Why do I love food so much? Why do I not care that I am overweight? Why does a plateful of chicken tikka masala attract me more than a gorgeous woman passing by? Or why do I always resort to cooking whenever I am stressed?
No, the reason is not that I read a lot of cookery books, neither am I heavily addicted to food channels. This feeling is something which is very personal and intimate, something that comes from within. I think the easier way to make others understand this bonding would be to explain it in this way: Whenever I am down and feeling low, I put on my chef’s hat and enter my kitchen. The smell of the cumin coming from the heated pan, the vibrant colours of the vegetable dancing in the kadai, the feel of mustard grains on my palm can make me forget all troubles of life. Be it work pressure or day-to-day quibble...I can give it a pass, when I am in my kitchen. It’s all too ecstatic... to create something new from the ordinary!
But where did this passion come from?
I thought a lot and finally got my answers few years ago from my grandmother. She said that it’s in my blood. I have inherited the passion for good food and cooking from my family. My father though has never shown such passion, he enjoys whatever my mom cooks and (it’s just between you and me) he can’t even light up a gas stove. It was my grandpa from whom I have got this madness for food. He was a cook.
According to my granny, my grandfather fled from his home in Nepal and landed up in Darjeeling in search of a job. He must have been in his teens when he left his home, apparently to escape cruelties of his step-mother.
He started his career as an errand boy at a British saheb’s house in Darjeeling. In erstwhile India, the East India Company officers from Calcutta made north Bengal and Darjeeling district their summer destination. Darjeeling was a scenic escape for the Brits from the hot and humid climate of Calcutta. They had their English style bungalows made in the hill town, where the gora sahib and his memsahib would drink the first flush tea served in fine Bone China and enjoy the sunset behind the Kanchenjunga.
British left India but they left an indelible mark in the form of palatial bungalows, offices and schools in Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong- the three sub-divisions of modern Darjeeling district.
The officers during their summer stay used to employ locals to manicure their gardens, do other daily jobs and some lucky few like my grandpa as their errand boy. But their cooks were either from their country or some trusted Indians who have worked with the family for a good number of years.
Geographically, the northern part of Bengal is uniquely situated. It shares its border with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Earlier, and till today, a large part of Nepali people migrate to Darjeeling and other parts of the country in search of job and better living. My grandpa too followed the silk route.
Life must have been difficult for him....new place, new country, away from his family and friends. But I am sure he must have had his share of fun, growing-up in a pre-Independent India, working under English officers and their family.
Learning the art of European cooking must have been difficult for this 16 something ‘fifth-class-fail’ lad, who had newly migrated from a small village of East Nepal. But tough times make you tougher and it also makes you think of ways that can make things easier. Either he used to sneak in his master’s kitchen to learn a few tips of British cooking or befriend the house cook to teach him the English culinary art. But somehow after working there for around 2 years, he managed to learn a few British and European dishes.
His little ‘newly acquired cooking skill’ helped him soon too to get a job as an assistant cook with a Scottish school in Kalimpong. Dr Graham’s Home (DGH) is a famous school started by Dr John A Graham, a Scottish missionary in 1900. Before independence, European missionaries set up many schools in India and Darjeeling district is proof of this fact. There are still many day boarding and residential schools in the Hill district set up during the Raj. Earlier, the missionaries normally had a mission and approached Indians irrespective of class, caste or economic status. Dr Graham’s Home was also primarily started for destitute kids. Times have changed, so has the education system. Today, sending a child to these schools would burn a hole in your pocket.
DGH used to boast its own farms, dairy, piggery, poultry and a big kitchen for students and staffs, which was known as ‘center kitchen’.
In this center kitchen, grandpa had the real test of his cooking skills and learning abilities. Here he learnt the secrets of European kitchen which helped him throughout his life. During these years, he also impressed my grandmother with his cookery and they decided to get married.
British left India and few years later, grandpa got a government job in the State electricity board as a head cook in the newly made inspection bungalow in Siliguri. He didn’t need to show his degree as he had none. All he had was the experience of cooking for the Europeans.
This inspection bungalow was visited by engineers from Kolkata and some foreign countries, who were working on the new hydel projects coming up in the district town. According to granny, there was one summer when Russian engineers came and stayed in the bungalow for a year-long project. And this was the time when she first tasted real Russian vodka.
She also told me that, during their stay, they taught my grandpa few wonderful Russian gourmets like Beef Stroganoff, Veal Orloff, Vareniki and different types of Russian salad.
So in a way, without any hotel management degree, grandpa could be called a continental chef! He was a true chef because he had garnered his culinary skills through experience and hard work with no formal training.
Grandpa worked as a head cook for a very long time. Experimenting with various new dishes, he worked in the organisation for almost 20 years. And one day, like a true solider he died on the battle field. I was barely eighteen months old and so can hardly remember anything about his death. My granny says that it was a hot July afternoon when grandpa had a heart attack while cooking his favourite meat curry in the inspection bungalow kitchen.
Sadly, I was not so fortunate to learn the finery of cooking from him. He passed away with all his secrets of fine dining locked inside his heart. The recipes of continental cuisines remain buried somewhere with him. I now remember his face only through the family photograph album.
So, this is my story. A story, which confidently answers my questions for the madness called FOOD. They say that you eat to live, but my tale says that I live to eat!
According to the Thai Buddhist monks, food should just be used to help you attain enlightenment. But in my philosophy, good food is the only way to attain nirvana.