The sound of chillies sputtering in hot oil, the warm aromas of roasting spices, zesty marinades, simmering curries and fragrant desserts… these...
The kitchen is central to any family celebration, where grandmothers, mothers, daughters get together to make some sumptuous food, says Maunika Gowardhan, a private chef in the UK, and the author of ‘Indian Kitchen: Secrets of Indian Home Cooking’
The sound of chillies sputtering in hot oil, the warm aromas of roasting spices, zesty marinades, simmering curries and fragrant desserts… these sights and sounds are an integral part of every Indian ‘rasoi’ (kitchen), especially during the festive season.
In fact, the kitchen, according to UK-based chef and food writer, Maunika Gowardhan, is central to any family celebration, where grandmothers, mothers, daughters get together to make some sumptuous food – and, of course, ever-lasting memories.
“The Indian kitchen takes the centrestage in every family home; it’s where various flavours, spices and techniques converge to create some spectacular meals that one won’t find in any restaurant. Naturally, it is also the epicentre of all festivity. Every dish we eat during a festival is symbolic to that occasion. In fact, there are certain sweets and savouries that are prepared only at the time,” she shares.
For Gowardhan, who has inherited her love for cooking, and a flair for whipping up a simple yet delicious spread for friends and family whatever the occasion from her mother, fondly recalls how this “tradition” began with her grandmother. In her debut cookbook, ‘Indian Kitchen: Secrets of Indian Home Cooking’, she writes: “It all started with my grandmother who was an amazing host.
The sheer splendour of a dinner party at her house had to be seen to be believed. My mother always told me stories of the food, drinks – and more food – consumed. The variety, opulence and effort with which the meal was put together made an invitation to a dinner party at her house one to vie for. …It’s part of my DNA and nothing gives me more pleasure than feeding a crowd of curry lovers some finger lickin’ food…”
Indeed, the women in her life have played a significant part in helping her become the person and chef she is today. “They have not just given me the legacy of a fiercely independent spirit and the strength to strive for excellence in everything I do, but also the valuable gift of understanding, appreciating and preparing good food.
While working in London around 15 years ago, I started cooking for friends in the city and every event that I did made me a happier person. That was when I realised that perhaps cooking was my true calling. The satisfaction of knowing just how much joy an appetising dish can bring to someone made it easy for me to take the decision to get into it professionally. I feel fortunate to have a career I greatly enjoy,” she elaborates.
Over the years, nothing much has changed for this Newcastle chef - she gets the same rush of energy and excitement when she cooks or writes recipes as she did when she had first started out. And the pleasure only gets multiplied during the festivities since “essentially, it’s all about being with friends and family and sharing wonderful meals”.
Gowardhan talks about her childhood sweetest memories – literally and figuratively. “Loads of family and friends came visiting in the lead up to the day; most evenings, either we were out to meet up with friends or there were dinners at our home. My mother used to cook a variety of dishes. Apart from the carefully planned meals, she would always keep several large tins of ‘faral’ ready in the house for when we had guests coming over during the day.
Another personal favourite of mine were her hand-made coconut ‘karanjis’. The fried, flaky pastries with a rich stuffing of desiccated coconut, sweet jaggery and nuts were simply heavenly,” reminisces the Mumbai-born culinary expert, who has been “fortunate to sample foods from across India and use the diverse regional influences in my work as a private chef in the UK, Europe and the Middle East”.
In her 248-page cookbook, which is filled with delectable recipes that capture the different flavours of India, there is an entire chapter on “Celebratory” foods because “as the saying in India goes: ‘no matter how big or small the occasion the most important thing that people will remember is the food’”. Festive recipes are generally considered to be quite elaborate and time-consuming though Gowardhan has made efforts to ease the processes, bearing in mind how, now more than ever, women are managing both the home front and stepping out for work.
Yet, she does concede that it does involve a fair bit of advance planning. “‘Indian Kitchen’ has dishes for when you need [to rustle up] something quick and simple as well as the long-drawn recipes for when you have the time and want to cook something during celebrations. Cooking has evolved and changed but the emphasis on traditional food is very much the same.
And most women do find a way to fit it in their contemporary lifestyle as well,” she points out. Incidentally, for Gowardhan, too, striking the right balance between her various professionals commitments and being the mother of an energetic six-year-old boy is really “a juggling act but with a vested interest at heart to keep both going as smoothly as possible”.
As such, work notwithstanding, she still likes to go all out when it comes to celebrating Indian festivals. “The essence of festivities in my home in the UK remains the same,” she states. So, even as she follows the usual ‘puja’ and feasting routine does she feel the weight of expectations when it comes to the evening’s menu?
“There really isn’t any pressure to come up with a particular kind of menu but because I love cooking for large parties I give in to my instincts. For me, festival is all about spending time with the loved ones and spreading the joy – especially one that comes from eating good food,” she signs off.