- When I was old enough to operate the cooking range, my mother tried to teach me a few dishes. But I resisted. I did not value the art of cooking then.
Main kya Karoon Ram mujhe Budha mil gaya
Sab jo laaye phool budha gobi le ke aa gaya
Main ho gayi re badnaam mujhe budha mil gaya
As a little girl, I used to sing a song from the movie Sangam starring Raj Kapoor and Vyjanthimala. I never gave a thought about this cruciferous vegetable beyond this song. I didn’t quite understand it’s unromantic connotation as a child. Neither did I fully understand the gesture of receiving flowers from a beau at that age. But I enjoyed the surreal juxtaposition of a cauliflower and antics of the Bollywood duo in this song. We Kapurs, hail from Punjab, a land of five rivers but for some reason aloo-gobi was not a staple in my mom’s kitchen. She was more of a mutter paneer, moong-masoor and pulao kind of lady. As a result gobi was not introduced to my palate growing up. I had a taste for bhindi and karela. I hated green leafy saag like mustard greens and spinach with a passion! My dad loved “baingan-bharta” and “danthal.” My mom could make anything in her trusted Prestige pressure cooker. She had the recipes timed to seconds. Three whistles for chana and rajma; half a whistle for yellow moong dal. Everything was cooked in gourmet style. A perfect balance of nutritious flavors. A finger licking taste we grew accustomed to. I watched her as she cooked, not to learn but to regale her with my endless stories.
When I was old enough to operate the cooking range, my mother tried to teach me a few dishes. But I resisted. Mother-daughter scuffle ensued, every time she tried to give me cooking instructions.I did not value the art of cooking then. Now I look back at my stubbornness and repent. Every time I think of why I did not make a single meal in my mother’s kitchen my mouth burns on finding an unexpected chilli in the raita. But the endless appetite for good stories, whetted my interest in cooking.
I was very curious after watching Gurinder Chadha’s movie about a U.K. based family, where the protagonist’s mother is gangbusters about teaching her how to make aloo-gobi. But the Sikh families have a long affair- de- coeur with this aromatic vegetable. Perhaps Mom did not cook aloo-gobi often because of my dad, who loved chicken curry and dal makhani more. In fact, once he saw a turbaned contender carrying two bags of vegetables bulging with cauliflowers: Sardar gobi lai ke chala hai, hun sare ghar wich gobi da lep karega! If you overcook it, the cauliflower becomes soggy, thereby denigrating it to a repugnant category.
I know of a certain lady who considers aloo-gobi, hersignature dish and every time people compliment her, she beams. Her face swells to robust cauliflower proportions. I know that this cousin of broccoli and aunt of cabbage, kale and bok choy provides anticarcinogenic properties to our gut biome. But if you have been near a cooking gobi in a poorly ventilated kitchen in India you can never forget the smell. Rumor has it that Brits absconded from Southall because of “strange Indian cooking smells.”
Cooked gobi is omnipresent in North Indian households. Leftover gobi is used for stuffed parathas. I have a distinct memory of eating gobi paratha at Hukam Singh road in Amritsar. My friend Romy’s mother was a fashionista. There were three black and white photo frames on her mantle. Studio photos with her hair styled and arms angled behind her neck like Sofia Loren. The third one was her head covered in a tasseled sari pallu with Romy’s dad in a smart starched turban.
When I think of them, my body is overwhelmed by a postprandial stupor. We sat on their breakfast table. Romy copied my English homework. Mrs. Makin was cooking. She rolled out a large round roti. It was three times as big as my mother’s paratha. Then she rolled another one. Now she had two round rotis on the terrazzo counter generously dusted in whole wheat flour. Gold bangles in her round wrists clinked as she rolled. Then she reached out for a kadai which was full of bright yellow oily gobi sabzi. She scooped a kadchhi onto the roti. I watched agog as though at a magic show. I ignored Romy’s remarks about the doodles in my notebook. Mrs. Makin spread the vegetable on the roti. Then she lifted the other plain roti deftly and covered the counterpart. She settled her fingers in a bowl of water and sealed the periphery of the paratha, gently pressing the ends together. By now the griddle was hot and the vapors of pure ghee were rising around her. She placed the paratha on to the tava, added more ghee and cooked on both sides till golden brown. By now the entire kitchen was swimming in a frying cauliflower haze.
She made five parathas. She placed a paratha and a katori of home made dahi in front of us. We put our books away and washed our hands. I looked up the picture of Guru Nanak for his blessing. I requested aunty to give me only half paratha. She rebuked me for being a picky eater and said “you need to put some meat on those long skinny limbs”. Then we ate. I can’t forget the taste. It was a gobi paratha that was so different from the tiny one my mother made stuffed with fresh cauliflower grated to fine crumbs mixed with finely chopped ginger. Very delicately flavored, you could get a faint hint of the vegetable in your mouth as the paratha melted in home churned butter but you could eat two and still dance a jig. Four morsels of Mrs. Makin’s parathas had done me in.
How would I ever walk back round the clump of trees in the clearing in front of Kiran Bedi’s house down our gulley. Past the house with high walls and cracked glass on it. I could not run fast if the Sehgal’s cranky bulldog decided to chase me. With a heavy heart and equally weighted tummy, I pushed my plate away. My reverie was broken by the sound of my dad’s voice:” Baby, are you there? Please come out and we are all going to Durgiyana mandir.” I was so happy that I had been rescued. I stumbled out of the Makin’s house with my book-bag straight into my dad’s arms. He lifted me up and perched me on the back hammock seat of the rickshaw.
These days when eating out is still difficult and take-out does not always satisfy my food craving, I have added a few easy dishes to my cooking repertoire. I make gobi- aloo a lot. Cooking is a zen like meditative practice. Now I pay attention to grinding my coriander seeds. Roasting the cumin gently. Stirring in finely chopped onions and minced garlic. Caramelizing the diced tomato and boiling a medium potato. Sautéing this mixture over low heat. I roast the chopped cauliflower in the oven for three minutes and add the roasted florets to the pan. With salt to taste, a big pinch of garam masala, I garnish with coarsely chopped cilantro. It is mouth watering! Yummy! My daughter approves. I hope I can make it for my sweet mother who left me to my own devices in the kitchen. The carefree little girl and the stubborn teenager have come a full circle. This uninvited COVID virus who refuses to leave, has taught us all a thing or two.
Hai main kya karoon ram mujhe budha mil gaya.
Sab jo laaye phool budha gobi le ke aa gaya
Main ho gayi re badnaam mujhe budha mil gaya.
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published many poems, essays and two books, “My Light Reflections” and “Flow through My Heart.” You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.