Good morning and welcome to Cooking From Life: a Vittles mini-season on cooking and eating at home everyday.
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Cooking from Life is a Vittles mini-season of essays which will defy idealised versions of cooking, eating and living. The season will be a window into how food and kitchen-life works for different people in different parts of the world. Cooking as refusals, heritage, messiness, routine.
Our first writer for the season is Anuradha Roy.
Urgent, tender care
An essay, and recipe for Kachhi Karhi, by Anuradha Roy
There are black specks of nigella seeds in the scarlet of the cut strawberries. The strawberries are in a blue ceramic bowl at Sous les Palmiers, la Plage – a café overlooking the Loire estuary, where the great river meets the sea. The umbrella pines, after which the café is named, cast dense shadows over the sand, where children and dogs play. I am alone here, living the strangely suspended life of a writer at a residency. An ocean away from home, that sprinkling of nigella – or kalonji – is Proust’s madeleine for me: bitter seeds that inflect the sweetness of the strawberries.
They send my mind hurtling to a kitchen in Delhi and, through the chatter in the café, I hear Sheila Dhar’s voice. She tells me to be patient until the mustard oil is hot enough before adding the kalonji. She is teaching me to make kachhi karhi, a melange of vegetables in a delicate gingery yoghurt-based broth. Her instructions are interrupted by laughter at the theatrics of her cook, Bindeshwar, who has laid out the ingredients in identical steel bowls and is striking poses as if for a cookery show on TV.
Sheila Dhar was one of my authors when I worked as an editor at a publishing house. When I met her she was a tall, rather grand woman in her late sixties, and had two sons, grandchildren, and Indira Gandhi’s Chief Economic Advisor for a husband; all fitted into a capacious bungalow in Old Delhi. She lived a rich, full life that straddled politics, writing and classical music. Back then, I never presumed to call her anything but ‘Mrs Dhar’, although I soon discovered that her imposing manner was a disguise adopted to hide the recalcitrant child she was at heart.
Mrs Dhar’s house had a sun-filled garden where two Boxers lolled among the chrysanthemums in winter. This was also the season when she cooked up elaborate feasts. She invited us for these meals, the menus reconsidered in consultation with us the entire week, planning being a preliminary joy to the greater one of gathering to eat. Mrs Dhar always cooked a meaty, extravagant dish especially for me, such as a Kashmiri pasanda, the meat melting into the rich gravy, or a homely, nourishing pot of mutton cooked with haak saag. When asked why she went to such trouble, she would say, ‘Beti ghar aa rahi hai’, a phrase that gathers within it a complex emotion peculiar to India: the idea that a daughter is oppressed by her in-laws, so on her rare visits home she must be coddled thoroughly before her return to Hades.
I am married to a vegetarian – suffering that was, in Mrs Dhar’s eyes, worse than domestic drudgery. And it called for urgent, tender care.
As my lunch arrives at the café, I wonder what Mrs Dhar would have made of it – an all-vegetarian platter with three colourful salads, one of them tossed with violets. Alongside it there are chickpeas and barley, and those strawberries sprinkled with kalonji. As I eat, I think about how a vegetarian café came to exist, even flourish, on the seafront in St-Nazaire, where almost every restaurant advertises either les moules-frites or galettes topped with ham. And what is kalonji doing among strawberries?
The woman at the till does not give the impression of having time to waste in conversation with strangers. She has a vivid face, dark hair flecked with grey, her gaze cool and somewhat distant. That first day we speak, her replies are brief to the point of being curt. The second day she seems less guarded, and tells me her name is Anne-Gaëlle. She also tells me that, during travels in India, she discovered how good vegetarian food could be. When she returned to St-Nazaire she bought a run-down old bar and turned it into this café, where the evenings are for music, drinking, performances, and the afternoons for lunches where everyone is served the same platter, made with seasonal fresh vegetables.
A few days after our first chat, I bump into Anne-Gaëlle on the road parallel to the beach. She is wheeling her bike, its basket bulging with shopping. Away from the café, her face breaks into a wide smile when she sees me. In her halting English she finds a way to say, ‘Will you come and teach us new Indian recipes? You give me a shopping list. Let’s fix a day.’
Just as seeds have the miraculous habit of sprouting and then shooting up into a plant, a fortnight later I was in the café, promoted to chef for the day, cooking a meal for fifteen. Anne-Gaëlle had renounced her till and turned from owner to kitchen assistant. Marco, her scholarly chef, had demoted himself to sous-chef too, and stooped over the kitchen counter grating stem ginger and chopping onions for our meal. Marco, a freelance chef who calls himself La Fourchette Nomade, conjures up food with flair, wandering between France, Italy, Turkey and Morocco in his kitchen everyday. He was intensely interested in our experiment and had cycled the previous day across the docks to specialist shops to pick up everything we had listed, including kari patta, which had arrived in France from Madagascar as a frozen green block.
