It was a mundane day during my summer break exactly seven years ago when I decided to help my father with his annual ritual — pickling green chilies. I’ve never volunteered to help him again.
My hands stung for a whole week. The heat made it worse and dipping them in cold water for some relief added to the misery. Why does he do this to himself year after year? The pickle tastes great, and all our relatives ask for it every year to grace their dining tables. But still why?
The story starts with my father trying to recreate the khichda his mother made — two years after she passed away. “It took me two months to finally make it taste just like mom’s,” he tells me. “The khichda is very nice, easy to make and tasty,” he explains why he chose to make that of all the recipes he could have tried. “The recipe of the khichda is pre-red chillies, before the Portuguese brought red chillies to India, so it uses only turmeric, garam masala, ginger and garlic.”
It is also one of the few things his mother, my grandmother, used to make for the family. The kitchen was her territory but the cooking was not done by her.
Once he had gotten the perfect khichda recipe he said the only thing missing was achar. So he decided to try his hand at that. “Then I thought how did mom make the achar?”
The first kind of pickle he ever made was of lemons, my favourite to this day and then he expanded his achar-making skills to other things. “Pickels stay around for a year and you can enjoy them constantly even out of season,” he says, finally explaining why stinging hands are worth it.
Besides the annual achar-making, baba cooking at home though was not the norm. Mom cooking was an anomaly, too, because the reins of the kitchen were always with Ghulam, who had been with the family since my father was a child.
My father really took the reins of the kitchen during my mother’s cancer, 26 years after his search for a khichda, just like his mother’s. He was always in the kitchen making stuffed capsicums or baking pies so she could have her pick. Chemotherapy wreaks havoc on your taste buds and so the assortment of dishes was important in cajoling her to eat.
This was far from the 27 year-old living in New York during college, making dal chawal because he missed desi food. “You think you can survive on burgers and pizzas but that’s not what happens,” he tells me.
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People are always thrilled when I tell them that my dad cooks, and often does in the house, clearly signalling that finding men in the kitchen is not common. Most men who cook also show the same jaw-dropping experience, “Oh wow, that’s great.”
“People really appreciate it when I cook and are very encouraging about it,” says Hassan Iftikhar, a 30-year-old professional who like my father also cooks as a hobby. He started cooking in his A-levels, taking over some of the dishes his father would make in the house.
“My parents and family, everyone really, enjoy cooking. My father always made the tak a tak,” says Iftikhar. He took over the job after his father got a teppanyaki table made for the house. He makes the tak a tak and serves it to his guest right there, piping hot.
Of the two brothers though, Iftikhar is the one who has really taken up cooking in the house. He had a penchant for it even as a child. “My mother would make haleem and I would always help her, standing with her and helping her mince the spices together,” he says.
Cooking for him is now all about the process of it, making things from scratch. “It is your product, your baby. It is what you make from scratch,” says Iftikhar. He also enjoys his time, “it’s my way of getting some alone time. Some people read; this is my way of expressing myself and my creativity.”
The idea that cooking is cathartic in some ways comes up again and again. Sofiyan Sultan, another 35-year-old professional who cooks as a hobby, says the charm is in the, “destruction and construction that happens at the same time.” This makes cooking both interesting and relaxing for him.
Both Sultan and Iftikhar want to take their love for food to another level. Sultan went to Le Cordon Bleu and took a professional cooking course. “It was cool and tough at the same time. It was a lot like a workout.”
For Sultan too, cooking started at a young age. As a child, he would open tuna fish cans and fry it with ginger. His love for the fish continues to this day. “If I were a zoo animal I would be a tuna fish,” he laughs. His days of frying tuna are over though.
He came back from Le Cordon Bleu and specially ordered a brick oven for himself in the hopes of opening a Pizzeria. “It’s a fascinating process, cooking a pizza in a brick oven. It takes 90 seconds. If you don’t have the proper pizza oven, you can’t really make a pizza.” He talks about the insulation a proper brick oven offers, making the bottom of the thin crust just right. Pizza Hut could definitely take a few notes.
My father, Sultan and Iftikhar know that for them cooking is just a hobby. They are not involved in the day-to-day affairs of the kitchen, cooking only on special occasions or making what they want only when they want to. I ask my father what his mother would say to him if she saw him recreating her khichda and achar.
“She would think I’m crazy,” he responds. “She had been through the drudgery of cooking at a time when there was no fridge in the house, so you had to cook both in the morning and the afternoon.”