(Warning: This is by far the most abstract thing I’ve ever done, which was written in a stretch in one sitting, because of which this post is over 2700 words long. You’re more than welcome to read through all of this, or skip straight to the end where I have written down a recipe for hot chocolate – for people like me. But you already know how to make one, don’t you?)
This is me taking a break from doing nothing. For the purpose of my own entertainment, I’m going to write about something I’m not an authority in – cooking. Before you continue reading, be warned that whatever you read here is going to be a quick ride on my train of thoughts. Don’t complain that you weren’t warned.
So where was I? Cooking. Well, where do I start? Food, as we all know is a basic necessity for a living organism and it is essential that we keep ourselves fed. What is interesting is that, as intelligent life we take food a little too seriously. More seriously than other animals and plants do. As intelligent species, it’s in our self-proclaimed rights to make a mountain out of an ant-hill. Anyhow, I love food and how we create science and art out of something so simple. But what is it about food that’s so inviting and comforting?
For the past few months, I’ve been living on my own. While I’m here to do my Masters degree, I spend most of my day figuring out what to eat, when to eat, where to eat from and of course, the act of eating, itself. Which, in a way, explains why I’m sitting in the library writing about food, munching on the remnants of a chocolate muffin – most of which had been consumed two hours earlier.
*break in train of thought due to distraction*
As a child, I grew up with severe food allergies. I still do have allergies, but probably not as bad as I had it as a child. I would get nasty rashes in all sorts of unwelcome parts of my body, from head to toe. During this period, my mother being the mother she is, was always in constant check of my allergic reactions to different food and she would always make sure I was well fed without being affected in the negative. So, in a way, her cooking expertise grew up with me, grew up with the slow healing of my allergies. So a lot of my fond, early memories with food have to do with moist eggless chocolate cakes – which surprisingly she hasn’t been able to replicate of late. Now I’m not sure if she’s unsuccessful with replications itself or if the flavour is more of a memory than an actual flavour for me. It could also be the fact that she made all those cakes out of love and care for the little boy who would scratch himself like a chimp, which she can’t replicate now because she doesn’t need to (because I can have eggs now. Yay!).
I was born into a family of foodies. I’m sure most of you can say the same about your families. As homo sapiens, we are all foodies one way or another. Being born into a family such as this, where my mom’s a pro in the kitchen, dad’s an expert with that one recipe he uses for all kinds of meat, grandparents are well, grandparents – they’re class chefs by nature. Growing up, experiencing all these kinds of food, was something I took for granted. On most occasions, I would understand how great a cook my mother was, and as a teenage philosopher, I would assume that she’s so good because of how she’s a perfectionist or through experience or because she follows all these fancy recipes. While all of that is true, I missed something. Experience and talent can only get you so far right? On growing older (and being exposed to awful, barely edible *things* during my life in college) I realized what I failed to see earlier. The realization hit me like a brick. Repeatedly. No food is complete without the foremost and most important ingredient – love. I’m reminded of a quote from a Malayalam movie, “Any food can satisfy your hunger, but good food must satisfy hunger of the stomach and the soul”. I must mention that what you read just now is an awful translation of what – I reckon – is poetry in my native tongue. I must also add that I use and abuse this one quote whenever I talk about food, so if you’re reading this and you’re wondering “where have I heard this before?”, it’s probably from me (if you know me, that is).
An understanding that love and passion is the first and foremost ingredient to cooking (and anything else for that matter), made me see the world in a whole new light. It dawned on me as a sort of revelation. If I were you, I’d be thinking, “yeah sure mate” right now.
As I spent more time with my mother in the kitchen, I’d see the twinkle in her eye and how it felt like she would be in a meditative trance of sorts. Detached, but yet so attached to her surroundings. How did I even miss this earlier?
