December 2011, Kanpur:
“So, what shall I cook for them?” I enquired over the phone.
“Well, kuch bhi! Choice toh hai nahi zyada but jo tumhe lagta hai you can manage well”, he spoke from the other end.
“O hero, hamesha ye jataane ki zarurat nahi hai ki tumhe khana banana aata hai aur mujhe nahi.”
“Phew! Summy, all I am saying is no matter what you cook, they will be happy that you did cook something.” he made a point.
As you may have guessed, I did not know how to cook. My cooking jurisdiction limited its space to Maggi and eggs. That’s all I knew when I got married. Shahzeel, on the other hand, was quite a wizard in the cooking department.
The man had a knack for good food and a year before we got married when on an onsite to Zurich, he took cooking to another level.
They say that cooking is the art of survival, and that’s why I knew how to make boiled, scrambled, half-fry, and full-fry eggs as I can survive on eggs 24*7. For Shahzeel, his palate desires variety, so taking the matters literally in his own hands, he started drafting food early.
Coming to the story, there came a time in December of 2011, when I decided to cook something for my in-laws, as my maiden effort in the kitchen. Shahzeel was out for work, so after a quick check on the phone call, I proceeded to the unchartered territory. Now I did some mental mathematics, as deduced on a dish based on the following parameters –
- They (My in-laws, the Muslim, I had to say!) eat vegetables in the afternoon and meat at night, preferably.
- What all vegetables are at home in the crisper.
- What I can cook with no assistance, and a little confidence.
The above parameters made me run to the conclusion – Stuffed capsicum!
I will bake stuffed capsicum for the jury. No matter what the verdict is, I will cook this. Shimla mirch and aloo were waiting for me. So, I ran to the kitchen, and my audience followed. Why, you ask? Because sometimes it’s about the run, followed by nonsensical fun.
“Why are they looking at me that way! Oh, right, they are presuming, I will burn the house down.” I stood on the battling open field (open kitchen) with my audience sitting on the adjoining stairs going right to the terrace.
The headcount stood at four – two brothers-in-law, my newly married devrani, and my MIL.
And then the cooking spree commenced. The stuffed shimla-mirch is quite an easy recipe. All you need is a tangy-spicy aloo filling, and then place it in crisp capsicum, and then you allow the magic to happen. Now, cooking is not what I excel in, but the presentation is where I shine, and I take it very seriously. Right from my home, to my limited wardrobe, to my food – it’s all about plating! So, as a final touch, I added shredded cheese on the roof of the vertical capsicum, and neatly embedded two coriander leaves as the jewel on the cheesy crown.
The melted cheese on the top made all the difference, and I was pretty happy with my delivery. I placed the green bells on a white plate and mentally rang the bell to subscribe to my effort.
Oh! The audience, you ask? So, my audience stuck the eyes on me like I was an alien who was put to work. Some left the kitchen of the sound of ‘aloo’ while some kept hanging because I was their ‘Jadoo’ (Koi Mil Gaya)!
And then we all met at the dining table as results were to be announced. There was a drum roll, and the vegetable met its audience. I kept my eyes lowered like I didn’t care, but my ears were at prime alert mode, and wanted people to be fair!
“It’s good”, came from one corner.
“Yes, pretty nice!” came from the other corner.
There were some ‘uuhs’ and ‘aah’ been delivered, but all in vain!
You see, they all were great in depiction but such sad actors. No one could pull up the act. It was like I was the Racheal who had just made them eat the meat trifle. (Reference: Friends)
Later that day, I told Shahzeel, “I won’t cook here, ever, again!”
“Kuch bhi! They liked your food.” Of course, he supports his people.
“Really?” I huffed and puffed like the wolf in The Three Little Pigs.
“OK, fine. It wasn’t the best that could have been offered, but then it’s not on them, it’s on your judgment.”
“Of course. Enlighten me on it. Won’t you?”
“We both have a master’s in business administration, and you don’t need that degree to know to learn your target audience. Known the audience! Plain aloo is a simple NO, add some mutton and make it aloo-gosht, and you get a definitive YES.”
He continued as I kept grasping the falling words from his mouth,
“Now for this dish of yours, capsicum was a great pick, but the filling could have been minced meat. Place a keema filled shimla-mirch and see them go gaga!”
“O, Lady Gaga! Tum mujhe gyaan ga-ga ke mat hi diyo! I’m done! So done!”
I left that Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda conversation and thought they would have loved Rachel’s meat Trifle because to quote Joey “Custard..good, jam..good, meat…GOOD!”
Anyhow, raat gayi, baat gayi.
Par raat phir aati hai, kabhi kabhi baat bhi le aati hai!
It was a day before Eid and we were at my in-laws. Everyone at his place was observing rozas which was to be followed by an iftar party at my in-law’s place. Bhin-Bhin prakaar ki dishes prastut ki gayi dastarkhaan pe. As I sat around the round-table eating assembly, I glanced at dallops of greasy delicacies. Even though I am not a huge fan of deep-fried items, one dish caught my eyes, and took my breath away! Gujiya!
Someone was a mind-reader to get the gujiyas. To meet my bachpan at his aangan was a blessing in disguise, something I was not expecting! Mujhe holi ke rang dikhane lage aur ang ang khil utha.
Without saying a word, I checked with Shahzeel who sat right across me, “Kisne banayi gujiyas?” Aakhon hi aakhon mein ishara ho gaya!
He pointed to his Chachi who sat on the other end of the conference.
“Main sadke jawa teri Chachi pe.” I mentally subscribed to her entry and gave her my approval stamp. Not that she needed one, but we all are gyaanis and hum gyaan and stamp baat-tey rehtey hain!
While everyone got engaged in the prayers, I kept playing luka-chhipi with the crisp, flaky, khoya stuffing pie. It called out to me with, “honto se chhoo lo tum” and I couldn’t agree more.
I could envision the khoya melting in my mouth bringing my childhood with it. No sooner than his family advanced to khajoor and water, I placed my hand on the gujiyas. I couldn’t wait for someone to offer me that as it could have taken light-years in the gujiya waiting-world.
As I advanced for a generous bite with the sweet memories, a dash of salt met my taste buds. This isn’t khoya. It’s, aaaaah, meat!
“Kya khoya, kya paaya” cried my heart. Those people had replaced the sweet memories of khoya with paaya, I mean keema.
My rejected eyes met his, dripping with happiness, “Ullu banaya, bada maaza aaya!”
I somehow gulped down the meaty pie. Aisa laga maano, mere meethe sapno ko khured ke kisi ne uspe namak chidak diya. Mujhe aag lagi aur kisi ne uspe apne lambe meaty haath seke.
Later that day, he checked with me, “Kya hua Summy? Bahut armaan they gujiya ke, achhi lagi?”
“Shimla mirch mein keema daal do, gujiya mein khoya ki jagah keema daal do, tum log gaajar ke halwe mein ghee ki jagah bong ka saalan kyun nahi daal dete?”
“Not a bad idea! As I said, it’s about the target audience, the right fit. The right food for the right people.” He smiled.
There are so many discrepancies we have faced on both the ends. The filling might change to attend to the taste buds on either side by then when you let it grow on you, it makes you, your own! It’s about acceptance and opening to the horizon to other flavors. Of course, you crib at first, as zindagi ka mazza khatey mein!