How the kitchen became the centre of our home during the lockdown. Finely Chopped Covid 19 Lockdown Journal 30

Dhansak masala margi nu dar from #SpaLifeKitchen with brown rice from #FinelyChoppedKitchen
Based on Bawi Bride recipes. Paired with Pallonji raspberry given to us by Kurush and Rhea Dalal
on Navroze this year.

"I find it easy to cook once I find a recipe. I look for recipes that are easy to follow," said K (my wife, Kainaz).
"I, on the other hand, find it difficult to follow recipes. I prefer to cook without them," I replied.
"That's because you are an instinctive cook!" she said.
"Nope, that's because I am bad at following instructions," I said with a wry smile.
"Aah, if I am given a brief, I make sure that the job is well done." concluded K.

It has been a month and a half, if not more, into the lockdown. The two of us have been home through it at our apartment in Mumbai. With our cat, Baby Loaf, to give us company.

Giving me company through my final edit (hopefully)

Feeling lucky and grateful to have shelter, provisions and the company of each other during these trying times. We cannot but count our blessings enough. We know that there are countless others who are suffering tremendously and their plights are heart-wrenching. Such wretched pain and loss is so unfair. One prays and hopes for a recovery. This has to end!

#BunkinBanu becomes #LockdownBanu

We have given paid leave to our cook cum house help of many years, Banu. We met her a couple of times when we had called her over to give her her salary. She is not familiar with the world of cashless transactions yet. We met at the building gate. She told me that her son and her are safe. She has bought a bushel of onions for her son to sell as he can't ply his auto rickshaw these days. He makes one kilo sacks and another relative goes out and sells them. Her spirits are high. I have lost weight according to her. Your cheeks look sunken, she told me firmly. Which was a relief to hear given my late night farsan binges.

They are well stocked (ration hain) with provisions, she assured me. A problem that she faces though is that shops in the vicinity shut early because of lockdown restrictions. She wakes up late because of the Ramzan sehri and shops often shut by the time she is ready to go. K and I smiled when we heard this. Like us, Banu is not a morning person!

"Main toh hatta khatta hoon. Aap lok thak gaye hoge." 'I am healthy. What is the problem if I come to work,' she asked. 'You guys must be tired.'

We are trying to convince the lady who is legendary for her bunking to stay at home on paid leave. There are restrictions on letting outsiders/ house-help in at our apartment after all.

Back to where it all began

Baby Loaf at my desk

This means that K and I have cooked during the lockdown in a way we have not in a long time. During the early years of our marriage perhaps, but not after. We were almost twenty years younger then and that counts for something.

The only respite being the times when a few lovely friends and neighbours send us food. Or when we are too tired and order in.

At the start of the lockdown, I would do most of the cooking and K did most of the other housework. She has a much, much crazier work schedule than mine. As do most work from home professionals. 

In the case of freelance professionals like me, it is often a case of generating work (even if unpaid and self driven often) to keep oneself occupied and current. This lockdown journal entry is an example of that for me. Others being the #FoodocracyIndia podcasts that I do. Or the Finely Chopped Kitchen cooking videos that I post based on Instagram stories that I make while cooking. Hope you have caught them.

I feel blessed that I never wake up wondering what to do with my day. My Buddhist faith and sense of purpose anchors me in that context.

The taming of the kitchen. #SpaLifeKitchen

K, ever the perfectionist, grinding the masalas in the mortar and pestle to make the chawra

K did cook the cook the odd dal and chicken curry at the start and then one day decided to make chawra. Black eyed peas, Parsi style. She looked up many recipes on the net and landed a stunner of a dish at the dish (recipe from 101 Parsi recipes). That opened a dam.

The chawra opened a dam

Then she called her mother for the recipe and made the khara papeta potato dish another day. Then she looked up the internet again to make kaakrecha bhaaji/ kurkurit batata (recipe from Archana's Kitchen). A Maharashtrian potato dish that she loved when her Maharashtrian friends treated her to it in the past. She then looked up more recipes and made Marathi style tendli (ivy gourd), bitter gourd with carrots (the combination was my suggestion) and the alu spring onions (Mamata's Kitchen). K is Parsi herself, but I guess she takes to these Maharashtrian dishes as most had coconut in them. Something that Parsis use a lot in the kitchen unlike us Bengalis.

I now tag her pictures as #SpaLifeKitchen given that she has become quite the force in the kitchen in her own right.

Kharo papeto #SpaLifeKitchen

Alu spring onions based on Mamta's Kitchen #SpaLifeKitchen

Kakdecha bhaaji or kurkurit batata from Aparna's Kitchen #SpaLifeKitchen

Maharashtrian style tendli #SpaLifeKitchen

Karela with carrots. #SpaLifeKitchen

Then K landed the mother of it all. Dhansak. The most famous Parsi dish. A dish so seemingly complex that she had never attempted in before in all her life. She was determined to make it for us and took the help of Perzen Patel's blog, the Bawi Bride. K went through many sites before choosing a recipe and she said that she found Perzen's the most empowering and encouraging. It demystified the process it seems, with Perzen assuring the reader that she too had found it intimidating to make dhansak once upon a time and promised to give easy to follow steps. That gave K the courage to give it a shot.

