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Cooking up a storm - Cookbooks and our existence


Recipe books are books after all. And very sensual ones at that. It wasn't long back when cooking was still pretty much an exotic hobby to me; by extension, reading a cookbook wasn't really an option I found worth weighing. It was the same with cookery shows - I found them dull, except if the chef in question was kind to the eyes. Things changed gradually when I started staying by myself and the hostel/daily cook's food started tasting like grease. Browsing recipes started eating into my time for binge-watching series. My lunch box to the office started emanating alien odours - not wholly unpleasant, but certainly other-worldly. My colleagues started commenting on the shade of my dal and the abundance of salt in the curry. Mom used to describe elaborate recipes on the phone, and repeated them in case I had already forgotten the first step by the time it was time to serve it hot with a sprinkling of coriander. 

It was around this time that I realised that cookbooks or well-written recipes hide an art form. Food deals with four of the five senses. Appealing to all of them simultaneously is a tall task indeed, especially on paper. This is essentially a manual, though no other manual caters to as many sensual pleasures - there is nothing fragrant about assembling a computer or embroidering a skirt, nothing lip-smacking about landing a spaceship, and nothing pretty about fixing a broken drain-pipe. No, a cookbook is a manual to make a human out of a beast. 

Then I got married. To a wonderful man, to whom food is the champion of the day. Suggestions started pouring in from all sides, and before long, my dainty, little kitchen was piling high with cookbooks. What's more, their vintage began astounding me. The art of penning cookbooks is generations old, and still runs strong, if not improving. I have cookbooks that my mom and mom-in-law used as new brides, and they resemble Snape's This-is-the-property-of-the-Half-Blood-Prince Potions textbook. I got gifted a box-set of recipe books - from breakfast to midnight munchies; an ancient Sanjeev Kapoor (from the time when he still sported a moustache). I started collecting the meagre list of recipes that came with the various kitchen appliances, and of course, writing down hearsay-recipes. At one point of time I was baking cakes every Sunday (that's a lot for me given that my ideal Sunday afternoon is to pass out with a book on the couch), and muddled the pages of my notes with so much oil and batter-smudge that I can read a few sentences only out of habit. Back home, we unearthed a centuries old scripture written in pure Bengali (shadhu bangla that too) describing how to make a thousand-odd recipes from mochar dom, lau-er chechki and chingri paturi to shepherd's pie and goulash. It had even described how to pluck a chicken. More recent cookbooks are less gruesome, and engage in the most mouth-watering photographs; food photography is about as important as the recipe itself, if not more. 

This is not to say that I am a good cook. Quite far from it. But there is a pleasure in creation. More often than not, it is average, the rest of the time it is barely palatable. But there is honour in engaging in this activity. Over and above all, it is inspiring. A one-page recipe is the best and the most instigative summary piece one can find as a reading material. It is a short-story plot, beginning with simple elements and culminating in a grand meal that blows the mind away. And since there cannot be really very complicated jargons involved (of course, there are a few, but like any genre of reading, one gets the hang of it with voracious reading), it all seems very do-able. Barring self-help books (none of which I have ever helped myself to, sadly), no other piece of literature manages to stir up such conviction. What can possibly go wrong with adding a few condiments in order and starting up the flame ?! Ah, here lies the bait ! The deceptively simple sentences hide the depth of culinary skills, and after a couple of failed attempts, one starts scribbling notes on the margins ("sieve the flour-no lumps", "wait for the bubbles", "2 MIN OR YOU'LL CHAR IT"). This is self-discovery for you. Oh, noble cookbook, how much of our being do we owe to thee !!! We were born out of a concoction of minerals in the ocean, and isn't creation the most delectable thing ever ! Imagine the variety that got spewed out of that prebiotic soup - God's kitchen is indeed beyond a Michelin star. While divine recipes of such stature are not and will possibly never be within our reach, one has to first derive the juices of the more mortal descriptions, before moving on to create a manual for cooking up life itself.

Cookbooks need not be page-turners, but hey, they make TV shows out of them. Even movies (Chef, Chocolat, Ratatouille). In an age of instant gratification, that is the highest measure of worth. I may not trade an Alistair MacLean for a cookbook yet, but between chapters, I wouldn't really mind reading how the vapours should smell of cloves and nutmeg.       

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