“Is that ‘Jalandhar’ paneer?” shrieked my younger one in excitement in our apartment in Abu Dhabi. It was, although the enthusiasm was for a dish that was homemade and not from some exotic desi (Indian) restaurant in town. Even though we make our version of paneer often enough - although it is never as good as the original - my daughter does not tire of behaving as though she is a food critic who has at least found the perfect recipe!
To be fair to her, it has been part of an imaginary family menu that my girls have inherited, simply because there are certain dishes that are special to homes - some may even be mundane and not anything special! It is like a child dragging his or her favourite blanket behind them where ever they go. Tried and tested, it only gets dearer as time passes.
Memories of another day
‘Jalandhar’ paneer was one such thing, named by them after their maternal grandparents’ home because for them there is paneer and then there is this dish, which they first tasted in ‘nani’ (grandmother’s) house. Since then, whenever it is on the table, food just goes down faster instead of a bite pushed from one corner of the mouth to another.
This vegetarian dish is made in tomato gravy, which remains pivotal to the finished outcome, it has a tinge of sweetness to it and the trick is to get it just right. Anything too thick tips it over to just another dish. The ‘andaza’ (estimate) factor of Indian households was never more crucial and yet hard to understand for those who go strictly by measurements. Once the gravy is perfected, fresh paneer cubes are added to it in the end.
Now to cut a long story short, all this excitement was also because my family was visiting and after almost two years, my mother was in my kitchen. So, there was finally a whiff of home, a gravy made just right. We may like to think we are old enough to nail family recipes but in some things, we remain mere pretenders, like I am in front of my mother. Moreover, for good or for bad, my children know that!
A family’s favourite dish
Every family has its signature dish, for me though, the paneer is not lonely at the top. On the flip side, there is also food that families grow up eating because perhaps members expect someone to question it and yet in habitual mode, no one does. For instance, I don’t remember a time when simple moong dal - no tomato, no onion in it - was on the table for dinner when I was in school. Yes, I can see those looks of horror but for me at least, sometimes less is more flavour.
Anyway, back to ‘Jalandhar’ paneer. My mother fixed the missing ‘something’ that we had been making do with all this time with a deft hand - a bit of salt here and a few more seconds of tomatoes in the blender and the dish was eaten before you could say chapatti! In a world dominated by paneer makhani [paneer in creamy tomato sauce], some would say you can never go wrong with this vegetable but trust me if you have eaten the real deal, you know. The rest is just another day.
Now to that list I was speaking of earlier. Two more food items, absolutely, not in sync with each other, make the trifecta of satisfaction for me. One is again my mothers’ kaali dal or dal makhani as it is called in restaurants and lastly, hold your breath… mayonnaise. Yes, you read that right!
My world for homemade mayonnaise…
Our comfort food at home is Russian salad and garlic bread, the recipe of the mayonnaise was passed on by my paternal grandmother and to date I have never bought a bottle from the shelf. Everything I have tried outside is like that unnecessary last bite you regret later.
On the first night back home, it is almost traditional to have the salad with a heavy dose of mayonnaise on the side for dinner - I continue to hope that like good fats there may just be something called good carbs! The homemade garlic bread is special too, covered and toasted in the oven; it comes out breakable soft inside with crisp outer corners.
Therefore, along with the paneer for lunch, there was a freshly made bottle of mayonnaise in the fridge soon enough. Weight and watch would just have to stay their turn, this had waited two years.
As had the kaali dal - a black lentil dish that most Punjabis consider their own, in our exuberance we have a tendency to appropriate the good life. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we are far off the charts as we are with tikka kebabs! No one is absolutely, certain of its origin, but we are quite sure that the liberally glorified with doses of fattening cream version that is a staple in restaurants is not really us. It may look fancy when served but doesn’t look too spectacular when it shows up on the weighing scale.
So, the option through the lockdown was to order some of the heavy stuff or hold out for as long as possible. I did give in a couple of times, but I can tell you that it was worth any lentil you have ever had to wait for the one boiling in my kitchen.
Slow-cooked creamy lentils cooked with garam masala
Kaali dal or dal makhani with rice is what my mother eats every year when she breaks her Karva Chauth (an Indian festival) fast. The cream though has always been substituted with a spoonful of yogurt not just for keeping it healthy but also for that slightly sour taste. Increasingly I find Greek yogurt a great substitute for cream anyway, I have replaced it even in the tacos that my elder one has every week, and she has no idea! The things mothers do.
Now if you ask me to choose between these three foods, it is a tough call. It is all about the mood and went it comes down to the wire, the mood here is never fickle. What it wants one day is no different from another. The dal, paneer and some tandoori roti make for a perfect meal, and you can just tuck into the mayonnaise at dinner although to share a secret I don’t always wait that long and just slam it on my breakfast toast many a time.
Memories carry us through when we are a long way away from home. Sometimes they are also tangible, generously sprinkled with nostalgia and a flavour of home. And that makes all the difference.