Last night I did some fancy cooking.
It’s been a while since I really cooked – you know, the sort of cooking where you use every single pot and pan, the blender, the food processor and at least sixty zillion ingredients. Sure, I cook regularly, and have people over for meals, but I’m talking serious cooking. And for me, serious cooking means Indian cooking.
When I first moved to Melbourne I lived in a 4 person vegetarian share house. I took to it with a will, and relished our proximity to the Vic Markets. But it didn’t take long for me to get into dancing hardcore, and then I discovered that not everyone in Melbourne likes to eat. I was incredibly disappointed by swing dancers’ dining habits. And still am. There’s far too much bullshit pizza and ordinary pasta. No Indian. No Very little Asian (meaning any Asian cuisine) and far too many over-priced variations on meat and three veg.
The hours that I kept, as a hardcore dancer, meant that there wasn’t time to cook fancy food, and there wasn’t really much point when I wasn’t home long enough or often enough to enjoy it. I did enjoy the household – which had shifted from vegetarian to vegan, heavy on the co-op. I liked going to the co-op at UniMelb to pick up grains or to make my own peanut butter. I liked the Vic Markets very much, and eating sixty zillion types of veggie slop a week. But my inner epicure missed the challenge of serious cooking.
Seeing as how I’m now living the patriarchy’s dream – the little housewife* staying home to keep house while her man goes off to hunt down the bacon** – I’ve started getting serious about my domestic duties. I’ve started cleaning again (and now I’m thinking of PavCat and her post which sticks in my mind – I should print it out and stick it up on the wall), so our house is nice and I don’t have to wear thongs inside. I’ve been buying groceries regularly so we don’t get scurvy. I’ve been doing laundry regularly as well. And I’ve decided I needed to step it up, culinary-wise.
I am more than a little ob-con. I like order, I like strucure, I like tidying and sorting and putting things in containers. When we moved into this house The Squeeze was worried he’d come home one day to find his underwear in jars, lined up with the flour and sugar and lentils in their brand new Arc homes. If I’m working on something acka, it doesn’t matter if the house is blown up and there’s nothing to eat, so long as the words are all lining up nicely and carefully divided into chapters. But now that the whole writing thing isn’t working so well…
I’ve decided that I need to get into the hardcore cooking.
Last time I was into hardcore cooking, the rest of my domestic life wasn’t going so great. My seven year relationship was crumbling, my Masters was being squeeezed out of me, very slowly, and my family was kind of exploding. But fuck, I was eating like a princess. Home made pasta. Six course Indian feasts. Chutneys. Baked goods out the wazoo. Etcetera, etcetera.
Now I realise all that was seven years ago – it’s not long til I’ve been living in Melbourne for ten years. Ten years! I’d never made a definite plan for how long I’d live here, nor where I’d go next. Right now, I’d really like to go somewhere new, do something new. But that’s not really an option. Melbourne is great – I love it. But it’s getting kind of … old.
But, look, I’m off track, and wandering on with the introspection in a way that’s making my male readers uncomfortable…. holy crap, can you believe I actually wrote that?!?! GEEEZus. I really am slipping.
So anyway, back to me and what I want to cook.
Now I have this time on my hands, I’m thinking about getting jiggy with the food. Last night I was home alone for the third or fourth time this week (it’s been a busy week for The Squeeze, what with APPA and work meetings and interviews and things), and decided that I wasn’t going to cook stupid pasta again for my dinner, nor would I buy some dumb takeaway. I was going to use some of the neat veggies I’d just bought and get some curry action happening.
I have a few favourite Indian recipe books. Madhur Jaffrey, of course. A couple of others. And this great job. This is Camellia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India (though mine’s cover looks more like this). It’s one of those lovely books with lots of useful desriptions and histories and tips. The recipes, though, are freakin’ hardcore. No canned coconut milk here – only fresh, grated coconut (which is kind of hard to get in Brunswick). Six zillion spices per dish. Whole Spices, though – no ground action. You roast them, then you grind them up. And spices and ingredients I’ve never, ever heard of. We’re talking a level above black cardamon here, at least.
So last night (at about 7pm, I should add), I decide that I’d like to whip up a veggie curry. At first I was kind of clumsy. I couldn’t figure out how to fit all the jars of spice on the counter. Then I realised all those spices were kind of old and neglected. Then I found my two cans of coconut milk had gone off (I subbed in a bit of dessicated coconut and some canned coconut milk for the fresh coconut – you have to fry the grated coconut a bit and the flavour is incredible. But adding too much dessicated coconut to a curry gives you a big pot of all-bran – chewy, kind of flavourless, frustrating). Things weren’t looking too great, so I swapped recipes. And then it was like my fingers and some unconscious part of my brain suddenly remembered what to do. I was the queen of frying whole spices, grating ginger, chopping cauliflower.
