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Cookery Lessons on the Banks of the Ganga

My Scholarship entry - Understanding a Culture through Food

WORLDWIDE | Sunday, 18 March 2012 | Views [866] | Scholarship Entry

I'm woken each morning by women singing the praises of Shiva at a small shrine by a sluggish Ganga, with the discordant accompaniment of crows and mynahs.

The wizened family matriarch, in a household surrounded by a family compound dating back the the Raj, is surprised to learn that her gora guest would love to learn some of the cookery skills that she started to learn while the British ruled her country.

In some quarters a prohibition remains against males in a domestic Indian kitchen, with its racks of colourful jars, smelling of pungent spices. Granny doesn't care. Her English is like my Hindi but, with my friend Preeti as occasional interpreter, she learns such things as that, where I come from, not worshipping any particular god but revering many does not make me an outcaste.

The identification of ingredients is a show-and-smell affair. They are all familiar, but to me their use is a matter of recipe books and guesswork, not an expert touch.

I'm not allowed to do much more than chop bhajias, under the watchful eyes of her and a greyish house gecko, but she is proud to share her incredibly detailed knowledge of masala concentrations, dal, sabji, and the making of assorted flatbreads and crispy pakoras.

The diet is strictly vegetarian, wholesome (if rich in ghee) and delicious, varying wildly according to what's in the market, and can take the back of your throat out. Her chilli pickle is a combination of the best of domestic cuisine and illegal bioweapon. Preeti eats it without accompaniment. God help Pakistan, I think.

Ritual purity dictates many things. Onions and garlic can be eaten, but not when one is fasting (which is not, typically, a state in which one eats nothing, but when one does not eat such stimulating foods). Food is eaten with reverential intimacy, right handed. Men eat first: liberalism only goes so far.

Breakfast sets me up for a day exploring Kanpur. Dinner leaves me happy and replete at the end of joining the play of Holi.

Tags: Travel Writing Scholarship 2012

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