Every evening for the last fortnight, audiences around the world have watched Italy’s Michelin Star chef Massimo Bottura open the refrigerator in his house, go over the ingredients that he finds in there and use these to cook dinner for his family. The show, which Bottura has dubbed Kitchen Quarantine, debuted on Instagram on March 14. It is a reminder that even though food content on TV and online seems to have created the perception that cooking is a high art, requiring hours of labour, a cornucopia of familiar and unfamiliar ingredients and equipment like a spiralizer or a sous vide machine, at the end of the day, it’s one of the most essential activities that we perform, using resources that we can reasonably access.
As most of us (from the privileged classes, of course) stay home under lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, without our usual support network of cooks, restaurants and food delivery services, cooking has become the activity around which we schedule our time. It’s a rejigging of priorities that seems especially daunting when confronted by the paucity of ingredients in our pantries and the profusion of recipes and techniques that one finds online. How on earth, we ask ourselves, are we going to make soup without chicken stock cubes or eat rice every day with only one kind of dal? Everything, clearly, has changed in life under lockdown, including the food we eat.
In fact, many, including this writer, have wondered if the current circumstances will have a lasting impact on the way we eat and the way we cook. Will we, for example, worry more about what we’re throwing into the waste bin and will all of us now always purchase pantry essentials in bulk?
Some things may change, for sure, but it’s unlikely that COVID-19 will drastically alter the way we think about food. As the economy limps back to normal, we will husband our resources and, perhaps, not go to restaurants so much, but supermarket aisles and local kirana stores will, in some months, be fully stocked again, online delivery services will run smoothly and those of us who can afford to will, in all likelihood, go back to our previously wasteful, thoughtless ways.
So what are the lessons learnt during this lockdown that we must carry into the future?
The first — and most important — lesson is that existing resources must be stretched before acquiring new ones. For example, most kitchen scraps can be used to make tasty and nutritious food. Potato peels can be stir-fried to make crisp Bengali-style aloo khosha bhaja, wilting carrots and cabbages can be grated and tempered to make a Gujarati-style sambharo and watermelon rinds can be used to make the Konkani dosas.
The second lesson, as the New York Times food writer Sam Sifton notes in a recent newsletter, is that recipes are not definitive. Unless you’re cooking for a living, or baking, most recipes are merely indicative, pointing in a general direction without necessarily charting out a detailed roadmap. Now’s the time to understand this and extend the boundaries of your cooking. Get creative and improvise: use crushed peanuts to add texture to your cauliflower sabzi and stir-fry pieces of stale bread with onions and garlic and add tempered dahi to make a quick bread bhurji breakfast.
Lesson three is that comfort or easy-to-cook food is nothing to feel ashamed about. The food should be adapted to fit into our lifestyles and needs. The mass of food content on every online and offline platform can push the idea that the more complicated a recipe, the better the dish, but that’s ridiculous. Sometimes, all you need to elevate your simple dal is a clove or two of garlic, fried in a spoonful of ghee. And if you’re cooking khichdi and eating it with aloo bhujia and dahi because that’s what soothes you, then do that. In anxious times like this, when we can’t go out or seek solace in the company of others, food that is familiar to us — even if it is unfamiliar or incomprehensible to others — is one of the few comforts we have.
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