Personal cooks are an anonymous, behind-the-scenes species who regularly conjure up visions of gourmet heaven. This one goes out to them unsung kitchen kings. My own culinary repertoire would be quite empty without the foundations cemented by our ancient cook, now long gone. Hailing from Kangra, he came to my grandparents as a young boy and left the family only once he…well, left. In spite of which, I must confess here, he is more fondly recollected for the treats he conjured up, rather than his longstanding loyalty. He was, in turn, tutored by another household cook he forever referred to as that bangaali. This regional reference indicated his tutor’s leanings towards the Anglo-Indian style of cooking, probably acquired from previous employers.
Well, whatever the reasons, the family’s favourites still include those dishes introduced to our palates by the flute-playing Bansi Ram. Nobody, I reiterate, nobody has recreated in a similar fashion his version of the fish cake, the Scotch egg, the lamb chop (chaamp, in his words) or the cutlet (cutluss, again his words). I am joined by siblings, and sundry relatives who have had the pleasure of relishing his creations, in acknowledging his prowess.
Were he alive, he would be appalled at the very convenient, over-the-counter purchase of frozen foods and meats; as he would be at food processors. He settled for nothing less than fresh cuts, which he then hammered into pulp, before putting them through a hand-rotated mincing machine. This ceremony was mandatory, irrespective of whether he was preparing shepherd’s pie, cutlets, shammi kebabs or keema. His masalas were ever-so-noisily pulverized in an equally ancient pestle and mortar. Consequently, his preparations commenced two days ahead of any feast.
Another perennial at our dining table also came from his stable. Roast chicken with gravy, sautéed whole potatoes and tomato halves; always accompanied by macaroni baked in white sauce, garnished with boiled eggs and sprinkled generously with cheese. If he were feeling kindly, he would give us cottage cheese steak as a side. Large chunks were added to an enormous portion of onion rings sautéed to that perfect shade of pink and tossed in Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper—this stuff I have yet to eat elsewhere.
His version of Caramel Custard remains my only sweet indulgence. I don’t think we ever complained of overdosing on the stuff given how often it was prepared during his kitchen rule. I’m certain he did soufflés and other stuff, too. But they never quite measured up to his caramelised treat. In retrospect, this may have something to do with my total disinterest in all things sweet. For this, I will be eternally beholden to him. After all, it is bad enough that love and fresh air have such damaging effects on the person. A sweet-tooth would simply add to existing woes.