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HUNGER GAMES: The Roti Riddle

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-06-2014 Sumana Mukherjee

Like too much salt in food, there’s just no dialling back awareness. Close on the heels of the epiphany I detailed in my last blog came the creeping consciousness that I’d never be able to look at food the same way again. And, ohmygodhowcanIevenbegintograsptheenormityofthis, I was, willy-nilly, in charge of the health and future well-being of two people.

All those people who smile sagely and tell you, “Don’t worry, you never know what you knows until you need it,” when you’re battling the jitters ahead of leaving home/setting up your own place/getting married/producing kids/doing any of the million unsung things that keep the domestic wheels rotating, take it from me, they haven’t a clue. And they don’t give a damn. And none of them is going to be around when you remember in the middle of the Friday release that you’ve forgotten to switch off the gas under the pot of rice, or check on what should’ve been a perfect dum-aloo only to discover a burnt, congealed mess. Woman, or man, none of us knows anything until we learn it.

But how on earth was I going to learn about food? I was far from home, STD calls were twice-weekly treats – we still wrote letters, dammit – and, well, what the f*** did I know anyway?

To be fair, the husband was a supremely enthusiastic, if somewhat clueless, partner. But that’s neither here nor there. Having made, for the first time in my life, the connection between what we ate and the state of our nation....err, health, it was essential to take a long, hard look at the whole process of putting food on the table. And immediately, it was obvious what our biggest strength was: The cook we had employed on a friend’s recommendation. A middle-aged Marathi lady with a shiny nose-pin and a sharp tongue, she had quickly become a mother-figure for us. Her 5pm phone call was a standing joke in office; that’s when she called to ask what to make for dinner. ‘Ask’ is a bit of a euphemism, though: More likely, she’d tell us that she had procured some very fresh spinach and wait for us to demand aloo-palak. Or, announce that there was nothing available, and that maybe we’d want to have kadhi-chawal. And if it was Thursday, it had to be bhindi (a routine we frequently lapse into, years later).

All of which was great: There was a bazaar between her house and ours, so fresh veggies was not an issue. The dals and other groceries were painlessly home-delivered by kirana shops that never advertised the service. And our domestic fulcrum’s cooking was flawless. Mostly.

Empowered by my new-found zeal, I cracked down on the one thing that I did recognize about her food: In an effort to keep rotis soft in the casserole for our dinner hours later, she daubed them liberally with ghee. No more ghee, I declared, in a feeble attempt to recast the power equation. It was fat we didn’t need and could very well do without. Then she would no longer make rotis, she countered, because there was no way they’d remain edible five or six hours later. For a few weeks, we survived on rice. And contemplated buying a roti-maker, one of those magic machines that had just started making an appearance in television ads. (Desperate, I even tried my hand at making a roti. But that’s another blogpost.) Till, one day, she came into work, glowing triumphantly. Adding milk to the dough and then wrapping the cooled rotis in muslin, she’d figured, would keep them soft. It worked (I didn’t have the heart to argue about the milk calories).

Now, many years later, when I have friends over for dinner (though never for rotis), I think back often to Muktabai, bustling around our first kitchen and showing – never telling – us that food was about ownership. Through her five years of service with us, she helped make it a part of our lives, integrating it into our systems and thought processes. Our mums and grandmums had communed with us frequently over food but, obviously, we weren’t receptive to the wisdom at that time of our lives. Muktabai was there when we were ready to open our minds to food. She was the one who told us, if not in so many words: Food is the most important thing you’ll do for yourself today. Take charge of it.

Another lesson impossible to unlearn.

This weekly series, which appears on Tuesdays, looks at what’s new with food and drink, and how we are interacting with it.

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