As we prepped, Marco’s Swiss knives flew through potatoes and tomatoes as if they were butter. He showed me how to wear an apron the chef’s way. He handed me silicone grips for the hot pans. When he finished his chopping and grating, he scribbled recipes in a notebook. There was music and the hum of voices from the café, and when I went to the door to take a break and gaze at the sea shining beyond the stretch of sands, I heard its soft whoosh. As the scent of spices wafted out from the café, hungry passers-by came seeking lunch. But it was still a test kitchen, and they were turned away.
Once the café had closed for the afternoon, fifteen platters were laid out for staff and visiting friends. I had cooked a Tamilian friend’s lemon rice, my Bengali mother’s tomato chutney, potatoes with ginger and cumin from the Lucknow kitchen of my mother-in-law, a raita with aubergines I had invented, and Mrs Dhar’s kachhi karhi. I had picked uncomplicated dishes that didn’t need to be served hot. This was from necessity, since I can only manage simple cooking.
I sat back and watched as my new French friends ate the meal I had cooked. They had the karhi on its own at the start, as a soup. Then they went on to the rest as if they were individual salads. It was not the way an Indian diner would have made their way through the same things. I tried eating their way, and my own cooking felt unfamiliar. Food is transformed by context.
Today, the kachhi karhi occasionally sits on the menu in Anne-Gaëlle’s café, and Marco’s blue-handled Victorinox knife is in my Himalayan kitchen, a keepsake I use constantly: it’s an object that binds disparate elements of my life together, much as kalonji and other spices bring vegetables into harmony in Mrs Dhar’s kachhi karhi. I still cook the dish in her memory at least once a year, when the right vegetables are in season, only now its scent reminds me of St-Nazaire. And it is as if Mrs Dhar had travelled there with me, and was watching over my shoulder as I passed her signature dish on to a French chef in a café by the Loire.
Recipe for Kachhi Karhi
Serves 2–4, depending on whether you serve this alone with rice or with other side dishes
A medium sized bowlful of mixed vegetables (roughly 400g): a thumb-length piece of white radish (mooli or daikon), a few fresh green broad beans, an unpeeled new potato and a carrot
1 tablespoon sunflower, olive or groundnut oil
1 or 2 dried red chillies
⅛ teaspoon each of fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, black mustard seeds and nigella seeds
Salt, to taste
500ml (2 cups) water
125ml (½ cup) natural yoghurt (a tart, slightly acidic yoghurt is preferable)
1 heaped tablespoon besan (also sold as chickpea flour or gram flour)
½–1 teaspoon grated ginger
Pinch of hing (also sold as asafoetida)
1 medium ripe, red tomato, chopped
Handful of fresh coriander leaves, washed
8–10 curry leaves, washed
1–2 teaspoons lemon juice, to taste
Jaggery or light brown sugar, to taste
Wash and thinly slice the vegetables.
Heat the oil over a medium heat in a deep wok or saucepan. Add the red chillies and as they sizzle, swiftly add the seeds. As soon as the seeds start to pop, add the sliced vegetables and a good pinch of salt and sauté for a couple of minutes, stirring regularly.
Add half of the water (250ml), bring to a simmer then lower the heat. Cover the pan and cook until the vegetables are softened but retain their texture and a little bite. This should take roughly 8–10 minutes.
While the vegetables cook, whisk together the remaining 250ml water with the yoghurt, besan, grated ginger and hing in a jug or medium bowl. (You can leave out the hing if you want to.)
Once the vegetables are just about tender, turn the heat down to low and add the yoghurt besan mixture to the pan. Bring to a very gentle simmer, then add the tomato and washed coriander and curry leaves. Cook, stirring constantly, for a couple of minutes. The mixture will thicken very slightly. Turn off the heat. .
With the pan off the heat, add the lemon juice, jaggery (or light brown sugar) and extra salt to taste. At this stage, you need to taste the karhi a few times and adjust things to balance the flavours. It should be salty, sour, sweet, tart all at once, it can be more – or less – gingery.
In the final dish, the tomatoes and herbs will float brightly on a pale soupy broth in which the beans, potatoes and radish have softened. It needs to be served immediately, with steaming rice. You might want pickles or papad on the side. It can be reheated and eaten the next day. It will taste just as good but will look less Cézannesque.
Anuradha Roy is a writer and potter based in Ranikhet. Her books have been widely translated and won various awards, including the DSC Prize for Fiction. She has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. Her latest novel is The Earthspinner.
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead. The recipes in Cooking from Life have been tested by Ruby Tandoh.
Thank you so much.... from the distant Girl....
Love from Saint-Nazaire
I found this intensely moving - a strange mingling of memories of a childhood in Calcutta and a recent trip to Nice, blending with such human kindness and generosity of spirit. Who wouldn't have loved to sit at that table?