May 23, 2020
A month and a half into isolation, life, which seemed blissful with the early dalgonas and perfectly baked cakes and pastries, now seemed to have moved toward gradual desperation. Many who have now resigned to their cocoons are trying to discover their passions and many more enlightened ones have already discovered their lifelong passion. Some brave souls, realizing a higher calling, have got their resignation letters typed and are ready to haul it toward their bosses, just when the lockdown is lifted.
I was not the brave one, but the enlightened one. After having watched three movies and one video – The Chef (not the one with Saif Ali Khan), The Hundred Foot journey and Ratatouille, my life changed. I was born to cook. Thank you, Lord, for this lockdown. The video which inspired me to watch all those movies was of a carefree man, feasting on Birnda (Kokum). The water drooling from the man’s mouth and the sounds he made while doing ‘Kacha Kacha’ and ‘Dinchaka Dhinchika’ with the Birnda lit a fire within me.
‘A recipe has no soul. You as the cook must bring the soul to the recipe’ and many such quotes inspired me to surge ahead and find my niche in life. I had finally found my soul.
It was time to put my amazingly creative culinary mind into action. Ooh !! the feast I would prepare on a dull Friday morning, made me proud. I could not sleep a wink on Thursday night. Movies, I watched were more or less inspired by French cuisine and I decided to make some French Chicken with an Indian twist. I would name it later as French names sound so romantic and also unpronounceable. To this day, all I knew about French food was French Toast and French Fries, both I just came to know are not even remotely connected to the French.
All night, a tiny fragment of my left brain (a recently discovered fact about myself) was sitting next to the marinated chicken, inside the fridge. All it said to the chicken was to ‘rest in peace’. The marinade was a mixture of what the best of France and India could offer. I decided to use one of the five basic French sauces- Hollandaise. I had done it earlier when I had made a delectable eggs benedict, a million years ago. Luckily, no one had ever tried this dish earlier and my mediocre benedict was considered a benchmark of sorts. I had even considered myself an expert to critique on Jamaica Blues’ and Dome’s average eggs benedicts.
One of the movies said cooking is all about trying and being innovative. The sauce was now intruded with many old masalas- Some of which had past expiry dates. Nutmeg, black cardamom, green cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, cloves and what not. I always like red. Any white meat, however tasty, is considered not good food. I added a dash of chilli powder and sprinkled freshly cut coriander onto the innocent hollandaise, which by now was confused about its very existence. The addition of all those spices had emboldened me to cut a slice of orange and squeeze the juice into the startled chicken.
I placed the chicken neatly into its final resting place- A newly bought glass bowl. My wife had vehemently argued with me, not to spend extra money at these trying times. Millions were hungry and without jobs and here I was spending money on baking a chicken, she said. I asked her to look at the brighter and bigger picture. In a year or two, we would be owning restaurants all over France and India, I told her.
By early morning, the chicken would be tender and the rich flavours would infuse into every inch of its body. I could imagine the soft tender bites of chicken, melting in my mouth. I was giving the Mughals a run for their money.
The rested chicken was supposed to be baked at 180 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes. Cooking, I learnt is all about the usage of heat. The usage of high heat would seal the chicken’s juices tightly inside its body, while slow heat would cook it to perfection. The idea was to use high gas initially sealing the juices and then gradually reducing the flames. The picture of me, poking the chicken with a pointed knife and all those sealed juices spurting out of its body, was going to be my Instagram feed, I decided. The ambitious side of me even imagined myself like that old grandfather selling chicken all over the world.
Waking up very early in the morning, I kept the chicken out of the fridge. The colour of the carcass was not appealing. Was it the sign of a disaster? No. It cannot be. The abundant knowledge of three movie makers was condensed into that marinade which now clung to that poor chicken. I cannot describe the colour, as I have not seen such a colour in my life, ever. Did I discover something which the masters had missed out? Well, it had to be.
I decided to seek more knowledge while the chicken had to come to room temperature. A quick surf on the gentle waves of Netflix and my mind bloated with more knowledge about Indian cooking. A quick decision was made. I would use innovation here. Instead of baking, I was going to use the frying pan, seal the juices and then cook the damn bird in slow heat surrounded by potatoes, sprinkled with rosemary and thyme. I had no clue how the two herbs tasted, but the pictures of those lucky potatoes clinging to the herbs could create envy among recently wedded couples. They were inseparable.
It was finally time. I added shuddh desi ghee into the frying pan. It seems ghee does not burn easily and is best for chicken as it balances the heat of the chicken, with its cooling benefits. Basically, from what I heard from everyone back home- Chicken cooked in ghee does not give you trouble the next morning. I heated the pan to an extent where my small kitchen resembled a havankund of our village temple. Again, the picture of me and the knife, along with the juices filled up my mind.
‘CHURRRRR’ the crackling sound when the poor chicken felt its skin on the hot pan, soared my spirits, along with lots of the godly liquid into the many corners my wife’s spotless kitchen, which she had prepared for me, the previous night.
I would not take any chances with the chicken. All those juices had to remain inside. I kept the screaming chicken in the pan. Chefs call it searing. I seared the chicken for a good ten minutes before I flipped it over.
The poor chicken was charred from the bottom and I had to carefully manoeuvre the spatula to relieve the bird from the tight grip of the pan. Ghee had blessed the sacrifice and had evaporated to the heavens, through the kitchen exhaust.
It is supposed to be that way, I consoled my bloated mind and flipped over the chicken, adding more ghee into the pan. The juices can now never escape the body.
After precisely ten minutes, I transferred the chicken to the pressure cooker, filled with decorated potatoes. I had heated the pressure cooker on low heat beforehand with two spoons of ghee and enriched the ghee with cinnamon and cloves. The chicken would be out of the world!
I slow-cooked the chicken for another half hour, before I decided it was time to stop. The chicken inside the cooker would now be soft on the inside, and hard on the outside. I could not wait to use the knife for the spurting picture. As the cooker’s snoring completely subsided, I opened the lid.
What a sight it was!!
The Indo–French collaboration was a complete disaster. The mangled body of the chicken was unidentifiable. It was difficult to say whether the carcass inside the cooker was indeed that of a beautiful bird. The so-called tender flesh was now afloat the ghee, the potatoes had mashed themselves and found peace in the hollow of the chicken, where once its entrails used to be. The very existence of rosemary and thyme was questionable. The debris of the innovative marinade was stuck to the sides of the pressure cooker. I had to find some innovative ways to clean this mess up.
“How is the Indo-French collaboration going on?” My wife had somehow over-estimated my culinary abilities, but I still had not given up.
“I think, there is something wrong with our cooker.” I smiled and called up Nando’s enquiring if they do home delivery.