The Recipes of Life
By Nanditha Elizabeth Roy
It was like any other morning- I woke up to the sound of my dog barking and reluctantly got out of bed to let him out. The sun was playing hide and seek with the curtains in my room, and I knew I wouldn't be able to go back to bed; I could feel the last remnants of sleep slipping away. As I sat down at the edge of my bed, with my dog nibbling my feet, I closed my eyes for a moment and the events over the past few days flashed before my eyes…
I was jostled back to reality when Amma called out for breakfast. The euphoria was momentarily broken- nevertheless, I could feel the excitement creeping in.
I was fidgety during breakfast, and Amma kept giving me her signature death stare. I couldn't blame her- I tend to get very annoying when I'm excited. My brother kicked me under the table and said and said, "Gosh chechi (sister), will you stop it!?”
But I was too distracted to retaliate or even register what he was saying. My brother did not understand that it was no ordinary day for me- for the first time my mother was going to voluntarily cede control of something to me. For 18 years, Amma was an active stakeholder in all the decisions of my life. It frustrated her to no end when I decided to go to college 3000kms away from home, where she had absolutely no influence. The lockdown, for her, came with a silver lining- she could have the family under one roof again, right under her nose and Amma was happy that her daughter was back home.
Me? I wasn't very happy with this new arrangement. Having tasted complete independence for 8 glorious months, I dreaded my mother micromanaging every aspect of my life again.
However, it wasn't as bad as I feared, but there were some things my mother just refused to let go. One of them was my access to the kitchen. It was a cooking disaster way back in 9th grade that led her to believe that I shouldn't be left alone in the kitchen. I was finally able to get back to cooking and exploring my culinary interests during the lockdown but, Amma just wouldn't let me do it on my own! She disapproved of the way I chopped onions, shook her head at the way I stirred- she was breathing down my neck every time I stepped foot in the kitchen.
But that did not stop me from trying- whenever I wasn't actively cooking, I was thinking of various dishes in my head- looking at the available ingredients at home and trying to come up with something new. Unfortunately, all of this was in my head and none on the plate.
So one day, I worked up the courage and went up to my mother.
"Amma," I said.
"Amma," I repeated.
"What do you want, child!?"
"I want to cook something."
"Not now, I'm busy. We'll do something tomorrow."
"No, Amma, not with you. I want to cook something on my own. Without you. Just me."
Amma did not say anything for a while- I was on the verge of panic. Screaming and angry Amma, I could understand. But quiet and brooding Amma? She scared me to death.
After what seemed like an eternity, she said, "Okay, but you will have to do everything on your own. From going to the grocer to cleaning the utensils to chopping all the vegetables; you will have to do it all by yourself."
"Okay then,” she said, with a smug smile, “You can have the kitchen day after tomorrow. But let me make this very clear- if you break any of my plates or burn anything, it will be the last time that you would ever step foot in my kitchen. Have I made myself clear?”
"Yes, Amma, thank you," and I turned to leave.
"By the way," she said, "what do you plan on cooking?"
"Mutton Biriyani," I said and ran away before Amma could change her mind.
I entered the kitchen at around 9:30 in the morning. I figured I would need at least 3 hours to cook, plus an additional hour as a buffer, in case something went wrong, and Amma had to swoop in to make some khichdi for lunch. But that was the worst-case scenario.
Why did I chose such a complicated dish, something that even experienced cooks have trouble getting right?
Well, I did not have any reason as such except that I loved biriyani. It wasn't something that I ate often, but, when I did, Oh boy! It was closest I could get to achieving ‘nirvana’. The tenderness of the meat, the aroma, the flavour- it was an emotion on a plate. I will fight anyone who says it is an overhyped dish. Plus, I knew that if I nailed it, Amma wouldn't have anything to use against me, and we would finally be able to move past the Great Big Fiasco of Grade 9 (sorry, I'm too embarrassed to say what it was).
I had all my ingredients ready- the mutton was defrosting, the onions were in the sink, so were the tomatoes, chillies, curry leaves, mint, and coriander. Theoretically, I was an expert biriyani maker- I had watched the YouTube video a million times and even wrote the recipe down on paper. But I had to prove it practically.
9:45 a.m- I took the mutton out, and it was the most beautiful piece of meat I had ever seen- tender and glistening under the light. I cleaned it thoroughly and marinated it with just salt and pepper, the basic flavours, nothing too fancy- to balance the taste at the end. The satisfying crunch of the pepper grinder was music to my ears. The mutton went into the pressure cooker, and I set it on high flame. The first task was done and I was off to a good start.
10:10 a.m.- Chop, chop… snap, snap.. zrrr
I was falling into a steady rhythm. Onions were chopped and sliced, tomatoes were cubed and kept in a separate bowl. The satisfying snap of coriander and its earthy smell, the heat from green chillies, the tanginess of mint leaves… It was exhilarating! Even the mutton had cooked perfectly! Everything was going well… till I encountered something that could potentially derail my entire cook.
10:45 a.m.- Garlic. Ugh. Whoever decided to use garlic in food must have been a sadist- never before had a vegetable given me so much trouble. After what seemed like a lifetime of peeling, I had exactly four cloves of garlic in front of me, and I needed at least ten. I had almost chopped my finger off, trying to get the damn peels off; I was sweaty, and I was irritated that something as trivial as garlic could throw away all my plans when my mom decided to pop in to "see how it was going." Oh no no no- I could not let her see me like that. I shooed her away and got back to peeling. I now understood why garlic was used to ward off evil- even Satan himself wouldn't want to be stuck peeling this vile vegetable.