On spending more time understanding her craft, I would often ask her how she cooks without following a recipe. I mean if you turn your TV on right now to Food Network, you would find a pretty woman/man rambling on about something or the other, interrupting themselves to say “1 cup”, “1 tablespoon”, “6 ounces”. So how do you really make something without specific set of instructions? What I never understood then (because I never cooked myself until recently) is that food, cooking and the things that come with it are little things that are felt, not measured – much like other forms of art. How I first found this out was when I asked my mother about how she does all this without really following a recipe. I cannot even put to words the kind of “what are you talking about?” flummoxed response I got from her (which I must mention is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen). She was making a chocolate-coffee-cinnamon drink at the time – as a response to me casually saying how I’d love a Starbucks-esque cold coffee right now. So she told me that it comes with experience, “if you make a lemonade for yourself you’d know exactly how much sugar and salt to add right?”. I’m sure there’s a certain level of difference in complexity between making a lemonade and a cheesecake. I’m also sure that I wouldn’t know how much salt and sugar to add if I didn’t know what a lemonade is supposed to taste like. On watching her creating that little drink she was making, I saw where it all came from. From a place of deep motherly affection and strong connect she has with the family, she knows exactly what kind of magic potion she needs to concoct.
I barely need to mention how well the drink came out. This little incident took place about 3 years ago and has changed my viewpoint on everything I’ve been actively involved in, since then.
Now here I am, 3 years ahead, somewhere on an island far from home. The United Kingdom has been nice to me all along. I’ve been able to live a life of freedom in every sense of the word which – I hope – has made me a more responsible person. Haha! Yeah sure. Responsible person writing a lengthy blog post on food when he should be writing a mail to his project supervisor. Meh, why not.
Sharing a little house with a fellow student, and living on a budget, I’m forced to make my own food. However, the only food I usually make are sandwiches. My house mate is really good at his craft and I prefer not to poison him with my unwelcome experiments. My sole job is to chop vegetables and help him around the kitchen. (I’m not sure if my help is welcome though, he’s too nice to let me know). On the odd occasion that he’s away and I have a day off, where I get frustrated because of a lack of activity, I entertain myself by cooking. While it’s easy for me to say that I do it well, it’s really up to a second person to validate my cooking.
Whatever said and done, cooking for me is a meditative experience and it’s something I take from my mother. There’s as much of art and science to cooking as much as it’s just a matter of feeding one’s hunger. Every occasion of me cooking has me coming back with a renewed (and probably false) sense of deep philosophical insight on life. I love cooking and I think I do it well (more often than not). The feeling of sauteing ginger and garlic or the smell of roast spices in the kitchen is nothing short of magic. As I typed down the previous sentence, I suddenly wondered if the smell has psychedelic properties (but I’m probably wrong). It’s such a beautiful feeling that I will never be able to express in words. And it’s that kind of a feeling that comes only when you yourself make the ginger-garlic paste and you do the sauteing yourself. If I’m alone on feeling something like this, I’m most definitely crazy.
I think I should wrap up now, my thoughts are way ahead of my typing speed. But before, I end this, I’m going to write down a recipe – well, something like a recipe – of hot chocolate. Cold days and nights are very common here and sometimes it leaves me frustrated especially if it’s dreary outside, which is well, almost every other day. This particular hot chocolate, comforts me in a way and plasters a satisfied smile on my face.
Before I jot down the recipe, I want to run you through a few things that’s just at the back of my head:
1. Always use quality ingredients. It makes a difference. But I completely understand how we can be in 2 minds about buying stuff that are expensive (let’s face it, most quality stuff are expensive), stuff you probably may not use again, in which case you could hesitantly settle for a cheaper alternative.
(Which brings me to philosophical idea #1: Never settle for anything less than the best in life. Every little decision is associated with a sort of quality, which affects the person you become. This extends to food because, good food fills one’s soul, which makes him/her a good human being)
2. Keep tasting food as you make it. Use that spatula to scoop some food that’s cooking and taste it, smell it and feel its texture if necessary, to see if it feels right to you. You are easily the best judge of what you make.
(Philosophical idea #2: Take a moment to take a deep breath and think about the things you’re doing as you do them. Don’t get lost in all the instructions and rules and the rut of life. Take control of life, instead of it being the other way around. You’re the best judge of what you are and what you become. Keep giving yourself feedback before you end up with a shit version of what you never intended to be in the first place)
3. Don’t be afraid to improvise, experiment, and change any recipe you find, as your instinct guides you.
(Philosophical idea #3: Well, that’s pretty self-explanatory isn’t it?)
