The birth of a Chef

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The first  ever meal I cooked was a total disaster. Ok, disaster is probably an understatement. But it was absolutely inedible. So much so, that I had to bribe the waste bin to devour it. The year was 2006 and I had just moved to the UK to pursue my Masters degree. Though I’d been away from home for almost five years at that point, I had been fortunate enough to have had plenty of affordable takeaways near where I stayed. Which meant, I'd never had to cook. Moving abroad was an eye-opener in more ways that one. But that’s a topic for another day. Today it’s all about my tryst with cooking.  

Here’s a bit of a flashback into how much I knew about cooking back then. Something as simple as cooking rice was beyond me. The monstrous pressure cooker scared me (To be honest, it continues to haunt me even today, especially when I'm caught off guard by the howling whistle). Spluttering mustard seeds spooked the beejeezus out of me. I didn’t know that one should never pour oil into a hot pan that contained droplets of water. I even gave up drinking coffee and tea when I  moved from home, in the fear that I would burn the house down, if I had tried. In retrospect, I blame my mom. Though she was really forward-thinking in most aspects, she still refrained from asking the men of the house for any kind of assistance in the kitchen. And my father, foodie though he is, his association with food both starts and ends at the dining table. So I suppose it should come as no surprise, that I didn't know a thing about cooking.

 

However when I landed in the UK, in the quaint little seaside town of Brighton, which essentially was a student hub, I had no choice but to start cooking. Or rather acquire the skill of cooking. Now I’ve always been intrigued by the art of cooking. It all started off when my almost-similar age cousin started showing off his culinary skills. Everytime we visited their home, he would whip up tasty dishes. So, by peer-pressure, I decided to do some research into this. Back then, I was still at school, and living with my parents in Dubai. The Friday newspaper was always accompanied by a free Lifestyle magazine, coincidentally titled “Friday”. And they had a food section, spread across four pages, filled with mouth-watering images of glorious food. And they were all mostly international cuisines. Now, though I was born and brought up in a multi-cultural society such as Dubai, our “international food experiments” ended with pizzas and shawarmas. Apart from that, it was mostly Indian cuisine. So these brilliant food images with their fancy names intrigued me to no end. But here was the problem - I was more inclined to devour them, rather than actually attempt making them.

 

There was actually another reason as to why I experimented with cooking while in Brighton. My lovely wife, JP, (who was then my girlfriend) was also pursuing her Masters degree in the same university. And me being the hapless romantic that I was (influenced by a lot of rom-com movies and chick-lit books), decided that it would be the ultimate romantic gesture to cook her a lovely meal. Once again, though I have repeatedly said that I was forced to learn the skill of cooking,  the reality was I still had it relatively easy - because JP is (and always has been) a fantastic cook. In retrospect, an attempt to impress JP with my cooking skills, when I had a total of zero hours cooking experience, was always going to have a not-so-good ending. Whilst I am not going to go into a step-by-step listing of my disastrous culinary steps, I will say this. What I had originally conceived in my mind to be a romantic dinner of fried rice and cauliflower manchurian, ended up as an out-on-the-porch dinner with cups of instant noodles doused in pickle (yes, we still retained our Indian-ness) and chilli ketchup. Not quite as planned, but romantic nevertheless.

 

That evening was single-handedly the biggest contributing factor to me picking up the knives, spatula and saucepan with a view to at least master the art of cooking a decent enough meal. Some famous person once said that “In the journey of self-discovery, it is important to identify what stage you’re at presently”. Now, for me, that stage was quite evident - I still had miles to go before I could even climb a single rung on the culinary ladder. Though the realisation was a bitter pill to swallow, it helped me let go of my inhibitions and awakened me to the fact that I was indeed, an abysmal cook.

 

Being a bibliophile, I naturally assumed that cookbooks would be my first source of guidance in my culinary journey. Boy, was I wrong. Even the famed “Cooking basics for Dummies” didn’t help much, as I succumbed under the pressure imposed by the super-villains for the culinary world  - the “I-can-make-anyone-cry” onion, the “I-am-both-firm-and-squishy” tomato and “I-am-unbelievably-hot” chilli. Soon, I bundled up all the cookbooks that I had so gleefully borrowed from the library and returned them. Being an avid believer in the fact that technology has the answer to almost everything, I decided to befriend two new partners - Google and YouTube. Since I’d already discovered that cookbooks were not for me, I decided against reading the recipes. Instead, I watched clips of talented chefs using their magical knife skills and brilliant taste palettes to create some formidable dishes. After weeks of unsuccessful practice sessions, cut fingers and burnt hands, I was still no where closer to being able to put a single dish on the table. And that’s when I decided to swallow my pride and place myself under the tutelage of JP.

 

And on one cold winter afternoon, JP and I, embarked on a culinary journey, that would change my very outlook on cooking. I soon learnt how to skillfully use the basic kitchen tools without cutting myself in the process, how to identify what combination of vegetables worked well together and mastered the art of using spices judiciously. Within months, I successfully delivered my first complete Indian meal. Ok, so I still didn’t know how to make chapattis. But I assure you, my mutter paneer was spot on.

 

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Soon, we started taking turns in the kitchen and my cooking became the talk of the town. Well, ok, not the town, but it did gain some popularity amongst fellow students. However my culinary journey felt incomplete. From not knowing how to cook rice to frequently delivering above-average dishes, my culinary skills had definitely improved. But in my heart, I knew that I wouldn’t be happy until I was able to successfully re-create at least one of those international dishes that I had read about, years ago, in that lifestyle magazine.

 

That’s when JP & I discovered the Food Channel. The Food Channel took us right out of our living rooms and placed us alongside (albeit virtually) culinary legends such as Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Marco Pierre-White, Rick Stein and many others. It also opened our eyes to the world of culinary competitions such as MasterChef and the Great British Bake Off. There started our love story with cooking, and there’s been no looking back.

 

Before I wrap up, here are some of my sample dishes:

 

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You’re probably wondering what madness coerced me into rambling about my trysts with cooking. Actually, it was a Project 365 prompt. The prompt was : "Teachable moments -You have to learn a new skill. Do you prefer to read about it, watch someone else do it, hear someone describe it, or try it yourself?”. And as you can see, I pretty much did all of it before I was eventually able to add “cooking” as a skill to my repertoire . Featured image: http://www.morguefile.com/creative/Seemann