I have distinct memories of making shakkar pare; sweet, flaky cookies made with whole wheat flour, ghee and sugar, in my kitchen right before Diwali. I would hold onto the edge of our grey granite platform, stand on my tiptoes and gleefully watch the dough being made and rolled out. My responsibility in this process was cutting the dough into little diamond shapes with the help of a stainless steel pizza cutter. I would curiously stand around and watch in awe as my maasi mixed all the ingredients having eyeballed them, formed the dough with such ease and deep fried the little cuts until they were a beautiful golden brown. The sweet smell of the freshly cut dough frying in hot ghee still lingers in my memory.
We’ve all grown up listening to endless tales of how nothing compares to the comfort of a meal made by your mother and how that’s the one thing is deeply missed once you move out of home. But my love for food was an amalgamation of maa and maasi ke haath ka khana. My mother is a working woman and her job entails more than just the regular nine to five. She travels extensively and is out for days on an end. This is the reason my maasi or my mother’s sister decided to stay with us and take care of me since I was six months old. Maa had to get back to work a couple of months after she had me and she only entrusted family to take care of her baby. So, my maasi moved from their hometown of Nagpur, all the way to Mumbai to take care of me. The original plan was to stay for two years and then move back, but today more than two decades later, one can say her plans changed a little.
Growing up, food was the focus of my day. As a child, I was always interested in what was being made and what I could eat next. And, as much has maa has fed me throughout the years, my maasi too has been a major influence on my culinary tastes. One of the earlier memories I have are of me trying my hand at making rotis, or Indian flatbread with my maasi in the kitchen. I was not more than ten years old, and enthusiastic about making roti as I saw my maasi doing it all the time. One fine day, I went up to her and expressed my desire to help; she laughed and then patiently guided me through the process of rolling a roti. My mini roti resembled a strange map of an undiscovered country but she still put it on a tawa and cooked it while I watched patiently. My first roti, even though slightly misshapen, was an achievement for the young me and her guidance was just the nudge I needed to get interested in cooking.
Throughout my school life, most of my dabbas were made by her. We had two breaks which required two dabbas and while the first one had the likes of sandwiches and sometimes even Maggi noodles, the menu for the second one on most occasions was two rotis with a simple sabzi made with basic masalas, tomatoes, onions, ginger-garlic and zeera-rai. Back then I would never be happy with the menu and the sight of roti and sabzi didn’t excite me. But today, her dabba essentials have become some of my favourites, and when cooking, I find myself making vegetables in a similar manner.
Often, I would ask her to make ‘that dal that I liked’ and she knew what I was talking about. Her simple yellow toor dal recipe is one I have followed as if it were my bible during my university days. I lived and studied abroad for a while and often cooked for myself. Dal-rice with a side of mango achaar or pickle was my holy grail and its simplicity is what I craved. At times my friends would ask me if I could make them a meal and I would almost always make dal, rice and pickle for them too. The recipe is simple, boil the daal with haldi and salt. Once cooked, add a tadka with pyaaz, chillies and coriander. I tweaked it a bit and added some chopped garlic in my version, and it always came out perfect!
Since the two of us have a sweet tooth and share love for everything with sugar in it, I would get a lot of sweet treats growing up. Rice kheer made with milk, rice, sugar and some cardamom was made often as we both enjoyed it, a recipe that I still crave for even today. And although, the sevai ki kheer is more popular among most people, the chawal ki kheer has become my go-to over the years. Growing up, I saw my maasi in the kitchen quite a lot, cooking food for the family and more often than not, making treats for me. I stood around and observed the way she cut her vegetables, marinated the meats and whipped up things like cheeni paratha to satiate my unending demands for something new. Today, when I enter the kitchen, I find myself instinctively adapting certain mannerisms and ways of cooking. And while most people have their maa showing them their way around the kitchen, I was lucky enough to have my maa and my maasi show me the ropes.
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