This story is a perfect answer to those who diss recipe bloggers who like to start their recipe posts with a bit of a discourse first. It is the story that drew K in in this case, but then she is a writer.

Margi nu masala ni dal #SpaLifeKitchen

She made the masala ni dar, the dal of the dhansak, and what a glorious one it was and I have had many in my time! She used chicken instead of the traditional mutton as the former is easier to access during the lockdown. Coming out of the kitchen after three hours of meticulously going through the multi-layered cooking process including boiling the chicken separately first, mashing raw aubergine and pumpkin before putting it into the dal to avoid their forming clumps and hand grinding the spices.

"I can't believe I did it," said K at the end of it. Hashtag #AchievementUnlocked as they say.

To do justice to the dal, I looked up Perzen's blog the next day and made the brown rice that completes a dhansak along with the dal. I rarely look up recipes but this was special.

After making the 'Parsi kheema fry' from Sanjeev Kapoor's website

K's internet searches also led us to discover different cooking techniques/ tips/ hacks. Adding a sour element for example while making bhindi/ okra/ ladies fingers to ensure that they do not get sticky. Or placing a stainless steel plate, with water on it, on a wok to ensure that vegetables do not stick (the kakdecha batata method) while cooking.

It is not that this is the first time in the marriage that K has cooked. We shared kitchen duties in the early days of our marriage too. Even then she would do the research and stick to the book, while I soon began to follow my own path in the kitchen. Once Banu became our cook, K cooked very rarely and only on emergencies. This has been a second coming of sorts.

Recipes do not always rule in the #SpaLifeKitchen. Sausage and potatoes is a dish K used to make us right from the start and we both love it. My friend and Parsi recipe book author, Nicole Mody, tells me that this is a quintessential Parsi combination! K has her own recipe for this. It's in her genes I guess!

'The method and the madness'

An example of the #FinelyChoppedKitchen 'madness'. Leftover gravy from Khane Khas shahi paneer remixed the next day with frozen & thawed boiled chicken and stock from the fridge, sauteed chillies and ginger with leftover boiled eggs from breakfast added at the end. Very Dum Pukht eh?

Our cooking styles are rather different. Possibly a reflection of how we approach life. Our love for good food being the connect.

K is a method cook and will research and find out recipes that leads us to wonderful meals. She is a perfectionist. This is very useful as it leads us to specific dishes that we usually do not make at home. Brings in a lot of variety.

The bhindi that I made using aamchoor and lime juice as acidic elements to ensure that the okra didn't stick to each other

While K brings in the discipline, I follow my instincts in the kitchen. Finding inspiration anywhere. For example, I used the covering with a plate of water (a la kakdecha bhaaji technique) that I learnt from K's research, and that of adding acidity to make bhindi too. At times I fall back on food memories like the time I made breakfast using toasted La Folie sourdough and leftover rajma from what our friend Anu had sent us, with chillies, onions, capsicum, tomato and cheese. Building on the memories of the heritage baked beans and toast which is my favourite order at Flury's Kolkata.

Flury's Calcutta heritage beans on toast gets a Bandra makeover 

Or take the alur dom that  I made based on memories of what used to be served at college canteens in Kolkata. At times I look for inspiration in our pantry like the time when I used the til chutney that I had bought in Pune to make bhindi.

The alur dom that I made where memories of Kolkata was the recipe

Which is why I refer to us as 'the method and the madness'.  K bringing in the method to my madness in the kitchen/

Bohri Mohalla's Indian Hotel inspired liver fry

To boldly go where no non-vegetarian has before.

Made a fulkopir ghonto based on broad Bengali cooking principles one night and it turned out rather well

The other thing that has happened is that we are cooking with vegetables like we never have had before. It is fairly easy to access vegetables despite the lockdown. There is a vegetable vendor who brings his cart to our building everyday. The local vegetable markets are active too.

Chicken is easy to buy. We call for it from Abba Broiler, but how much chicken can one have? Eggs are easy too. We have an anda pav valal who comes to our building everyday and Nature's Basket is now delivering free range ones. Fish is hard to access. The markets have it but those are best avoided in the lockdown. I am not fond of ordering fish online as the prices are high and I like to see what I am buying and how it is cut. Mutton and now pork is coming back to shops but they are not that easy to get delivered unless one uses apps such as Swiggy Genie, Dunzo etc. We do not have much red meat in any case.

Made deemer jhol after K said, "can we have an egg curry on a day when we do not have eggs for breakfast?"

That is why vegetables now rule our kitchen. That is when K's researches help lead us to new dishes.

I had delegated the cooking of vegetarian dishes, or even Indian ones for that matter, to Banu in the past. I would give her the recipes for the same and let her execute them. I would stick to grills and pastas and noodles which are less time consuming. Cooking Indian dishes, and vegetarian ones at that, as I do now is something I had not done in a while. This adds a level of difficulty as you need to cut and peel veggies unlike meat and fish which come prepped. We are not letting this stop us anymore!

