Stories from my kitchen
Sushi! Khinkali! Cevapi!
Blueberry crumble. Pavlova. Brioche.
The names scream out loud. They are not mere names. They are the call of desire. Marveling at my craving, I reach for the calculator.
The result is the price of a ticket to Timbuktu.
(This article appeared in Khaleej Times on Nov 12, 2020)
There are no flights to the said destination currently, but the horror persists – what if I can never travel to eat Tiguadege Na in Timbuktu?
How about I learn to cook?
Among the many benefits of Dubai-living in times of Covid-19, is the quick delivery of international cuisine made possible with a short phone call or a click online. Considering the current state of affairs we are in, Dubai is the perfect place satisfy a food-adventurer and only food can make the months of not traveling bearable. If only the price…
Tough times call for tough decisions and as a furtherance of that thought, I decide to take matter into my hands.
When I looked at Mt Kilimanjaro from the town of Moshi in 2010, I had a brave thought, which eventually saw me to the top of Uhuru Peak. “Make friends with the mountain you are going to climb,” had been my mantra. It worked.
Moussaka or sushi – it is all about being friends with it.
Silky fingers and gloves
Enter a sushi kit. I warm towards it instantly. At quarter of the restaurant price, I could enjoy “twenty-five sushi rolls.” Only the Japanese could think of something like this. Long live Japanese.
I am all for being friends with salmon too. Thus begins the process of cooking rice, addition of vinegars and sesame oil, then spreading it on a nori (seaweed) wrap and arranging the fillings. Things only begin to go south when I begin to roll. I lack the dexterity that mat-rolling Asians have which results in an uneven, limp roll that further disintegrates under the knife. The fish escapes to the corner of the kitchen and the rice sits on the counter-top uncertainly.
I am ready to reach for the telephone, but there is work to do – like taking a photo of it all to celebrate my culinary disaster. My sushi is photographed under a bad light on an Iphone with a bottle of chili -flavoured olive oil in a bottle shaped liked Italy, but it tastes like sushi. In the presentation department, you will not find me wanting.
After all, one needs an occasional reminder of the realities of cooking.
Flour is the essence of life
If you have flour and three of these ingredients you can make pretty much everything – a bold baker proclaimed on Youtube. I had a little more than three ingredients, so I felt safe enough to begin my experiment.
What she really meant was “you can lay the foundation of beautiful things to come.” Because you see, flour doesn’t make khinkali, that Georgian staple everyone sings praises about. That thing needs a stuffing of minced meat and sculptor’s hands for good results.
Encouraged by memories of a dumpling-making class, I knead, pound and roll the dough and stuffing the fat-free mince-meat into it with ease. It is not as if I have the hands of Rodin, so I do the best I can. Emboldened by this fearless approach to Khinkali making, I place them in a steamer and wait. The truth of an age-old saying dawns on me. “A watched pot never boils.’
After an eternity, it is ready. The famous Georgian dumpling has magically gained muscles – like a car-tire. A strong arm is needed to pick it up and push it into the mouth, but not before biting off the tough and chewy cover that protects the meat inside.
Food, let’s face it, is how you look at it. And my Khinkali is nothing but dumpling on steroids that escaped the sculpting (and perhaps kneading). I don’t belong to that section of people who propound outrageous theories of perfect food.
I am a rebel. I’ll eat my tires, thank you.
They never really tell you everything on Youtube, do they?
Understanding how oils separate cuisine styles
Very soon I learn the reason for discord between the cuisines of world – cooking oil, which can be solved if we agree that Olive Oil was White Oil to be kept away from Asian cooking.
Not wanting to be the one who “fused” cuisines, meaning, substituting Sesame oil with vegetable oil, Oregano with Rosemary, lime with lemon and horror, Cheddar where mozzarella, I invest in cheeses and spices and break them down according to regions, then learn a few fashionable words like kneading, sauteing, braising, caramelizing and broiling before arriving at the conclusion that Italian cuisine is by far the easiest. It requires none of the above.
Like Russian salad. Which can be whipped up without reaching for the oven, stovetop or steamer.
I am also amazed how Western Spices and Asian spices are packed differently – the former always in attractive, curvy bottles and the latter in plastic packets and are far too many to do anyone any good.
In the end decide that if Jamie Oliver can cook fried rice in a saucepan with olive oil and torn bits of tofu in a 1-minute video, there is nothing to stop me from making spaghetti with a sprinkling of Garam Masala and spring leaves. And soya nuggets.
In preparation of an uncertain future that may restrict my travel to Timbuktu, my shelves are stocked, numbered and labelled according to countries, although I am partial to the Italian section. Even with my eyes closed I can find Parsley, Basil and Oregano (to my left), canned tomatoes and pepper mill to my right and on the self above, tall bottles of colour coordinated pasta, fusilli, penne. That is the thing about Italian food. They don’t daunt you in the least.
The Japanese section is the smallest with only a bottle of wasabi left there to die.
The Asian side is the reality check. I am beginning to wonder if I am cut out for this after all.
What did Confucious say about chasing two rabbits? You catch none.
My refrigerator looks like a small store of exotic items. Kitchen drawers are bursting with knives, cutters, measuring cups. The cabinets are filled with woks, saucepans and ceramic pans. A mallet sits hopefully in anticipation. Vinegars and sauces talk to each other. Outside the shelf, a camera is mounted. The rustic chopping board, slate/granite slab, chopsticks, a Chinese tea set is laid out on pure white lace.
All I need now is a good chicken roast with mashed potato. Perhaps another day.
For today, a phone call will do.