Autopilot: Breakfast Edition

While speaking to my mother earlier in the day, she told me how she was thrilled that I was able to enjoy the same breakfast every day. Well, virtually every day. As far back as I can remember in this lockdown, I’ve eaten the same food for breakfast each morning. Cereal.

Speaking to another friend in the evening, I was telling him how the past four months have been this massive experiment in my life, all pointed toward answering the question: if I was given all the time in the world, how would I use it?

We’ve often heard about these industry leaders who declutter their brains by delegating or removing unimportant decisions in their life. Prominent examples include Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg – with their wardrobes. Net-net, the goal appears to be some form of freeing up brain space.

I’ve been thinking about that a fair amount – how much of my life can I set into autopilot? What decisions can I eliminate from my life to retain the same, or increase the amount of joy I receive, while being more efficient? My initial response was that I didn’t want to set anything in autopilot because I personally enjoy the process of decision-making a fair amount.

However, given my difficult relationship with my mornings, I’ve figured out that the more I can bring myself to enjoy it – the more I can work on changing that relationship. One way I wanted to do that was to go back to where I was when I was in school – my morning breakfasts were a quick bowl of cereal before running off to the bus. I enjoyed that bowl of cereal a lot, because my mum would sit opposite me and ask me about what the day had in store. When I was studying, morning breakfasts were a bit of breathing time before the day’s onslaught.

The only reason I’ve gone into autopilot mode with cereal is to recreate that feeling. I’m reaping the rewards of it.

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.

Cooking Coincidences

Today, for lunch, without any prior discussion – I cooked cabbage curry at home, my mum made cabbage curry at her house, and there was cabbage curry at my grandparents’ place too. This isn’t the first time this is happening – it occurred sometime last week with carrot curry, and I think some other day as well.

I wonder how these occur

In my mind, I imagined the cabbage Gods pulling us all towards that vegetable. I’m fairly certain we all cooked it the exact same way: mine with the least amount of salt, and my grandmother’s with the most. Mine with the most amount of spice, and my grandmother’s with the least. I could replay the resistance with which I combated the urge to cook and finish the cabbage, I wanted to eat aloo fry again – but I countered all those forces and reached for the leafy thing, chopped it up and cooked it as rapidly as I could.

Cooking coincidences like these feel like they mean far more when they happen within the family. In a lot of ways, it felt like a small reminder of where I get my passion for food from. Not literally, but in terms of the food I’ve first eaten – the food I’ve loved all my life. I could go eat all the pasta and pizza in the world, but I know I’d want to come home to Indian food occasionally. Palya is a reminder of that emotion.

Cheese Chili Toast

When I’m away from University, there is not much I miss aside from the existence of the night mess. I’ve waxed eloquent about the night mess several times, but as my time as an undergraduate student comes to a close, it is perhaps the right time to enquire: what was the greatest thing the night mess gave me?

There are several candidates for this coveted title. There’s all of the friendships I formed at the night mess, which have, contrary to my wildest expectations, become the most enduring. There’s all the moot practice I did at the night mess – round after round of saying speeches, and hearing the same feedback again and again. Implementing it as best I could before returning there. There’s all of the memorial submissions. Then there’s the committee meetings – the ones I attended, as well as the ones I didn’t attend.

However, I think the greatest thing the night mess gave me was the security of knowing I would be able to get my hands on a snack no matter how late my cravings struck me. More importantly, that this snack would be oily and unhealthy, and wouldn’t fill me up as much as they’d satisfy the craving for cheesy delights, or fatty substances late into the night.

I craved one of these snacks today and made myself some cheese chili toast. To give it flair, I used coloured capsicum. It was outstanding, worthy of the night mess’ memories. Soon, I shall make a Bombay Sandwich. I believe I will be all-conquering then.