When I was fourteen I once felt the sudden urge to cook Batata Poha (I am now cured of such dangerous urges). It was as unexpected as it was unnatural because I didn’t know how to cook. My mother’s specialty lay in cooking chicken and chhole (chickpeas) – both dishes beloved of Punjabis – and she had no clue how Poha was cooked so I could not expect any help from that quarter.
The other expert, my bench-mate in school, was an awesome cook or so I was made to believe by her words. Who wouldn’t want to learn at the feet of a master? Having adopted her as my Culinary Guru I begged her for the recipe. She agreed to give it to me, but on one strange condition. She would dictate the recipe to me but I was not allowed to write it down. I would have to memorise it. I was desperate and could not disagree. I did wonder about the reason behind it. Was she deliberately trying to make things tough for me? Why would she? Hadn’t I always given her my books to copy notes from?
The only option I had then was to rush home after school and jot down whatever I remembered from the dictated recipe. Thankfully, it was not all given at one go. The first few days was about memorizing the ingredients. It was a slow process because the only time one could talk was during the twenty minute recess. And half of that went in deciding what to buy from the canteen and then buying and eating it before the bell rang.
There were one or two lucky days when the teacher was absent and then one had the whole of half hour to discuss the ingredients and the merits of a well-cooked Poha.
The day dawned, two weeks later, when the recipe was jotted down, in full, in my diary. It was time to put the plan into action.
Onions, potatoes and green chillies were already available at home. Even the oil. As well as the sugar and the lemon for the lime juice. My bench-mate insisted that coriander garnish was a must, both for the looks and the taste and so I went to the corner vendor of vegetables and bought a bunch.
Onions were sliced thin, potatoes were diced and green chillies were chopped fine. My mother hovered nearby but I wanted to do this my own way so I shooed her away.
Once the pan was heated, I poured in the oil which sizzled as it hit the hot surface. The notes did not mention how much (did I forget to jot down the quantity) but I had seen Mother pour oil in the vegetables while cooking so a huge serving spoon size of oil seemed quite right. I dropped into the pan next the onions, potatoes and chillies and stirred. I waited for the onions to turn pink as my friend had mentioned. And they did look pink, swimming in the oil. The oily steam that floated out of the pan made me want to throw up. I added the turmeric powder and the salt followed by the sugar and the lemon juice. The food cooked faster than I expected and Mother whose dog-nose smelled something burning shouted “Stir, Stir” from inside the living room. I stirred with vigour.
The book said, “Add Poha when the onions are cooked and stir gently. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves and serve.”
I was excited to discover how easy cooking was and so much fun. I could almost see my mother’s face light up with pride when I, her dear daughter, served her Batata Poha.
And as I took the bowl holding the Poha and upturned it into the pan, a mini third world war broke out in the pan. Particles of Poha sprung up and flew out of the pan in all directions. Some burned in the pool of oil that now bubbled inside the pan. Thick plumes of steam wafted out with the smell of burning food. The sizzling and sloshing continued even as I quickly put off the gas and picked up the pan and kept it gently on the platform.
As the noise abated I dipped the serving spoon inside the pan and hauled out some of the Batata Poha. A multi-coloured blend of black, yellow and dark brown stared at me, daring me to eat it. I took a bite and immediately spat out the mess of tiny grains of hard, stony Poha and crunchy bits of uncooked potatoes. Clearly, it was a recipe for disaster that I had received from my Guru.
I re-visited the whole process over and over again with my bench-mate but I could never figure out where I had gone wrong. It was my first culinary disaster and put quite a dampener on my future efforts at cooking. That one day I would become an excellent cook is a story for another day.
And it was many, many years later that I discovered the cause of the Poha disaster. The puffed rice needs to be washed and soaked in water to soften it before it can be cooked and which step I had overlooked. Either I had forgotten or it was missed out in the dictation.
Have you ever had such culinary accidents?