You will need:
1. A body, mind and soul that wants to make hot chocolate and nothing else.
2. Some milk.
3. Sugar – Adjusted to your taste (if you’re unsure, start with maybe a tablespoon for a tall glass of milk?)
4. Unsweetened cocoa powder – a generously heaped teaspoon for a glass of milk is what I would recommend.
5. Instant coffee – barely a quarter of a teaspoon. If you’ve had prior experience with coffee (which you most definitely have), you’ll probably know that coffee, by nature is a very powerful ingredient and there’s really no point having cocoa if the coffee overpowers the cocoa.
6. Some fresh cream – enough to make the milk as creamy as you want it. I can assure you that this is not the healthiest option, but if you can excuse yourself now and then, why not?
7. Half a finger sized stick of cinnamon. Or you can use about 3/4th-1 teaspoon of powdered cinnamon but they are miles apart really, and I would highly recommend the cinnamon stick. It’s got a fuller flavour that goes with the drink. You’ll know what I’m talking about if you try both.
8. Good background music – not mandatory.
1. Heat the sugar and caramelize it. You might want to do this on a medium-low flame because even though sugar takes a while to caramelize, once the process starts, it happens way too quickly. Also, the sugar will turn from white, to yellow to amber (and that’s the most I’ve pushed it to). You can move on to the next step whenever you please. Sugar tastes different at different stages of caramelization, so it’s up to your taste really. Oh, and do not! I repeat, DO NOT! touch or try to taste the caramel. It’s really hot!
2. Turn down the flame, and add a little bit of milk. Just a little to cover the bottom of the pan. Because of how hot the caramel is, you’re going to find milk instantly boiling and steaming and the caramel turning hard. The whole thing will look like it’s going to explode. Don’t worry, it won’t. (or will it?)
3. Stir the milk on a low flame until the solid caramel melts and dissolves into the milk. You can add more milk as you go, but by the end of this step you shouldn’t be adding more than 1/4th to 1/2 of your glass of milk really (assuming you use a whole glass of milk)
4. Throw in that cinnamon.
5. Throw in a heaped teaspoon of cocoa powder, through a sieve if you have one. I use Nestle Bournville Cocoa Powder and the thing kind of clumps up, which for some reason prevents it from dissolving completely into milk (I should read up on why that happens)
6. Stir, stir a little more, keep stirring until you’re happy. If you don’t use a sieve, you’ll probably find lumps of cocoa powder here and there. That’s not a big deal really, unless you have an OCD like I do.
7. Add the rest of the milk.
8. Add the instant coffee powder and continue stirring on a medium flame.
9. Add some fresh cream. This step is optional, depending on how creamy you want your hot chocolate. I personally recommend adding some cream. There’s a nice feeling associated with creamy chocolate flavoured liquid over the tongue.
10. Stir until everything is mixed and you’re ready to go.
Notes and suggestions:
1. Try to work on a reduced flame. Something between medium-medium low because milk boils easily and you don’t want to steam all that milk off and end up with half a glass of delicious hot chocolate instead of one.
2. If you feel adventurous, I would suggest throwing in a scoop of chocolate ice cream instead of the fresh cream at the last step. Or you could add some butter after caramelizing, and some salt to have a salted caramel hot chocolate. If you’re doing this though, you might have to skip the coffee because the salted caramel has a very subtle flavour.
3. Though I haven’t personally tried this, I imagine that using melted cooking chocolate would taste much richer than using cocoa powder. And there’s really no hassle with the excess stirring and mixing the milk and chocolate, as is the case with cocoa powder.
What started off as a train of thoughts on food in general, ended up as a recipe for hot chocolate. That’s me finding innovative ways of spending time. Anyhow, I have a few recipes and tricks up my sleeve (surprising!) which I’m more than willing to share if you would like that. Also, I’m a beginner in in every respect, so if you’re a pro chef and you read everything I wrote above and thought “what! who does that!”, I’ll probably agree with you if you suggest better alternatives and tell me why.
I apologize for the lengthy post. No wait, I shouldn’t apologize, I wrote my heart out. For your convenience, I’ll scroll up and provide detailed instructions on the length and nature of this blog post.
DISCLAIMER: While I did mention first that this is a overview of my train of thoughts, I must admit that I cheated and edited parts of the article, to not embarrass myself and to appear more intellectual/intelligent.