Ghorer chhele ghore eshe gechhe (the prodigal returns)

The savoury Bengali 'French toast' that my mother used to make me is now a fixture in our Mumbai breakfast menu

At my end, I have cooked a lot more of my native Bengali dishes during the lockdown than I have in a while. When Banu is there, I give her the recipes and spices and get her to execute them. I am doing them now and the results have been satisfying. Incidentally, my interest in Bengali food was born only after I left Kolkata and moved to Mumbai. I used to find it (not the French toast) very boring and mundane. K loves Bengali food and took to it ever since I introduced her to it.

I did manage to order some mangsho (mutton) from Joseph's recently and made mangshor jhol with it and had it over two occasions. Excellent quality mutton. Now at Rs 800 a kilo versus Rs 1,000 on the Bengali new year when I last bought some from Joseph's to make kosha mangsho.

Mangshor jhol

It's all about loving your leftovers

Leftover dal, rice and chorchori

Another change that has come into our kitchen is the way we look at leftovers. From someone who looked for variety in every meal, I now try to see how to use every leftover item in the kitchen. I advocate cooking in bulk too so that we can reap the fruits of our labour over more than one meal.

A good example of that was when I made egg rolls for breakfast using the excellent til parathas our friend Anu had sent us a few days back. She had sent the rajma too, the leftovers of which had gone into the rajma sandwich I spoke about earlier.

For lunch that day, we had the leftover mixed microwave dal which K had made a few days back using the moong, masoor and tud dal that she had soaked, but not used, for the dhansak. We had it for the third time that day. Along with the leftovers of the Bengali chorchori I had made for lunch the previous day. And the rice that I had cooked in bulk a few days back and had had over 4 occasions!

The meal was delicious.

I was thrilled when Baby Loaf finished the leftover wet food left
from the previous day. He is very picky usually. Guess my Instagram posts on
leftovers had an effect on him!!!!

A life decluttered

The other thing that I have become a bit obsessed about in the kitchen post the lockdown is to ensure that I leave it sparkling clean after I have cooked. K then puts the dishes in the dishwasher (as I am not supposed to bend). I hate clutter and can't cook in clutter. Leaving a kitchen that is sans clutter gives me a lot of joy and I am sure that even K would agree that I do a good job. The trick is to keep clearing the kitchen as you cook. Put spice boxes in their place once done. Chuck rubbish into the trash bag. Wipe clean the kitchen surfaces when done. We use a kitchen cleaner that we bought at the start of the lockdown for this.

In the interest of saving utensils and therefore reducing cleaning needs, I now click pics of the food in the vessel in which it was cooked rather than wasting another vessel for Instagram and thereby increasing our wash load. Frugality takes many shapes in our lockdown kitchen.

The citadel of hope

All of this is not easy. We do get tired of having to prep, cook and clean for every meal. With almost no break.

Having to think of what to cook every time, can lead to a brain freeze. This, despite it being just for the two of us, and not an extended family with varying dietary requirements. We are tired at the end of the day. At times before as well. We are not in our 20s anymore.

Our eyes light up on days when we realise we don't have to cook. If there are leftovers. Or if the bell rings and its parathas and dal from the Grovers, spaghetti and brownies from the Badami, or mango puri and Bihari maachh sent by Shaswati. We do a mental cartwheel when we realise that we do not have to cook.

Yet, we treasure it!

"I will miss this when things get back to normal you know," said Kainaz one day. "Cooking our own meals, having such lovely food. Food made by us. I will miss this."

"So will I," I replied.

"We should document every dish that we cooked in the lockdown at the end," she said.

"I am doing so on Instagram," I said. 

This post is to that end too.

"It's been so long since you made this," said K when I made what I call kadhai chicken a few nights back. "I made it at the start of the lockdown," I replied. That's when it struck me. It has been a long winter and we have been really lucky so far.

Has your relationship with the kitchen changed after the lockdown started? Write in in the comments section. I am listening, as Frasier would say.

Some answers from readers of the Finely Chopped page on Facebook on
how they are doing things differently now in the kitchen.

And the story continues. Will update this post with pictures from our kitchen so that it becomes a record of our lockdown cooking

Bheeda papeta. From Bawi Bride blog recipe. #SpaLifeKitchen

PS: My phone conversations with my mother these days centre around what she cooks as she is by herself. She has even taught herself how to make rotis at the age of 72!

PPS: I am afraid that K does not really chronicle much of her cooking recipes, but I have been doing a number of simple videos on what I have cooked during the lockdown. You can catch them on my YouTube channel and hopefully you will find it of use and subscribe to the channel too.

PPS: Here are my #FoodocracyIndia videos Be a sport and subscribe to my channel please.

Kainaz and Perzen's dhansak story in the Economic Times today in an article by Shephali Bhatt:


Shaswati said…
My relationship with my kitchen has intensified as all the cleaning, washing, etc is being done without any help.I used to mostly cook all my meals so not much change there. Really thankful that most of the ingredients are available. The cleaning of utensils do take a toll on me but am extremely particular about the kitchen hygiene, so no respite there.
It's really nice to see Kainaz and her spalifekitchen. I always love anybody resorting to kitchen. For me kitchen is my best stress busting haven.