11:10 a.m.- I was done with the prep, everything was chopped, and the ginger-garlic-chilly paste was ready. I was in a much better mood, and I could feel the excitement creeping in again. My next task was to get the rice ready. I had to fry it in ghee before boiling it. I added a couple of bay leaves, peppercorns, cardamoms, and cinnamon- the aroma made me giddy, and the crackling of rice was just perfect. It was hard work, but I was happy.
11:30 a.m.- The big biriyani barthan (bowl) never looked more intimidating. I had to start with the mutton soon. Otherwise, Amma would barge in and take control. I felt as if I was in MasterChef (Australia, obviously!), racing against time while I made up scenarios in my head where Gary, Matt, and George would ask me what I was making, taste everything and leave with a smile on their faces…
I had to sauté the onions in ghee and goodness! I never knew how much of it was used in making a biriyani- I could feel my arteries clogging up. The Youtube video said to sauté the onions till they were translucent, but ten minutes into it, they were nowhere close to translucent. Sure, they had become soft and mushy, but I had no idea how translucent onions looked like. And I was tired of stirring. So I took a call, went ahead, and added the ginger-garlic-chilly paste.
It. Smelled. Divine.
12:00 p.m.- Cooking in itself was an upper-body workout- I needed every ounce of my core strength to keep the vessel on the stove. Never before had I stirred so much, and my arms were aching. I was nearing the end of the cook and I could see the biriyani come together in front of my eyes. But wait…
…I felt like I forgot something, and I couldn't recall what to do next. I added the tomatoes and went to check the recipe. I had forgotten to make the cashew-curd paste! I had to add it right after the mutton went in, which was any moment. I grabbed the mixer-grinder and put a handful of cashew nuts and curd into the bowl- I didn't have to panic; I could do it. The paste was almost the right consistency, it needed just one more quick round on the grinder. I put the bowl back in and turned the knob when I heard the most unholy screech ever!
It was from the mixer-grinder.
I knew I had broken it.
12:15 p.m.- Praying to God that Amma hadn't heard the noise, I added the mutton pieces and the paste. While that was simmering, I put the mixer back in its place and cleaned out the bowl- I would have to deal with that later. I got back to the mutton gravy, and it was time for my favourite part- adding the spices.
I knew the recipe mentioned the types and quantities of spices to be used but I always liked to taste and tell, something which annoyed Amma to no end. In went salt, chilly powder, coriander powder, garam masala, meat masala, asafoetida, and pepper- it was as much aromatic as it was a visual delight! The different colours swirling around, blending in with the mutton… but it lacked something, when I tasted it, something to bind all the flavours together.
I took a couple of limes from the fridge and squeezed the juice into the gravy and gave it a good mix. Yes! It tasted perfect. And I was done! The rice and mutton were good to go!
Carefully, I spread the gravy into a pressure cooker, alternating it with layers of rice, and I let it cook together for a while, to allow all the juices to mix, to bind the biriyani together.
01:10 p.m.- The biriyani was ready- I had never felt more satisfied…
I had a smug expression on my face when I served Amma. I knew the biriyani tasted amazing, but I wanted to hear it from her.
“Kollalo (good job),” she said grudgingly, "It tastes good."
My life, dear friends, had come to a full circle.
I was still basking in the glory of this personal achievement the next day when I heard that god-awful noise again.
Amma came out of the kitchen and said, "I think our mixer-grinder is out of order. Go to Minna aunty's house and ask if we can borrow theirs for a while."
I was more than happy to comply.
Since you were patient enough to read the entire article, I figured I should at least share the recipe as a 'Thank You' gesture.
Onions- 4 large ones + 1 for garnish
Mutton- 500 grams
Biriyani Rice- 3 cups
Tomatoes- 3 ripe ones
Spices-Cloves, Cardamom, Bay leaves, Peppercorns, and Cinnamon
Cashew nut- 1/4 cup for paste+ 1/4 cup as garnish
Green Chilly- 4 nos
Ginger- 1.1/2 inches
Powdered Spices- Chilly powder, Garam Masala, Meat Masala, Coriander powder, Asafoetida
Limes- 2 nos
Salt and Pepper- To taste
Cook the mutton with salt and pepper in a pressure cooker for about 15-20 minutes. Once the meat is tender and soft, keep it aside in a bowl.
Heat some ghee in the pressure cooker (for better flavour, use the same one) and add cloves, cardamom, bay leaves, peppercorns, and cinnamon sticks. When it turns aromatic, add the rice. Once you hear it crackle, add 6 cups of water and close the lid. Drain excess water once it is cooked and spread it out to avoid clumps.
Heat adequate ghee in a large pan and sauté the onions. Once it turns translucent, add the ginger-garlic-chilly paste. Add garam masala, mint leaves, curry leaves, and coriander. Allow it to simmer. Meanwhile, grind the cashew nuts and curd and make a thick paste. Add tomatoes into the onion mixture and stir it till they become soft. Add the mutton pieces and make sure they are well coated in the gravy. Add the cashew-curd paste and mix it well. Cover and let it cook for 5 mins.
Once the gravy is done, take the pressure cooker and add a layer of the mutton gravy at the bottom. Add rice on top of it and repeat the process of alternating the gravy and rice. Garnish it with caramelised onions, roasted cashew nuts, raisins, and fresh coriander. Close the pressure cooker and allow it to cook for 15 minutes.
The biriyani is ready! Serve with raita and enjoy!