Midway through, I realised that I’d made this recipe before and not really liked it (I should have removed the cinamon stick rather than blending it in – it’s too strong), so I decided to whip up a quick chickpea curry. Do you know how long it’s been since I made chickpea curry?! That’s how far I’ve fallen. It took me about 10 seconds and I even remembered the recipe, after at least five years! But then I needed some greens. There was cauliflower, sweet potato and carrots in the curry, I’d found some frozen peas in the freezer (ask The Squeeze about those) and I had a big stack of spinach. So, while the rice was cooking (brown rice, because we’d run out of Basmati (!!) and I felt like it), I threw some chopped garlic and mustard seeds into some olive oil, then some chopped spinach into that. And I cooked it just right – still bright green and full of watery goodness, but not underdone – and it was perfect!
And then I sat down to a plate full of lovely goodness and at least three episodes of Gilmore Girls (did you know that Sam from Supernatural was Rory’s boyfriend? Or that Peter Petrelli from Heroes was her other boyfriend?!).
The smells! The aromas! How could I have gone so long without this?! I haven’t cooked Indian from complete scratch in years – there’s nothing at all like it. Nothing so sensual, so pleasing. And when you’re in there, making that spice paste, about an hour in and with at least an hour to go before you even put the rice on, you think this is complete indulgence. No freaking housewife would take this much time and effort! Cooking like this is pure indulgence. It is luxury. It is taking a whole lot of time to do something that could take half an hour. It’s taking cheap ingredients (all those vegetables) and making something truly special. And I didn’t even get into naan (of which I am a master) or sweets!
But really, this sort of cooking is cooking for pleasure. When it’s not the cooking you were raised with, or the sort of cooking you’re expected to do, it’s extravagance. Profligance even. And it makes me think about the way cooking means different things in different moments. It’s the luxury of time – to cook, to hunt down ingredients, to research recipes and particular food items and utensils. It’s also a marker of affluence and social opportunity. And when you get into things like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, it’s about ideas of luxury and being wealthy enough to afford Oliver’s cuts of meat in London, or Nigella’s kitchen accessories. Or – perhaps more importantly for women – being able to simply indulge, indulge, indulge. Without consequence. No calory counting. No expanding girth. No increasing weight. No guilt. It’s the complete and selfish absorption in a utterly sensual and unnecessary activity. This isn’t subsistence cooking, it’s intensive gastronomy. It is about waste. There’s time alone, cloistered in a lovely clean kitchen with just the right tools and raw materials. There are the physical sensations – the softness of fresh dough, the sting of cut chilli, the earthiness of ground spices. The intellectual and creative stimulation – considering how it will taste, making decisions about which ingredient to omit or increase and knowing how this will effect the end product. And the pleasure of expectation – imagining how it will taste, how it will look, how it will smell when it is done and displayed on just the right plate.
It all sounds very artyfarty, wanky, ridiculous. And that’s because it is, and that is what sells television like Nigella’s stupidly ill-focused and unsteadily filmed program and creates cults for cooks and chefs. There’s certainly an element of power and control – at least for me. When I’m cooking, I’m the boss. If there are mistakes, they’re my mistakes. If there are successes, they’re my successes. And there are always new and uncharted territories to explore. Or more excitingly, reams and reams of charts to be ferreted out of bookshelves, stalked in book shops and television guides and on the internet.
So I’m off to the shops in a minute. The Indian grocer is next door to the fresh pasta guy on Lygon Street, just up from a middle eastern nut shop. And then I have to get to the greengrocer on Sydney Road before I finish off at the Halal butcher for some goat. Or perhaps some lamb mince – Madhur has a nice recipe for boiled eggs wrapped in mince and then cooked in curry. Something The Squeeze would like.
Or perhaps, even better, I’ll just get a bunch of things I know I’ll like and make them for myself.
*I should point out here that ‘housewife’ is meant to refer to that imaginary beast who happily spends her entire existence thinking only of others, cooking, cleaning, entertaining, buying white goods, fetching, carrying for children and husband. Career? Are you kidding?! She doesn’t write books (or blogs) or draw pictures or sew anything other than clothes for her children or herself. She doesn’t teach or talk about anything more interesting than which brand of soap she should buy. She aspires to nothing more than domestic harmony and pleasing other people.
This housewife is not the same person as the woman who chooses to be the primary caregiver in her family yet doesn’t switch off her brain. This housewife is the person whose entire being is validated and justified by her service to her family, and she would never, ever consider dropping it all for a quick trip across to Richmond to chase down Japanese quilting fabrics, or that mythical Jazz shop in St Kilda or to take photos of installation art in the CBD.
**There is more than a little bitterness here. All that tertiary education and no corrections, and for what? A clean fucking house? Nice. Glad I put that effort in. Sure, being a housewife is fine, but not for me. In fact, for me, it’s like the world is saying “hey, you know how you’re really clever and can really write and research and stuff? It means nothing. Everything you are – it is worth less than your ability to wield a broom.