Indian Sweets

Today was the day after my birthday, and the last day I spent time with my family for a few more weeks as I’m returning home tomorrow. Therefore, all I wanted to do over the course of the day was to show gratitude for everything I was able to receive yesterday. I wanted to maximize the amount of time I spent with them, and I’m pleased as punch tonight because I’ve done just that. A large part of it boiled down to how much time I spent away from my phone and my laptop, taking a break from work and e-mails except for a few hours in the afternoon. The rest of it is down to cooking. Here are three stories.

I cooked pasta for my chikamma and my uncle this afternoon for lunch. At home, I usually prefer making penne. I find that it absorbs the right amount of sauce and cheese for the kind of pasta I like it eating. It’s also a lovely shape, and the most appropriated shape for pasta recipes, especially the Italian-American kind. This afternoon however, I cooked some spaghetti. I wasn’t sure how much sauce it was soak up, and tried adjusting the ratios, slightly unsuccessfully. The pasta was a little thicker than I think my family would have enjoyed. Cooking it, however, was a ton of fun, since my uncle was on a break from work during the cook-time, and was curious to see what I was doing and when I was doing things or making decisions about adding stuff. That conversation was very enjoyable, especially given that off-late, when I’ve been cooking, I’m usually listening to audiobooks or podcasts, or watching YouTube videos to keep me company. Some icing on the proverbial cake was having access to aerated drinks while eating. I haven’t had the sugary stuff since the lockdown began in India, and it was nice to enjoy Thums Up when I could.

The second and third stories are related.

I love Gulab Jamuns. They are by far my favourite Indian sweet. There is a lot of associative memory that makes it my favourite Indian dessert, but the emotion aside, objectively, I believe there are few sweets, when made even averagely, that can compare to gulab jamuns. My grandmothers are blessed with incredible jamun-making hands. Every holiday I spent with either of them, I had gulab jamuns galore. So many gulab jamuns. There has been one instance where I’ve eaten a box of gulab jamuns in Pune over three days, and then flown out to Bengaluru and eaten another box of gulab jamuns with my grandmother here over the course of the next three days. My grandmothers love pampering me with my cooking. While my paternal grandmother in Pune is respectful of my desire sometimes not to overeat, and knows to offer but not force, my maternal grandmother enjoys expressing her affection for me by smothering me with food from the second I step into her house.

My grandparents had no idea I was coming over here. To be very frank, we didn’t either – the logistics were dicey and we were not certain of our plans working out till I arrived. As a result, my grandmother didn’t receive the advance notice she relies on to prepare things. I knew it would bother here, despite the fact that she cooked me some kharabhaath and rice kesaribhaath yesterday. I ventured forth and got some jamun mix. Together, we made gulab jamuns. Learning how to make them was an excellent reminder of the kind of teacher she was in her heyday, and the kind of teacher I want to be. I often joke that my mother is overbearing in the kitchen and I find it difficult to pick up cooking from her because she doesn’t allow me to do stuff without showing me. My grandmother gave me the instructions, stood next to me doing her own things, while I attempted and picked up on the skill. The result was amazing.

My love affair with gulab jamuns continues, and my respect for my grandmother has grown manifold today. The dexterity necessary is something I struggled with, and I am in awe of the kind of work she manages with her rheumatoid arthritis. I was not an excellent child when it came to nagging my grandmother about her fingers, I admit that, but I respect her so much more after today.

After a quick tea break, my grandfather decided to get in on the act.

He enjoys making cobri barfi, a solid, dense, often milk-based sweet for the family. I always assumed that he enjoyed making it because so many people loved eating it. I am yet to meet someone in the family who has not enjoyed eating his cobri barfi, which is extremely consistent in its taste, and is never too sweet a sweet, which is an important criterion. However, today, while we chatted, I learned that it was actually his favourite sweet, and making it for people was the perfect excuse to get some for himself. Plus, he doesn’t let ajji enter the kitchen when he makes it, which I find hilarious. He couldn’t really remember exactly how he learned the recipe, but all I am grateful for is that I know how to make this now. I’m going to carry this one forward, tata.

It has become abundantly clear to me that as a family, we show our love for each other through food, among other things. I’d like to learn all of the dishes important to the people in my family, even if I’m not the biggest fan, only so I will never miss them. There are recipes they know, and feelings they have while cooking on the basis of which they make decisions – how much salt to add, how much chili powder to put in, and that judgment I’d like to develop. That way even when I’m far away from home, I’ll have a little bit of everyone with me, always.

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