I have actually loved food all my life. In my past life, I must have been born in a country that had no food, because frankly, I am eternally hungry and my near and dear ones will vouch for that!
My paternal grandma, Agnes, was an awesome cook and if I close my eyes, I can still remember the aromas wafting in from her kitchen; I still remember her picking mushrooms from the garden during the rains to make soup and pâté.
My maternal grandma, Rosemary, was a darling in the kitchen, and her fish curry with rice is something that I would love to have just one more time. Unfortunately, I never learnt any cooking from them because I was just not interested in the whole cooking process. I was very focused on the eating part of it.
My love affair with food started about eight years ago, when I was pregnant with Zene, and had nothing much to do and nowhere to go. Ergo, I spent time watching travel and food shows on TV, and started writing down recipes and trying them out. So while I expanded during my pregnancy, I started experimenting in the kitchen. Fortunately, I was travelling with Arshad for the shooting of a film and was living at the beautiful St. James Apartments. I had plenty of time to saunter through the farmer’s market and pick and choose fresh produce, and so I would cook for the cast and crew who came over often. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure if they really loved the food or were just being nice; but soon, they began coming over often and looked forward to a tasty meal. I realised then that both my grannies were sprinkling their magic dust on me.
Now, when food is being discussed, my mum’s food is what I actually want to learn. I love the food my mum, Joanna, makes. She is my recipe book and is a call away to tell me what to do next if I ever get stuck.
If anyone had told me a few years ago that I would one day put together a food book, I think I would have rolled on the floor laughing. Slogging it out in the kitchen was so not my style.
I could eat…and can eat a lot. I have a hearty appetite, despite my tiny frame that, frankly, I do maintain or try to.
After I discovered the joys of cooking, I have not looked back. I started my blog about five years ago, after my domestic help decided to leave. My friend Mini Mathur insisted I watch the film Julie & Julia and just would not tell me why; when I did, I suddenly knew my path. Frankly, my help leaving was the best thing that happened to me. Suddenly, I was thrown into the thick of things—the kitchen, the vegetable market, the groceries, the cooking—and to top it all, two very hungry children looking expectantly at me. (I love to picture this scene in my head.) Well! Something had to be cooked, and so I started taking baby steps into the kitchen.
I know myself; I need to get into something deeply if I take it up, or it makes no sense to me at all. Gradually, I started getting seduced by the aromas, textures and the possibilities that could conspire in this beautiful place I discovered in my own home…my kitchen. It was like meeting a stranger and becoming friends. There were so many things I discovered about myself and food that I did not know before. I started reading, googling and watching food like an obsessed person. I discovered the secrets of fire to vegetables, yeast to flour, wine to meat, the right amount of kneading, whipping and marination.
It was like having a lover who gave me so much in return for the quality time I spent that it changed me and my life around. It was then that I realised I love cooking, not just because I could really put myself into the heat of it, but because I loved to see the faces of the people I cooked for. I loved what it did to the ones eating my food.
Jaya Misra, my friend, was the one who introduced me to blogging and insisted that I write about my experience; she always read my pieces before I uploaded them. This whole process of cooking and writing took off, just like being on a surfing board, and I was busy riding wave after wave and enjoying the thrill of cooking, feeding and reaching out to so many like-minded foodies. It was catharsis that I never thought I needed.
At one point, I needed to learn how to make bread, because my dad used to make it when we were kids and by the time I wanted to learn, he said he had forgotten how. So, I joined a one year part-time baking course at Sophia Polytechnic and under the tender hands of Shashi ma’am, I learnt more than I had bargained for. Baking taught me the art of patience, something that I still struggle with. It taught me to respect the fact that everything does happen when it is supposed to happen. Shashi ma’am once caught me staring down at my bread that I had left to prove. And she pointed out that if I kept staring at the dough, it would still not rise up in a second and that it would take its time to prove, so I should concentrate on doing something else during that time.
I always think of her when I bake bread now.
I was always hungry for new recipes, new ingredients, and new methods. In the middle of all this, I was anchoring a cooking show and met the lovely Shazmeen, who told me about her stint at Tante Marie. In 2011, I went off to this sleepy town, Woking, and spent 11 weeks at Tante Marie. With amazing teachers, I learnt about sweating onions, kneading puff pastry, cooking meat at just the right temperature to keep it all pink in the middle, understanding how important it was to whip the egg whites till they had the right amount of stiff peaks for a meringue, how to de-bone a fish, how to cut chicken, clean the floors, wash the fridge, do the vessels and much more. In the middle of all this, I also travelled to Paris, Budapest, Austria, Ireland and sat for exams, and watched every play that was worth its salt on the weekends.
The reason all this was possible was because Arshad stayed home and looked after Zeke and Zene; he is quite a rockstar, this chap. My parents too set up tent at my place. And Zoya, Arshad’s niece, would ensure that they went for movies and kept them occupied and happy. My friends Mini, Jaya, Sandy and Sambo came in often and took the kids out or just hung with them.
I would not have been able to go without this entire web of support that I was lucky enough to have.
