You may have heard the story before. Clueless desi chap fresh off the boat from India (or any other country in the South Asian subcontinent) arrives in the land of frozen pizza and burritos. He enrolls in graduate-level classes, rents an apartment with a few other clueless guys from his homeland, and finds some “hand-me-down” furniture.
Within days, he faces the first challenge in his life, and no, it does not come from the classroom. It comes from the kitchen. Having exhausted the collection of dry sweets, mixed pickles, and salted snacks that he brought from home, he now has to think of doing the unthinkable – he actually has to cook something.
Of course, he has taken the crash-course in assembling a pressure-cooker; and in cooking rice and a frugal dish of rajma or dal from his mother. But now like the cadet fresh out of boot-camp, he actually has to fend for himself.
Take a moment to consider the impossible situation. Our hero (or anti-hero, if you please) has never actually seen the inside of a kitchen before. To use a well-worn desi cliche, he may not ever have poured himself a glass of water. In his world, there were always servants that did the cooking, restaurants and chaat-stands for eating out, and doting parents holding the tiffin-box and the glass of milk with Complan (which everyone in India knows has “23 vital nutrients in balanced proportion”).
Soon, our friend discovers something unique that will change his life. It is something none of his ancestors ever knew (and no, I am not talking about drive-through windows in restaurants). It is the conventional oven. In no time our friend learns that you need to jack up the temperature to closer to 400 degree Fahrenheit if you want a crisper crust on your pizza. He also learns that baking tilapia for 15 minutes is an easy way to fix a light meal. He thinks, “my parents would be proud.”
Except his parents have actually never used a conventional oven. And neither has many of the billion plus people in his country of origin.
Regardless of how much you enjoy the tandoori chicken and naan at the neighborhood Indian buffet, the fact is that these dishes are as much a part of home-cooked regional Indian cooking as the overpriced 1000 calorie mango chai-latte that was supposed to make you feel in tune with your spiritual self.
Visit a home in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Punjab (and other states) and you might be treated to a 10-course meal with unique flavors. You will marvel at the range of spices used and the complexity of the dishes. There might be a couple of delicacies that have been fried, steamed, blanched, curried, or grilled. But I’ll wager that you will probably not be treated to a baked casserole. Sure, there might be a casserole pan on the table, but it will likely be used as a serving dish.
This is in slight contrast to some of the baked fare that Indian restaurants serve. Of course, nawabs and emperors had their own tandoor-enabled kitchens for succulent delicacies. Middle-class Indian homes never had the luxury of large conventional oven. So, regional Indian cuisine developed over thousands of years without an extensive repertoire of home-cooked baked dishes or recipes calling for baking.
The Portuguese probably bought European-style baking and gave Indians the word for leavened bread. And over the centuries, Indians developed a taste for different types of cakes and breads.
But, the reason Pappu can’t bake is that most Indians still get their baked goods from bakeries.
© 2009-2011, Anirban