It was the first solo meal I was cooking for my new family. As a new bride I should have been nervous especially since the house was teeming with relatives including grandparents, sundry aunts, uncles and cousins, but I was not. Having been considered a very good cook in my parental home, I was used to finger-licking appreciation for the dishes I turned out. It was therefore natural for me to be not only confident, but even smug about making a success of my endeavour. The menu included lauki with dal, crispy raw banana roast, a tangy tomato chutney and creamy rice kheer. I was smiling as I tipped in a piece of jaggery into my piece-de-resistance – a tamarind based onion dish, spiced with sambar powder and flavoured with curry leaves and sesame oil, sending out an inviting aroma. I could sense the anticipation building in the dining room.
To make a long story short, my new family loved all my dishes and waxed eloquent, but my ‘masterpiece’ just fell as flat as a pancake! They had been clearly expecting something else — a very spicy variation of the dish that my MIL was famous for! When I realised my faux pas at having spoilt the dish with jaggery, I explained that we added a little jaggery at home to enhance the spiciness — with my ears turning all shades of red!
Suffice to say that for years, my ‘jaggery dish’ as it came to be called, remained a family lore.
Over the next months as I learnt some, unlearnt some and experimented with my own version of various dishes, I realised that there is no one method of making a dish and that recipes vary from one region to another, one community to another and sometimes even from one family to another!
And that brings me to some of the dishes that seem to have a global presence, albeit with different names. Let’s take pancakes, for instance. There are hundreds of its variations the world over. They are typically cooked with fat on a hot griddle and that makes our own dosas and its variants — chillas, dhirade, appam, pesarattu and even crepes – pancakes too. Some of them even alike in appearance.
In fact, pancakes are believed to have been the first cereal based food item cooked by prehistoric people! I am sure we can find such references to the versatile flatbreads. Call them roti, pita, tortilla, or any one of the dozens of names they are known by and one can find that they are all close cousins if not actually siblings of each other, even separated by oceans and continents!
It is due to the regional and cultural variations and innovation that we have so many varieties of the same dish. Above all, our palate craves for variety and constantly seeks out new tastes even while hankering after the familiar dishes. Else how do we explain paneer achari pizza, Chinese bhel or chicken masala dosa, eh?
A word of caution though: In our quest to tweak a traditional dish to come up with our own creation, let us not forget the original version of any dish, for they are repositories of the culture and traditions of the place of their origin.
Ah, I seem to have meandered all over the globe starting with the first meal I had cooked! And all that rambling has made me hungry. Bring on the aloo parathas with the Chinese chutney and Mexican kachumber on the side, will you?