India has a habit of throwing things at you that you least expect. Isn’t this what I have promoted with my travel business – always expect the unexpected!
Cooking is something that I have always been drawn to, cooking for people is high up there on the list of things that I like to do. My friends and family all know this and ask me to bring dishes for lunches and parties whenever I am around.
Whilst living in India this was always something that I was known for. I would have lots of people over to eat, especially those from the expat community who were viewed as ‘outsiders’. This international crew always appreciated a bit of western food. I would also offer to bring along something unusual if I was invited to a ‘pot luck’ dinner party. So I was always on the hunt for ingredients that I could make western dishes out of. My repertoire was quite extensive by the time I left – tofu stir fries complete with soy sauce and Thai sweet chilli sauce, frittata (an egg-based Italian dish similar to an omelette or crustless quiche, enriched with additional ingredients), pumpkin lasagne made with a brown lentil tomato sauce and a cheesy béchamel sauce complete with lots of cheese on top (a winner), Phad Thai and either red or green Thai curries. The list goes on – desserts were also winners: sticky date puddings (served either whole or individually), chocolate mousse and good old fashioned fruit cake.
However in India there are many challenges when attempting to create these western style dishes. Firstly you can only buy fresh fruit and vegetables when they are in season. Then there is the basic style refrigeration and even that is hit and miss so dishes must be made to fit with the season.
In the dead of winter in Himachal Pradesh – when the days are short and the nights very, very long (it is dark around 5pm and light at 8am) – it is always nice to have something extra to do to fill in the nights. Earlier this year, a friend of mine had some friends visiting from the south of India and she invited me to her place on one of these long nights for hot rum, nibbles and dinner.
When I turned up at her place I met an interesting mix of people: educated, cultured and from the arts. One was a husband of a mutual friend, a film maker who had ridden his motorcycle through China making a film in the early 1980s (with his girlfriend as a pillion passenger). The others were photographers (one whose friend described his job as ‘taking photos of very beautiful women’). This was a world away from mine so I was keen to explore and continue these new friendships.
After our second or third dinner together I thought it was time to impress them with my cooking skills and warm house. They would be bringing the booze and the time was set for a day later. Just enough time to buy the necessary ingredients. I was going to make hummus from scratch (no buying pre made hummus in India!); pumpkin lasagne; a beetroot, walnut and feta cheese salad; a green salad and individual sticky date puddings.
But shopping for these ingredients in India takes time and is a unique experience in itself. Firstly you have to pay a visit to your favourite subzi (vegetable) seller and pick out what you require for the dish. The subzi seller then weighs everything up (usually on manual scales), writes the amount down on a piece of paper, puts your produce in a bag made from old newspaper sheets (which is usually so fragile that it splits by the time you get to the car), adds up the total of your bill in their head, you hand over the cash and then someone carries your purchases to the car. Transaction done, fruit and vegetables bought. This whole process can take up to an hour, depending on how busy the subzi market is and how many people push in front of you – particularly if you are buying a lot. As with many things in India, a lot of patience is required.
Next is a visit to the ‘department’ store where you go to buy dry goods – flour, butter, milk, yoghurt and any other condiments you can think of. It is the same process all over again. Some items get weighed out and put into smaller newspaper bags before being put into your own shopping bag (we should have learnt earlier from the Indians and not introduced plastic shopping bags!)
Wherever you go this process is repeated. Shopping for a dinner party can take nearly a whole morning depending on how many places you need to go. So hosting a dinner party in India is quite a considerable investment of time!
I did this the morning of the dinner party, planning to spend the afternoon in the kitchen. The two main dishes were to be baked in the oven, the pumpkin lasagne and the sticky date puddings. As I was about to begin, I thought that I would check on the oven just to make sure that all was okay.
Now ovens in India are usually small and stand alone bench top ovens. It was a fairly new one as the old one had burnt out. I had also been away in Australia for 2 months and was quite recently back and hadn’t cooked anything in the oven since returning.
To my shock and horror a rat had chewed through about a metre of the electrical cord. No part of the cord had been left alone – it was like it was a long piece of cheese and the rat had started at one end and chewed its way to the other, right through the plastic to the electrical wiring. There was no way I could use it. To get it fixed would take a 30 minute drive to the repair shop (yes they still do repairs in India) and then there was no guarantee that they would fix it there and then.
Luckily, one of the women who worked in the house was still around. I called her to see if she had noticed what the rat had done. Of course she had – but didn’t think to mention it.
We came up with a new Indian menu based on the ingredients I had just bought and together we improvised. I did more of the chopping rather than the cooking. We still had the same salads that I was originally going to prepare. In the end we produced a pumpkin curry done the Indian way with mango powder as a sweetener and a carrot halva for dessert.
When my guests arrived eagerly awaiting my western dishes (my friend had been busily talking up my cooking), I had to show them the evidence of my inability to produce my famous western food. We all laughed and said ‘this is bloody India’. As the night wore on and we drank lots of hot, rum toddies it didn’t seem to matter what food we were eating after all.