I went to India with the intention of coming back with lots of great recipes and insider tips…. It didn’t quite work out as planned as my family, despite always assuring me that it is my home, treated me like a maharani, waiting on me hand and foot, not allowing me to pour my own water, ensuring I always sit in the shade, putting a blanket on me whenever I sit down, carrying me everywhere in a palanquin. Well, not the last one, but I’m sure if they had a palanquin, I’d be in it.
So getting into the kitchen was a bit of a feat. But on night five I finally broke through the curtained doorway and down the stone steps! Granted, I was only allowed to sit and watch, albeit on a chair they brought in for me, not on the steps like the rest of the family, but I still learnt some things, and also had some of the nicest family moments of my trip. The kitchen in the village home is the centre of family life – little did I know how much until I was enveloped by it’s warmth, both in love and in heat from the wooden stove fire, and witnessed it’s buzzing activity.
My cousin’s wife (or bhabhi ji to me as my cousin is seen as my brother) is in and out of the kitchen all day, from rising not longer after 5am and putting on chai, to making meals in between tending to the farm all day. One of the final duties just as dusk falls, is milking the buffalo and bringing in the milk – used in chai and to make curd, or sometimes sold to neighbouring villagers in return for some vegetables. My family’s farm seems to specialise in lentils – hence the haul I returned with and which is exceptionally hard work considering the yield returned. They also produce mustard seeds, pumpkins, bitter gourd, chillies, guavas, lemons and even more fruits depending on the season – fresh mango season is my favourite! The self-sufficiency within village life is incredible.
Below is a photo of one of my cousin’s sons is having a go at bashing the lentil crop to get them out their pods – the women spend hours on this after drying out the shoots from the hours they’ll have spent picked them. The final stage is drying out the bare lentils then sifting them to rid them of stones and other bits. I’ll never think that lentils are just a humble pulse ever again! You can also see pumpkins ripening on top of the water tank, and if you squint hard enough – that black shadow on the left, behind the wall, is the buffalo standing just outside her hut.
Other produce is usually bought from the market in the nearby town – a half hour walk over the hills to a road then a 10 minute drive. Meals are prepared fresh every day – vat fulls to feed the whole family. There are usually 8 people in this house – 10 during my trip with the addition of me and an extra second cousin drafted in to translate. That’s a lot of food. No wonder bhabhi is always up so early.
In the kitchen on that fifth night I declared that bhabhi was the boss. She smiled and my cousin, her husband, laughed, thinking I was making a joke. Absolutely no joke in the respect that I have for this woman, who had four children by her mid-30s, works long days toiling away on the farm of the family she married in to, and who I very much doubt never has a day’s rest, let alone a holiday, but who welcomes me with love and kindness into her home with a smile always on her face, and who subsequently cooks and makes chai for me whilst I am forced to ‘rest’ and eat a lot more food than I know they would have in a normal week. Bhabhi therefore is the absolute boss lady! Just check our her mad puri making skills below.
My cousin Raju is also a regular fixture in the kitchen, dispelling the myth that Indian men don’t or won’t cook at home. It’s nice to think that teaching the men has been handed down in my family, as it was to my dad and his brother. Given that Raju works away from home for months at a time, having the family time in the kitchen is probably one of his highlights. He’ll happily sit on the floor chopping veg or be busy blending spices, or even making a curry of his own, whilst the rest of the family buzzes around.
The kids also get involved, everyone from the 19-year-old daughter of my cousin who experimented with making chowmein for the first time ever whilst I was there – the hilarity of the noodles sticking together was an absolute Kodak moment – to her nine-year-old brother, the monkey of the house, who will hoover up scraps from meals earlier in the day, in the way only a Puri man can.
There’s an external and an internal door meaning that the kitchen is also a bit of a throughfare, and is constantly bustling. Someone will disappear out one door with a basket then appear in the other doorway moments later with bundles of freshly picked methi (fenugreek).
The kitchen is basic, but practical. So practical that I had a ‘bath’ in it during this visit (not the strangest of experiences during my visit). There is a double gas stove, a work surface and shelves made from cement and a fridge. There’s also a little room off the side, with a wood fire for making chapatis, boiling water, and where they would have done all the cooking before the addition of the gas stove. I suspect they don’t have gas year round as carting cylinders over the 1k hilly track to get here probably isn’t top of their priorities, and when I’m not there they most likely go back to basics.
The curries they make are simple, but oh so delicious. Most meals will consist of a daal (made from lentils from the farm) and one or two sabzis (vegetable dishes), either rice (lunch time) or chapatis (dinner and breakfast), sometimes puris or parathas instead, and then maybe some pickle, sliced cucumber or mooli, or even some homemade curd. Some of my favourite dishes I had this time included aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower – often so bland in restaurants back home but full of flavour here), bhindi (okra) and every single variation of daal that I tasted. Not to mention the melt in your mouth stuffed parathas for breakfast… And during this visit I was (largely) listened to when I said I was full, meaning that I could appreciate the food without finishing each meal in pain. Which, if you’re Indian or have ever dined with an Indian family, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Not even Jeremy from Peep Show would want as much bread as they can serve up.
I’m going to experiment with what I did manage to learn in the village on that legendary fifth night, and all being well I’ll share it so you too can savour the taste of the village kitchen!