My friends in London—Lorraine, Sanjay and Rachna Narang, Junky, Pooja and Eve—were my home away from home. My life is a series of coincidences; I have never ever planned a moment and whatever I did plan never happened. As a kid I never really knew what I was going to do, but I was sure it would be different and exciting. I was willing to work really hard and felt no shame in working; whether it was as a salesgirl in Croissants etc. when I was in college, or being one of the 50 background dancers for a wristwatch commercial. It was all part of a bigger plan that I never knew I was part of. After the commercial, I got my first ad-film, sans a godfather or a professionally done portfolio. I loved dancing and I joined Arshad’s troupe. They did plays and ad-films. It wasn’t about the money, it filled my soul with unprecedented joy, and that was good enough. He was an awesome choreographer and a fantastic human being.
After years of being part of ad-films, theatre, anchoring TV shows, travelling with work and being an MTV VJ, I was ready for a new chapter in my life. I just wanted to hang my boots, I had had my fill. And having kids had taken over my life and changed it around. Food was just a side-effect of being a mum. This was just the perfect time to put my apron on and go for it, all burners flaming.
Arshad, who was the chef in my kitchen, just took a back seat and sat and watched me, as I struggled my way into food heaven. He always encouraged me even when the food was really not up to the mark. He always said that it was fantastic and gave me advice on what I should try the next time around. And every time I made kheema or paaya, he would say, ‘It’s lovely, but does not taste Muslim!’ Well, I really do want to learn cooking Mughlai and Kashmiri food one day and that is on my bucket list. But I did learn to cook, and slowly got into the thick of the woods and spices. And Arshad, who is ‘world famous’ within our circle of friends for his biryani, bowed out of my kitchen with a smile.
I finally took over my kitchen! For the first time I really started having fun with food. My friend, Mini, started gifting me amazing recipe books and my friends were always willing to eat what I cooked. This really encouraged me, inspite of many disasters too. So post two years of food blogging, I finally got enticed to do a book.
And so now, it’s finally here. I remember when the first offer came, I said no, because I was too scared. When the second offer came, I had, by then, digested the fact that probably something is right somewhere, and the third book offer came when I went to the ‘Land of Happiness’, Bhutan. This trip, that I was never supposed to be on, gifted me one of the most wonderful bunch of friends I had the fortune of meeting. It also finally made me warm up to the idea of doing a food book. Though it did feel like a good idea, it made me nervous; I wasn’t a chef, nor was I a writer. I really did not know where to begin.
I procrastinated for six months and decided that because I cook only for people whom I love, the book should be an apt reflection of that too. I then started putting menus in place and designing my food according to the people I was cooking for. It was a tedious process writing down recipes and taking care of a teaspoon of this and a tablespoon of that. I never go by accurate measures when I cook for myself. But if I had to give you a recipe that worked, I just had to. I had jumped into the deep end of the pool and had to swim to the shallow.
I could not think of a better photographer for this book other than my friend Amit Ashar. He is someone who will always capture what no one else sees. I still remember the first day of shoot when we were doing the Christmas menu. I brought the baked chicken out of the oven; it was hot, looked yummy, and Amit set up the shot and then looked at me and said, ‘Do you have glycerine?’ I asked, ‘Why?’ He explained that food stylists used glycerine to make the food look shiny and moist. I was aghast! Why would anyone do that to good food? So I told him to give me a minute. I took the chicken, warmed up the gravy, poured it over the chicken and we shot the dish. This is how we did the entire book, it is exactly from my kitchen to yours, what you see is what you will get. We never used anything artificial to enhance the look, nothing was overcooked or undercooked to look good. The food was all cooked as per the recipe, and plated up. That’s how we started our two years of this book, through the making of a new kitchen, through rain and sunshine, through moving homes, without the use of any artificial light or any glycerine. I just cooked each dish like I was going to serve it to someone I really loved.
Sambo, who was my fashion stylist at MTV, dressed up the table, and checked if the garnish was properly placed, like it was about to make an appearance on screen. Bhavna held the reflector so that the correct amount of sunshine lit up the trees and the shadows were just right. She also collected all the little curios from around my home that we used in most of the frames. We called them our ‘able support cast’ and they were washed and kept ready before every shoot in case we needed anyone. We were a funny bunch of people working together—a girl who is neither chef nor writer, a photographer who is amazing with human portraits, a reflector holder, who is actually an actor and model, and a first time stylist of aesthetics, who actually styled me for MTV and now styles Arshad for his films.
And we proceeded to have a fantabulous year of food. After every shoot, we devoured everything, and always had a glass of wine or a beer to celebrate. Amit shot this entire book outside my kitchen, on my terrace, in a mix of natural and artificial light. We shot over two years in the middle of children going to school, children and their friends running amok during holidays, house getting repaired, kitchen getting shifted, building a new home, rainy season, no good mangoes in the market, not wanting to cook at all…it was crazy.
We also did a whole lot of celebrations for ‘It’s done, this is our last shoot’, heaved a sigh of relief, and would be at it again, and on our last day of shoot, Amit and I were the only ones present. The last recipe that was shot was the orange cake, that we both ate pieces of and never celebrated the last day of the shoot. It was done, a labour of pure love!
And there is really nothing much I would change about the book. I have kept all the recipes really simple to follow. Just go for it, make it your own, tweak it, have fun with it, and think of me when a smile breaks on the face of the person you have cooked for.
This is me, with all my flavours and enthusiasm, cooked at temperatures that were sometimes too hot to handle and sometimes like a beautiful tropical day, with the freshest of ingredients and cooked with a whole lot of love.
Excerpted with permission from OM Books International from the title “From My Kitchen To Yours” by Maria Goretti.
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