Oxford, January 2001. I was back after taking care of my father’s funeral and the challenges that accompanied the untimely death of my dad. He was 57. I was back to what was then, for me at least, the land of the unknown. Oxford had an aura strong enough to challenge my confidence. Was I good enough belong to the best university in the world? Had the Rhodes interview board made a mistake by giving me the scholarship? Should I have taken a year off and not rushed it back?
And to add to my misery I hated the bland food I was forced to eat in the bleak Oxford winter. All taken, it was ‘the’ perfect recipe for depression. Nervous and frustrated, I had trudged along to St Antony’s College for yet another of the South Asia Seminars that we were asked to attend.
And it was then I met a colleague who very kindly asked me over for dinner. He cooked while chatting and I gawked! Is it this easy? A delicious chicken was being made in front of me and the world hadn’t turned upside down. It wasn’t rocket science as I’d always imagined it to be. Seeing was indeed believing. Can I do it? May be I can.
I must confess the chicken I made the very next day was profoundly different. But it certainly was edible. In fact, more than edible. It was one of the best tasting chicken preparations I had had in days. I had finished off the entire 200 grams of chicken I had bought and each rice grain the Sainsbury’s 50 grams basmati pack had to offer.
I had found my survival mechanism, my stress buster and my way out of misery. Oxford wasn’t that bad after all and I wouldn’t have to come back to my own little room after a dreary tutorial to a bland meal. A traditional Bengali male, food was central to my existence and I was finally seeing a silver lining at the end of the tunnel. The chicken made way to a simple egg curry and to machel jhal (mustard fish) and finally I arrived at my biriyani in a few months time. I did belong to Oxford after all. In fact, Oxford was incomplete without me or so it finally seemed!
I can never forget the sensation of taking the chicken off the burner. It wasn’t raw any more, there was adequate gravy to have the rice with and the aroma tasted very much like the chicken curry I was used to at home. I had made it from start to finish and hadn’t used curry paste or any other shortcut. And it had taken me less than 30 minutes!
I clearly remember admiring the preparation for a good few minutes in a way I have only admired Bnatul (my Doberman), with unabashed fatherly affection and fondness. It was too precious to eat and was proof of my mastering the Oxford lifestyle. I now knew that I could go back to my chicken curry after a rather frustrating seminar at the History faculty or a tiring walk from Cornmarket Street. Also, if I missed formal hall at 6.45pm in College I needn’t worry any more. I had my chicken curry to fall back on. In fact, it soon became an excuse to miss formal hall. Enjoying my chicken curry in the privacy of my room and licking my fingers laden with gravy- it was my own little moment of pleasure. I’d sit on the floor, lay out the red prestige non-stick frying pan, which I used for years, pour myself a soda and put on the music. It was a perfect romance. A romance with myself, my date with food was good enough to lift my spirit for days.
I was an incompetent and pampered Indian male who had finally learnt to deal with the world. I had finally learnt to appreciate home food, the effort taken by the people at home to make it and serve it for days on end. I had finally grown up.
Boria Majumdar is one of India’s leading sports scholars and commentators. But if anything can rival his love for sports, it is his passion for food. Born in a bhadralok family of North Kolkata, his meals don’t finish without a mishit. At one point it was a Sunday ritual to drive to suburban Bengali towns to try the local mishti – he cannot comprehend how someone could live in North Kolkata and not try the various delicacies offered.
The kitchen was alien to him until hostel life in Oxford finally forced him to cook, for he was missing home food more than he was missing home. Having had several interesting experiences with exotic food (like being served scorpions and turtles for breakfast in China), Cooking on the Run is about his encounters with food and his escapades in the kitchen, which he hopes will inspire many like him to cook in order to eat good and healthy food, and in doing so, appreciate home food that much more.