Can a cookbook club save your sanity? Raadhika Dossa tells us how.
Belonging to a cookbook club, the cookbook of the month is just one of the many perks. Not only do you belong to a group that unabashedly, wholeheartedly and tirelessly discusses all things food, you also find yourself in the presence of culinary ninjas. You are guaranteed a daily dose of culinary conversation on WhatsApp, likes to all your feeble Instagram posts, critical advice on everything including finding a shrink, but, most of all, you get a place at the best table in town – at the monthly potluck. But most of all it helps you survive a pandemic. The cooking club became catharsis and therapy, a place to challenge myself while imprisoned at home as the pandemic raged outside.
The IncrEdibles from Pune are a bunch of passionate foodies who can truly cook, their motto: Make everything from scratch. Our regular WhatsApp group is normally filled with chatter about food, not just where and what to eat, but recipes, tips and kitchen horror stories. As the first frissons of pandemic fear trickled into our lives, the chatter on WhatsApp became a torrent of notifications as everyone reached out for news, support, and solace. The kitchen soon became my refuge, my joy, my escape from reality. It was where I could travel using my taste buds. As I found comfort in the familiar acts of cooking and baking, my mind refused to accept the end of meeting friends, dining out and foreign lands.
The lockdown did strange things to us. Some of us went on extreme diets, some of us cooked out of necessity and some for pleasure, while most of us found comfort in re-living our fondest foodie dreams. We struggled with bare pantries and erratic supplies, sharing ingredients and cooking for each other. We learned to appreciate the smallest, simplest fare but in our hearts, we yearned for meals gone by. Despite this, we began to seek comfort at the stove, the act of cooking helping us regain control in a world gone mad. Innovation drove our efforts, and we celebrated every little culinary victory.
We progressed from comfort food and family recipes, growing bolder as ingredients became easier to find. We cooked from favourite cookbooks, the Food of Sichuan and Baan being most popular. Discussing the merits of dark soy, Chinkiang vinegar and a good nam jim jaew had us in tears. When would ever walk the sois of Bangkok again? Or wander through the hawker centres of Singapore? We missed tapas and patatas bravas in Barcelona, dimsums in Hong Kong and nasi lemak in Kuala Lumpur. The very idea of burrata and gelato in Florence had us weeping. Our time in the kitchen grew more wistful for the places we had travelled to and might never visit again.
Taruna celebrated her love for Kolkata, making delicious kosha mangsho and delectable biryanis. Poma led the way with sourdough, encouraging us all to try. Hussein, shy and introverted, was happiest alone at home experimenting with Middle Eastern cuisine. He now has his own pop-up kitchen for Bohri food and falafel. Sahil, yearning for Japan, spent an entire day making authentic ramen from scratch. Ambica and her little boys baked everything from pizzas to galettes and cookies, reliving her life in San Francisco. Ishaan couldn’t get over his trip across Portugal, sharing experiences and trying to recreate simple dishes, reminding us that good ingredients make all the difference. I found myself making elaborate pizza dough over two days before wallowing in nostalgia with toppings from the streets of Roma, or was it the bistro in Paris on a windy night? I prepped and planned exotic meals from scratch, weeping sweat in the stuffy kitchen, proudly baking hot cross buns or roasting char sui pork for bun cha.
Sourdough, banana bread and Dalgona coffee made appearances, linking us to millions around the world online. With each dish, we imagined we were back in Hanoi or the street market in Koh Samui, Istanbul or Lucknow. We were in Osaka and Chengdu and even Chandni Chowk.
Cooking through the lockdown was therapeutic, healing, and energizing in a way like no other. Foodies are after all, travellers at heart, and every spoonful made up for our passports lying forlorn in our drawers. And as we enter another lockdown in 2021, we seem more anxious. Despite the déjà vu, we are well-prepared, hoping to use this time at home as an opportunity to fly away wherever we choose from the comfort of our kitchens.
Raadhika Dossa writes on food and travel and can be found on Instagram.