In part one of this piece I discussed how my parents have left an indelible mark on my understanding and love of food. Here in part two I look at how Mayo College’s rich food culture has created some of my favorite food memories.
The second container would contain a dry vegetarian dish, from Chawli beans to Paneer it could be anything. There was one dish which intrigued both me and Ma both – a deep fried dish which resembled and tasted like fish fingers, crisp breadcrumbs on the outside and succulent inside. For the longest time Ma thought it was fish fingers, when finally a cook from the Mess revealed that it was Colocasia roots or Arbi and not fish at all! It is quite amazing how textures of different foods can deceive you so. Then there was the dal, an eternal favourite of mine. Most often than not it was Masur dal thick and gooey, which would congeal if kept overnight in the fridge.
The last container held the pièce de résistance – a chicken or mutton dish. In a Bengali household Kosha Maangsho and Murgir Jhol were a mainstay but these dishes were something else. While there was the regular staple style which even Vir Sanghvi mentions in his article and is found at Umaid Bhavan in Jodhpur, there were more distinct styles which I remember fondly. Chicken cooked with Kasuri Methi (dried fenugreek) would impart a rich, earthy and herbaceous flavour to the dish. Then there was the desi styled smoked meat, where in the cooked meat a small bowl with hot ghee would be placed. In this bowl a burning ember of charcoal would be plonked and the entire container would then be sealed so that the flavors of the smoke emanates throughout the gravy and meat. My favorite however is Banjara Mutton, named so after the nomadic wanderers of Rajasthan. A white gravy based meat dish made completely of dry ingredients, starting from the garam masala, desiccated coconut to cashews and poppy seed. The end result is a rich yet delicately flavoured meat dish best had with Roomali roti or Naan.
Mayo College is also the place where I learnt that there are different types of Indian breads apart from the humble chapatti.
The only downside of the Mess cooking was their generosity with amount of oil they used. The cooks although trained at the Food Craft Institute in the town, learnt all their skills under the apprenticeship system; skills and secrets were passed down from the chief cooks to the junior cooks over the years. They were completely incapable of cooking with less oil, they were always worried how else would they make the gravy or curry for so many boys.
Breakfasts too used to be special, Wai Wai and Maggi cooked to perfection, generously spruced with veggies and chicken were fun and nutritious. As an accompaniment there used to be hefty cutlets made of chicken and vegetable. Another popular favorite used to be Masala Liver, the offal dish is not palatable everyone because of the texture of the meat itself but spiced and cooked just right the way the Mess cooks did, it was a big hit. Baba always had his breakfasts at the Mess, and he would regale of tales where students would vie for an extra helping of the liver.
Mayo College is also the place where I learnt that there are different types of Indian breads apart from the humble chapatti. Special events and house parties called for special meals where the Mess staff would attend to the catering. Portable Tandoors would be wheeled in and the cook would flip the napkin sized (literally roomal) thin dough up in the air and deftly catch it in his hand before placing it on what looked like an upside down tawa for baking. While the Roomali roti cooked, at a speed of light he would put 5 -6 pieces of dough for the Naan inside the Tandoor, all of this done with an industrial precision. Giant-sized petrol stoves would set up on which the most delicious Butter Chicken I’ve had, would be cooked. These skilled cooks would also churn their fresh ice-creams on these occasions. I was very disappointed when the introduced Kwality and Vadilal ice creams instead of the fresh Mango ice cream churned in a wooden barrel with a crank. Salt and ice were the main freezing components; the ice cream would be creamy, granule free and the freshness indescribable.
The kitchens would also bake bread loaves. For quite a few years, Ma insisted we had this bread from the Mess. The brown bread was really brown, deep, and dark with a nice tough crust. It always smelled yeast which made it a bit of an acquired taste. I loved eating it toasted, slathered with butter and fresh honey collected from the gigantic bee hives from the garden trees. Spoiled by such a rustic and simple pleasure, I can’t but help my disdain towards daily breads and loathe all commercially available honey.
Do you remember Anton Ego, in Ratatouille, in his search for ‘perspective’ from Remy’s simple dish was reminded of childhood memories. It is a human response that all of us have – we are constantly trying to recreate and relive childhood food memories, they provide us with comfort and a feeling that everything will be alright. For the experimental ones, these memories give courage to explore, keep an open mind and venture out of the proverbial box.