Monday, January 12, 2015

The Essence of Time

This is a recent article published in The Hindu, about my book, Quick Cook.

If you’re waging a battle with the clock while preparing food every day, then this cookbook is for you

Master of Menus: Sabita Radhakrishna. Photo: M. Karunakaran
Sabita Radhakrishna is used to starting trends. She pioneered the boutique concept in Chennai with Amrapali. Then she went from being a gifted home cook to cookbook author in what she calls, a “happy mistake that I never meant to make.” Now she’s launched her latest cookbook, The Quick Cook.
It all starts with the basics. “Pre-preparation is the backbone of quick cooking,” Sabita writes. She says, “I’ve provided recipes for basic masala powders in this book. Make it ahead and refrigerate it — you never know when it’ll come in handy.”
Sketched out as a series of menus, the book is all about preparing a meal within 60 minutes. “It’s the ultimate lesson on time management, targeted towards the younger, working audience who don’t have time to make a balanced meal,” she says.
While each menu promises a balanced, nutritious meal in just an hour or less, the menus also contain standalone dishes. If you doubt your ability to cook a 60-minute meal don’t worry: it has been tried and tested. “My niece became a quick cook after I wrote this book because for every recipe, we would go into the kitchen and set the alarm. Sixty minutes exactly, with only a recipe in hand. It was a pleasant surprise when some of them took even less time!”
Then again, not every recipe can live up to the claim, and Sabita knows it. “None of the desserts have time estimations. Baking is an exact science, and my desserts are no different.”
Ladling out a spinach-and-corn tart for us to try gives an idea of what the book holds. Sabita showcases some continental delights but doesn’t neglect the home favourites like rava dosai and Kancheepuram idli.
And for the strict vegetarians there are substitutions. Helpful hints pepper the end of many menus; notes that Sabita has taken while preparing the meals herself.
So what’s in the works next? Another cookbook of course. “I don’t mean to write any of them. They happen by chance... Just when I think I’m done, another request comes. And I love food too much to say no.”
The Quick Cook is priced at Rs. 399.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Wedding Belles

As kids we had an abhorrence of weddings.  True to form our parents trotted us through every ceremony till we knew the rituals by heart …mercifully the family tree was not in such abundance so the number of weddings were limited.
The only attraction was meeting our cousins,  nieces and nephews, some of them who were much older than me, and some first cousins  old enough to be my mother.  One nephew in particular, took churlish delight in introducing me amidst gasps as his aunt, a habit which he has not given up!. We were strictly told not to “play” with each other but sit primly watching the goings on. No wandering about even accompanied by strong looking male cousins as we would be easily kidnapped what with the jewellery we wore.
The best event was the wedding reception. The bridal couple relinquished the comfort of the sofa to shake hands with well wishers, trying to balance the flow of gifts . They would finally abandon all hopes of sitting till the long queue eased off. The plastic smiles they wore slowly morphed into grimaces.  The most entertaining event was the kucheri. No one bothered to listen to the singers warbling, the women were most engrossed in sizing up each other’s clothes and jewellery and viewing eligible young “girls and boys” who were paraded at weddings. The mridangam player and the nadhaswaram artiste would engage in the funniest of facial contortions, and we would imitate them and convulse into laughter till we were ticked off severely by an adult at this show of deep disrespect.
Weddings stretched to three days and if you were closely related you attended every single one of them. I thought that with the passage of time,  rituals would coalesce into a single window, and a one day wedding. On the contrary wedding celebrations have ballooned into a display of wealth, and aesthetics at a price. It does not matter that you are South Indian. You have a mehndi ceremony for “close women friends and relatives”, the sangeeth, the mappillai azhaippu, muhurtam and wedding reception, making it a five-day wedding.
Out comes the jewellery from the bank and preparations are afoot as every invitee likes to look her best. The men have it easy, or so I think. The pandal d├ęcor could cost anywhere between 2 to 5 lakhs depending on how much you want to spend and you could extend it further. You have event managers who supervise the flow, and in some cases are assigned the task of welcoming!
The best part of the wedding according to me is where every guest is accorded warmth and made to feel that his or her presence added to the wedding something which the family takes on, not strangers. On one occasion there was neither the event managing team nor the bridal couples’ relatives as we entered the mantapam. A smiling stranger insisted we go straight for breakfast, and we headed in the direction he pointed and enjoyed all the delicacies. Lo and behold there were no familiar faces, and as we stepped out we realised we had stumbled on to the wrong dining hall, and hastily beat a retreat to the wedding on a different floor.
“The food prepared is enough to feed an army” said a young nephew fired with idealism of youth and determined to get married under the trees or on the beach when his time came. To prove his point that anyone could partake of the wedding feast, he along with two other bright young men, all of them still in college, and suffering hunger pangs, spruced themselves up and walked in. The girls at the reception giggled and sprinkled rose water on them and offered them buttonholes  and kalkand. As they walked to the dining area, interested relatives ogled at these eligible boys wondering whether they belonged to the groom’s  side or the bride’s  and made a mental note to find out who they were. The boys scooted as soon as they  had their meal, and after several namaskarams to the men who fed them.
Whatever food is left over could be distributed to homes where the poor and needy could have a feast.. The illai saapad has its disadvantages, as much of food served is often left uneaten. Gifting  is another debatable and difficult issue. You cannot really gift something to a couple blessed with everything. Money in envelopes could get lost in the mela. Flowers, even expensive bouquets are tossed out as no one has the time to arrange flowers. And yet, can we  attend a wedding without taking something?
According to me, one  good idea is the gifting of a book, if you know what kind of persons they are. Books on marriage, cookbooks, self help books..there are plenty to choose from . Gift coupons from popular stores work well. The nicest idea we encountered was a little line in a simple wedding invitation. It requested  persons who wanted to gift the couple something  to make a cheque however small in favour of a charity  they were supporting. The envelopes were dropped into a box kept for the occasion after you wished the couple, and there was no surfeit of unwanted gifts.
When we ape the west so much why don’t we think of having a bridal shower?  The bridal couple provides a list of what they propose to buy, and the invitees discuss among themselves what they want to give them. It goes against our Indian way of thinking but I think it is so so practical without spending money on stuff which they would find useless..
One of the best weddings we have attended is on the beach, with just a select crowd of 100 people. Of course the only concession was hiring a white steed, for the groom, who, being a German enjoyed carrying off his precious love after the ceremony.  A priest solemnised the wedding in English  for the benefit of the groom and his family. The thali was tied amongst the strains of soft nadaswaram recorded music. The guests were taken to a restaurant booked for the occasion and we all came back happy.

I just keep wondering whether we will retract from these kind of social customs which have become a way of life, or will weddings stretch longer or whether we will come back again full cycle…it remains to be seen.