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by Sudha Chandrasekaran

Cooking is not merely cookware and kitchen!

"Cooking is at once child’s play and adult joy. And cooking done with care is an act of love." - Craig Claiborne

From someone whose only conversation connected to cooking included, “Amma what’s for Breakfast/ Lunch/snacks/dinner; for one who could not differentiate between kesar and haldi; and for one who said “This puri chenna is so delicious, give me yet another big spoonful of chenna?”; for a darling daughter who had never been given an opportunity to enter the kitchen till she turned 18, I for one have come a long way. Today, cooking is something that I am passionate about and absolutely enjoy. It has become an activity that I look forward to, an activity that I explore and indulge in, much to the joy of my family and supportive friends. Who would not feel welcomed and fulfilled by a hot, tasty meal?

I have been blessed to be surrounded by near and dear ones who are excellent cooks. Like most of us, I started my journey first in Amma’s kitchen. I have turned out rotis whose shapes are totally unknown in geometry; pooris that became hard as chikki; and have also rung the death knell for several cook wares by remembering about them after I got a burnt smell from the kitchen! After the failure of my first experiment, my mom and I, with whatever was left of my pride, vowed that we would never cook in the same kitchen again. But that did not happen at all! Brushing aside the not so smooth beginning, my enthusiasm to cook has always originated from food alone. I believe that we don’t eat to live but rather live to eat. The innate appeal that a tasty meal brings to all your senses is pure pleasure and bliss. And to be the cook that makes it possible – isn’t that a crown one would wish to wear?

A typical scenario involves an aspiring, but slightly ambivalent cook, that’s me, who wants to improve her diet while having fun and being creative in the kitchen. So inspired was I that I went to the grocery store and filled my cart with several organic stuff and plunged into a “simple” vegetarian recipe of aloo tikki that I chanced to stumble while clicking through some new blogs by popular cooks. When I finally sat down to savour the fruits of all my labour, I find the tikki to be inedible as it is very spicy and very salty! I salvage it as much I can with more bread crumbs and potatoes and try to put it out of my mind, even though the kitchen was filled with the delicious aroma of tikki that I had tried my hand at! The next day, I experience a fresh and unexpected crisis at work and spend the next two evenings eating dinner at my desk. By Friday, I am fully exhausted and order food from Swiggy! Also, I almost did anything to avoid the smell of failure that now greets me every time I step into the kitchen.

Sound familiar? Whenever I hear stories such as these, which I myself have experienced, my instinct is to help those people find a way to make healthy meals more joyful. So here’s what I suggest: Start by sitting down with a pen and paper. Go ahead and prepare a list of meals you would love eating, including the ones which are not very healthy. At the start of the week, pick one of those meals you love, and buy all the stuff you need to make it as appealing and delicious as it can be.

Let’s say it’s a Greek salad. With fine red-wine vinegar, high-quality kalamata olives, other salad vegetables, fresh ground pepper, and some really good feta cheese, you can make a version that’s way better than what is available at the local Pizza Hut around the corner of your house. Next week, add another dish from your list. In the subsequent week, try out third dish from your list……. Is it a pot of minestrone soup, bubbling beans, with onions, celery, carrots, stock, and tomatoes?

Well, if you do not cook, or have not cooked as yet, avoid diving into it with cooking as the focus of your efforts. Listen to your heart and indulge in what makes you happy – make the food you love to eat. Therein lies the true joy of cooking! The very first thing to be done is to jot down the time that is at your disposal for cooking either during weekends or weeknights. My friend Radha is always trying to fit two-hour recipes into half-hour slots. If you routinely have a half hour to get dinner on the table for a family of growing kids, you are most unlikely to try your hand at cooking hot entrées. Take some time on less busy weekends to cook exotic dishes that your family would relish. Slow and steady wins the race. If you start by cooking for the person you are, you’re much more likely to succeed than, if you try to cook for and be that someone you are not. The more I hear about people’s recurrent dilemmas, sad failures, and hopeless surrenders in the kitchen, the more I am convinced that misguided striving is a huge part of the problem.

My long cherished or ambition, whatever you may call, has always been to open my own restaurant or at least be a Chef in one of the five-star hotels. Then finally work will no longer be work but play! I like to cook anything and everything. Simple cooking is good but may be not the best. I love to try my hand at arduous and exotic stuff whenever I have time at my disposal. Something about challenge gives me an adrenaline rush. Desserts seem to rule the roost in my home. My favourite cuisines in that order include Indian, Thai, Mexican and Italian, but desserts are my favourite. Given a choice I prefer to make desserts to any other type of food. Well, I can say that the key ingredients which you find in my type of cooking include, sugar, ghee, maida, and oil. Paraphernalia that I consider basic in the kitchen include an Indian blender, hand blender, a good variety and assortment of all kind of pots and pans, an Appam maker and a set of bake ware.

For a beginner, it must be rather mind-blowing not knowing where to begin. Your mother or may be your father, in some families, may be the best person to make a beginning. It is a well known fact that some of the best chefs in the world are males. Besides this, Google may be your option to turn to. Once you hit the button for a particular receipe, several will be the websites putting forth the receipe for the same dish, which can be thoroughly confusing. Yes, you might make a few dishes that find their way into the drain quicker than you can say “Awful”, but you will learn and one day you will succeed. And that day, a big smile will radiate from your face. As the days pass by and you move into a cozy area and become interested in experimenting more with cooking, start by picking those cuisines you are most easy with and start trying your hands from there on. Planning is the most important step in cooking. Cooking is to be approached with an almost mathematical precision. My first step is that of planning the menu; secondly list out the ingredients; and lastly decide on the order in which they will be prepared. This gives some foresee ability and schedule to an otherwise seemingly formidable chore. Spontaneity has its charm but the truth is, the more organized you are, the less knackered you will be.

Several friends of mine are not really interested in cooking. For them, time spent in the kitchen is all about getting a meal on the table after a long day at the office and before or between music lessons; tennis practices; dance lessons; karate classes……. or any of an expanding variety of family obligations. However that does not prevent them from dreaming, however. I hear a lot of true confessions about failed attempts at healthy home cooking. These sorrowful stories usually start with great aspirations that are kindled by cooking shows and a false belief that preparing a meal should be a joyful quest. Cooking to me is no different from any art or skill that you train to master. Immense satisfaction, pride and the joy of achievement that we get from a successfully and tastefully prepared dish, is no different from any other accomplishment. A good cook is usually someone who is patient by nature; is willing to take risks and do experiment; and also pays attention to an artful and appetizing presentation of his or her preparation. After all what appeals to the eye is what will be exciting to the sense of taste! In whatever I do, I am a firm believer in that it must be done with enthusiasm and passion. Why should the art of cooking be something different! The joy in putting together a meal and seeing the smile and satisfaction that it brings to the person eating it, is one of the most primitive and unadulterated pleasures in life. My ardent passion for this art stems from being at the receiving end of scores of delicious meals that have left me fully satisfied and content – in mind, soul and body.

My real advice for people who are enthusiastic about cooking is to focus on finding your own personal joy and tastes. That’s when cooking becomes a whole lot easier and a lot more fun too!

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