratio of ingredients, like “add twice as much tomato as onion”. That, I can work with.
But some of mum’s recipes – for instance, her slow-cooked khichra (a variation of haleem) – are too elaborate to convince her to jot them down. There are aspects, like smells and textures, that one needs to get right. For such dishes, I ensure I’m looking over her shoulder, with my phone’s video camera on for key moments, as she cooks and chats away, making a five-hour process look easy.
While the khichra recipe has been filed away in my email’s Recipe folder, I am sometimes daunted by the time spent cooking it and some of the other elaborate dishes my mum has shared with me.
If it weren’t for the lure of her chili shrimps, biryani and other meals I grew up eating and loving, I would be happy just using Google as my sole recipe finder.
As a mum myself, I have to constantly get creative in the kitchen to ensure my two-year-old daughter eats well. And since she is allergic to eggs, I also need to look for substitutes that don’t make the dish taste like cardboard.
Enter Google. A few keywords – like “eggless” or “toddler dinner” – and I am spoilt for choice. Thousands of websites, YouTube videos and even Instagram Stories teach me quick, easy dishes that are often foolproof. Meals that I have tried cooking and loved are quickly sent to my email and placed in my Recipes folder for future reference.
Currently, that folder has close to 100 recipes I’ve collected in the past decade – from my mum, mum-in-law, editor, colleagues, friends, friends’ mums and Google.
It is a much loved, frequently visited folder that has journeyed with me across the world as I moved from my mother’s home, to my mother-in-law’s home, to my own. As my personal virtual recipe box, it demystifies cooking for me with its crystal clear instructions, and helps me trust my capabilities in the kitchen.
Maybe even, dare I say it, trust my intuition!
Try my mother’s chilli shrimps (one of the easiest dishes you’ll ever make):
Chilli Shrimps Recipe
10 whole red chillis
8 pods of garlic
1 tsp ginger garlic paste
2 tsp lemon juice
2 tbsp oil
Salt to taste
Thoroughly de-vein and wash shrimps. Place in a bowl and combine with ginger garlic paste, salt and 1 tsp lemon juice.
Grind the red chillis and garlic pods in a grinder until it becomes a coarse paste.
In a saucepan, on medium-heat, add oil. Once the oil is hot, add the ground masala.
When its colour turns reddish, add the shrimps to the pan. Add the remaining tsp of lemon juice.
Keep stirring till the oil reduces and the shrimps are fully cooked.
Serve with hot rice, dal and poppadum. Enjoy!