Sunday, June 21, 2015

My foodie dad

I inherited my parents’ love for writing and reading early, but my father’s love for food is just dawning on me.
I am told by Aai that Nana (my father) learnt to cook, because he was in the Bhoodaan movement and travelled for it. It wasn’t that Nana was just a good cook. He would also enthusiastically go shopping for the ingredients. He also read about food and we would often go to restaurants or a shop he had read about. If he liked a dish at a hotel he would try to recreate it at home. Once Aai, Nana and I went to Bhendi Bazaar to a shop that’s open only for a fortnight in a year to sell baklava, after he read about it. I remember in Goa, in the early years, he would hire a cycle, I would accompany him and we would ride to the Panjim market. The Editor in Chief of the Daily Gomantak and his daughter, going to the market on a cycle.

After they got married, my father stayed with my mother’s family for a few months at Girgaum until they got a place of their own. He was a pure vegetarian Koknastha Brahmin in a non-vegetarian Pathare Prabhu house. But that didn’t deter him. He began to get seafood for his new family from Sassoon Docks. He also learnt Pathare Prabhu dishes like bhujane and khadkhadle. Infact, his skills in cooking shamed my uncle who couldn’t even boil water, into learning to make tea! Mama decided he would at least make tea for everyone from then on. And while he didn’t learn anything else, he did make the first daily cup of tea for his family for years later.

It is only in recent years that the idea of spouses helping each other when it comes to running a house, or even cooking a meal, is being talked about. But years ago, Nana never forced Aai to cook a meal as soon as she arrived from work, or barred her from going for talks she hosted as chief of the Maharashtra Parichay Kendra in Goa. There were many times for instance, when she would return late at night because she had to be at a talk she had organised in a village two hours from Panjim where we stayed. He would quietly cook the whole meal and ensure that me and my sister had eaten on time. Even during my sister’s final days, Aai and Nana would tirelessly prepare different foods that she would be able to or had to eat.

My sister and I would often debate as to who made the best andyache bhujane. Was it Aai or Nana? But then Nana really was a good cook. Once he made some really yummy white chicken. Bharli wangi was another dish that he loved to make and eat. Ghada bhaaji, a dish similar to the undiyu, made with many vegetables, was another of his favourites. Speaking of undiyu, he loved it so much, that once a year, when it was the season for it, he would buy it from a particular shop in Santacruz. Another bhaaji he loved was ambadi. As his mother was from Andhra, he would make ambadichi bhaaji as it is made there. Pithla was another of his specialities. He also prepared chutneys and koshimbirs expertly. When she worked in Mumbai, Aai says her colleagues could immediately tell if Nana had made her daba. He even ate non-vegetarian food for some time, but later preferred vegetarian.

Once our cousins had come over. After a great time chatting and laughing, we realised it was very late. My parents insisted they all have dinner. Nana rustled up a delicious egg curry. The cousins loved it. Another guest who loved a bhaaji Nana and Aai made, was the noted singer-composer Yashwant Dev. He raved about the cauliflower bhaaji with ginger, and insisted it should be made the next time he was to visit.
Like all foodies, Nana had his favourite food haunts. In Goa it was Goenchin (we all loved this one), in Mumbai, Great Punjab and of course, when in Pune, he made it a point to have misal and Pushkarni bhel. Whenever he went to a new place, he would ask where the best misal was made and go there to taste it. The owners of Goenchin, the Lees, became our friends. Mr Lee’s (he was Chinese) father had been the owner of Nanking in Pune. His wife was Goan, she was called Mrs T, short for Theresa. The two of them made the whole visit to the restaurant special. They would talk to customers as if they were guests at their house, not restaurant, and while leaving, each female guest got a rose. By the end of the meal, my parents would have learnt a Chinese recipe and Mrs T would have learnt a new Marathi word. She would always credit my parents with having taught her to speak Marathi. 

For me, a meal to Goenchin was often a reward for being good. But it wasn’t just for family and friends that Nana thought of food. Once as editor, he received a threat. I don’t remember who it was, but they threatened to blow up Gomantak Bhavan sky high if Nana didn’t stop writing about them. The night they were scheduled to do so, all employees refused to leave. So Nana said everyone would have dinner at our house (on the fourth storey of the same building). Everyone, the assistant editors, the peons, personal assistants, cleaning staff, had dinner together. Needless to say, the night went by peacefully. On another occasion, the police were stationed outside the building. In the evening, Nana told a subordinate to organise pav bhaaji for them.

For a funfair in the colony, Nana once sold prawn bhaji (fritters). He put up a board – Koknastha Brahmnachi shuddha tupatli kolambichi bhaji (Prawn fritters made in pure ghee by a Koknastha Brahmin). He was soon sold out!

Even for our pet parakeet, Nana would go to Crawford market when he was in Mumbai, buy kardai and haul it to Goa. Raja, our tomcat, always had a supply of fish. When they moved from Goregaon, Aai tells me, Nana gave all the stray dogs there a meal of chapattis lathered in pure ghee.

In his 50s Nana was diagnosed with diabetes. There were many foods he wasn’t supposed to eat. For many years he abided by this. But there were days when he would tire of this and have them. One food that he would insist on having sometimes was eggs. He would make an omelette for breakfast and despite Aai’s disapproval he would also add cheese to it.
As a kid I did not like many foods. Infact, now people who know me must find it amusing to see me read or write about food. Can’t blame them. When one has been ‘Bridget Bones’ for a long time, it’s difficult for people to believe. But for years I have loved eggs. I too would often make eggs for breakfast. I think Nana liked this. I once heard him tell someone, “She makes eggs with such love. A breakfast with eggs is the one thing she loses herself into making, every morning.”

As I said, it is only recently that I have been interested in food. It’s an amazing world. I’ve also tried to write about it. However, I have a long way to go. And even then I will not quite be Nana’s true foodie inheritor. That will be my nephew, his grandson, who’s studying to be a chef. Of all of us, Nana must be the proudest of him.