India went into a Covid-19 induced national lockdown on March 25, 2020. Soon thereafter, Tanushree Bhowmik, a development professional and food writer based in Delhi launched an initiative called Frugal Kitchen. It was meant to explore frugal and sustainable ways of cooking, and initiate conversations around this theme. She says, “I knew food supplies would be under pressure. All of us would, therefore, have to pace out our stock of food for a longer period of time. I thought it would be good to start talking about cooking frugally.”
But she had another reason, too. At a threatening time like this, people seek a sense of comfort and security in food, especially dishes they are familiar with. By initiating food-based conversations, she hoped to spread these feelings beyond her immediate circle. In doing so, she wanted to help people overcome the sense of isolation brought about by physical distancing. Pish pash (a Bengali favourite; a medley of potatoes, rice and vegetables/chicken), her mother-in-law’s version of santula (a popular Odia dish) and jhinger raita (ribbed gourd raita) are a few of the dishes she has cooked in recent days.
Tanushree has been regularly posting her thoughts, recipes, and photos on her Facebook wall. Going by the reactions to these posts, this concept has struck a chord with several people. The cheer seems to be spreading.
Elsewhere in Delhi, Sneha Saikia has gone frugal in her cooking, too. Sneha, an accessories designer, is also a home chef. Stuck indoors all day, she doesn’t get much exercise. And so, in an attempt to reduce her calorific and fat intake, she has been making one-pot meals. “I hail from Assam, where my family usually has multi-course meals. I started making one-pot meals only during the lockdown. They are nutritious and flavourful, and easy to cook,” she says. She speaks to food lovers from various parts of India and discovers gems from their native cuisines – like dal ki dulhan, a one-pot dish made with arhar dal and atta in the Allahabad region.
Anoop Chand, a resident of Gurugram, is spending the lockdown in Trivandrum, where his parents live. He keenly watches his mother cook, asks questions, and takes down copious notes. He finds it interesting that she uses practically every part of a vegetable. For instance, take the jackfruit, a hardy summer staple in Kerala’s homes. “While my mom makes thoran (a dry vegetable dish that usually has grated coconut) with the fleshy part, she deep-fries the peel to make fritters. She crushes the seeds to make flour, which is then mixed with rice flour to make jackfruit puttu (steamed cylinders of flour and coconut shavings). Or, she uses the seeds as such in avial (a thick mixture of vegetables blended with curd and seasoned with coconut oil) and thoran,” he says.
Journey to Our Past
With a bit of extra time on hand, food lovers across India are also expanding their culinary horizons and delving deeper into their native cuisines. Interest in native cuisines has been rising in the past few years, with several restaurants and home chefs paying more attention to them. And this lockdown is helping stoke the interest further.
Ashis Nayak, who hails from Odisha, says, “My wife and I took this opportunity to explore our culinary heritage. I took down our family recipes for kanika (mildly sweet fragrant rice flavoured with spices and ghee), macha besara (rohu fish cooked with mustard paste) and other dishes from my mother and made them.” He gets other people from Odisha to talk about the region’s cuisine during his Instagram Live interactions.
Corporate professional Pratik Banerjee, who lives in Kolkata, has largely stuck to the simple, familiar dishes that elders in his family used to cook. But sometimes, he takes off on interesting culinary journeys. “I am now cooking dishes that have their genesis in Bengal’s past. Specifically, I am interested in Bengal’s colonial ties, and the multi-layered connections between East Bengal and West Bengal,” he says.
That’s how he came to cook dak bungalow chicken and Goalanda steamer chicken curry recently. While the former used to be made by the cooks stationed at dak bungalows (rest houses built for government officials) for the burra sahibs in colonial India, the latter is a dish that was made on steamer boats ferrying people between the western and eastern parts of undivided Bengal, across the river Padma.
Clearly, Pratik is travelling through the food he cooks.
Among a section of food lovers in India, the lockdown has sparked interest in native cuisines and led to a new sensibility about food. I hope these attitudes stay on post-lockdown and spread to many more people. From cooking frugally and mindfully to learning about our food traditions, there is much that this lockdown is teaching us. This seems to be a great time for us to reflect on our relationship with our food, and indeed, to renew it.
Text by Ganesh Vancheeshwaran (Instagram: @theholehog)