Happiness is a slow, serendipitous lunch of grilled chicken in the dappled shade of the guava tree on a warm Sunday afternoon. With my foot firmly on the brake till Monday, my day dawned later than usual despite the robust renditions of the koels (cuckoos) residing in the fruit trees outside my bedroom window. Sunday papers read, floating on a ribbon of blues meandering through the house (from my better half’s eclectic music collection), the mood was smooth for a morning of leisurely cooking.
Finally, a rain-spattered Sunday. The perfect kind of day for hot chicken wings. Clouds like floating African elephants hang low over my windows, threatening to crash down any moment. Think of a water filled plastic bag, ready to burst. Love it. All summer, burning eyes peeled on the dry blue skies, we waited for the faintest sign of moisture. Exhausted by bright, hot sunshine, spirits withering, we endured the blistering days. So waking up to drama in the sky puts a spring in my step and I make plans to watch the rain with something hot and spicy on my plate. Crispy, juicy chicken wings crimson with chilli paste and sticky with sweet caramelised bits, I know will hit the spot.
On a beach somewhere, sand between my toes, salt on my lips and the sea breeze teasing my hair, I’m lulled into a gentle somnolence by the blue rhythm of the waves. A tall, cold glass, a meaty slider and a book keep me company and I don’t know what time it is. Truth is, I’m in the middle of a heatwave, bored by chores, plotting an imaginary escape plan. I do that sometimes, don’t you? When reality bites hard, we all seek a cloud to float away on. But I tire quickly of too many clouds floating away, leaving me behind. The heat, I realise is shutting me down – making me complain about the weather and stifling my spirit. I need to cook something I could eat on that beach. Maybe a slider since I was daydreaming of one.
Contemplating Dorie Greenspan’s very French Chicken in a Pot among other chicken dishes for dinner, I had a flashback of my trusty clay kadai, which in turn openened a floodgate of memories.
I still remember, it was her feet that caught my eye. Coated with talc-like dust, they seemed part of the dark earth with solid silver rings curling around her toes and thick, silver hoops dancing around her ankles. Like some ebony tree wreathed in bottle-green foliage, she wore her green saree tribal-style, blouseless with one bare shoulder shining like onyx in the sun. Her beauty was ancient (imprinted in my memory, even after so many years); as if it existed like an old palace, weather-worn and maybe a little faded but timeless. And she was the queen of clay pots. Smooth, rich red-earth-coloured, round-bottomed creations arranged in neat pyramids. I was enchanted by her and her traditional Indian kadais, chattis (cooking utensils) she was selling for a pittance on the side of a dusty highway. Needless to say, I bought a kadai (a deep, circular, cooking vessel with curved handles on its sides) but in my heart, didn’t expect to use it much, let alone roast a whole chicken in it.
“The happy sing their songs whilst the rest of us seek poetry”
Read this somewhere recently and it gave me pause. And like the sun spilling its light at dawn, which, like flood waters in slow motion fills every dark corner of the world, realisation rushed over me that it rings so true. At least with me.
I wanted a bowl of calm. A spoonful of a Zen garden with limpid, darkly-soothing pools of elegantly standing lily pads and gracefully gliding, vermilion-flashing koi. If only I could partake of that invisible yet fluid harmony between the visual, the smell and the taste that I had experienced in many Asian meals. I felt I had been unable to achieve that beautiful balance in similar home-cooked dishes. This time I was determined to get my recipe for homemade harmony, right.
Who am I in terms of food? What do I cook and what do I like to eat? These questions bothered me plenty when I first started blogging and still do from time to time. The truth is that I cook all kinds of food from all over the world if I can get my hands on the ingredients. And I certainly like to eat my way through life. To me, the journey is about both discovery and delight. I would call myself a little bit of a scientist, an artist, a cook, an explorer, a glutton and a gourmand.
You can be a breast person or a leg-lover. A few may even be wingmen or women. But you can be sure nobody wants to be a friend to chopped liver. This delicious, nutrient-packed and inexpensive part of a chicken has always been treated like the ugly step sister. I think chicken livers deserve a second chance. It’s time to push aside the pates and bring on the pepper. Spices can make chicken liver sing. Paired with the potent mix of pepper, green chillies and curry leaves, they become delightful savoury morsels, slightly charred and fiery outside and soft and fragrant inside. This quick, South-Indian style stir fry is unbelievably simple and is delicious eaten with plain rice or even toast; but serve it as an appetiser with ice-cold beer and you will proudly declare yourself a liver lover.
I have a memory. A cold winter evening in a small town in Bihar, North India in the early 1980s, Mom, Dad and me sitting around our sunmica-topped dining table eating shepherd’s pie. This old English favourite was new to us but we loved it. A rustic dish, it was my mother’s attempt at ‘Continental’ cuisine. Meat and potatoes, yes, but with dollops of butter, a hint of Worcestershire, lashings of melted cheese, and the happy hum of Indian chilli powder. And soon this dish from rural England became a regular feature on our winter dinner table.
Summer is early and the rains are reluctant. Chameleon-like, green plantains change colour in less than twelve hours as I think of ways to cook with them before they go to mush. Although, ripe plantains and bananas make great milkshakes, banana bread and cupcakes, my palate craves something savoury. In Kerala, in South India, they have countless ways of cooking both green and ripe plantains – from crunchy, completely addictive chips to mildly sweet fritters, quick stirfries tempered with mustard seeds and curry leaves and rich, coconut-laden curries. And happily, marriage to a Malayali has meant that I had great many meals dedicated to savouring and even learning to cook many of these delicious delicacies.