Autoethnographic Invesitagtion: Cooking Indian Food Take 1

Today I commenced my second round of autoenthographic research for my media studies. As the focus of this subject is on Asia, I decided to explore India (as many people forget that other than China, Korea, Japan etc, India also comes under Asia!). I decided to spice up my auto ethnographic project by learning how to cook Indian food! I myself am Indian, and I have been lucky to grow up with delicious authentic Indian food thanks to my mum who is an amazing cook. However, despite the persistence from my parents in the past couple of years, I still have not learnt how to cook! I thought it would be a great opportunity to partake in an experience of learning how to cook Indian food.

Today my mum taught me how to lay out a common classic day-to-day Indian dinner Piela Daal (yellow lentils), with raita (yogurt) and roti (wholemeal bread). This is one of the most basic Indian dishes and according to my mum, is ‘very easy’. I must admit, I wasn’t particularly keen on cooking dinner tonight (or ever really)…I usually come downstairs upon the calling of my mum when dinner is ready. The thought of having to stand there for a while learning how to cook put me off a bit…it just seemed really boring — unlike cakes, cupcakes, slices and pastries — they’re fun to make!

The first thing my mum and I did was prepare/cut and lay out all the ingredients we needed for this dish. They were: one cup of split sabut (whole) moong dal (a.k.a green Indian lentils  which are one of my favourite lentils!); 6 cups of water; 1/4 turmeric; 1/2 salt; 1/2 ginger and 1/2 crushed garlic. As we prepared all the ingredients, a number of things crossed my mind:

Firstly, I was quite surprised when I saw the actual lentil colour, it’s green (duhh!). But i’ve only ever seen the cooked version of it and when it’s cooked, it looks more browny. So I was a bit confused when I saw them in raw form.

I also found it fascinating to see how hard the actual lentils were. I only ever see the final product, which is super soft, soap-like. My mum explained to me how because these green lentils were so hard, you had to put them in the classic old Indian pressure cooker to soften them quicker. The pressure cooker is not needed for other lentils such as yellow moong daal (another fave of mine!) because they are softer. At this point, my mind was blown away because my mum explained to me how the yellow moong dal is actually the beans that have been skinned and split from the green moong dal! so basically, the green moong dal is like the outer shell of the yellow moong dal. I found this quite fascinating because I love both lentils and they both taste pretty different…yet they are from the same bean/source.

At this point, I was also quite shocked by how little salt there was (which is good considering this feeds a family). But you wouldn’t think the dish actually lacks salt when you taste it. But it was a pleasant surprise because i’m always harping on about how we need to reduce our salt intake.

I was also surprised by the ginger and garlic for some reason. I just didn’t expect those ingredients to go in. It seemed random because you can’t specifically/individually taste out those flavours in the dal.

I also did not enjoy chopping the onions! My eyes were burninggggg. #notcool.

Anyway, the next step was to put the lentils, water; turmeric, salt, ginger and garlic all into the massive pressure cooker. We closed the lid and put it on heat and we let the pressure cooker do its magic. My mum told me that when the pressure builds up, the cooker will let out an (annoying) whistle — something i’m all too familiar with from the past 22 years of Indian cooking in this household. The whistle is so annoying because it becomes more continuous as the pressure builds. When the first whistle came, my mum told me to reduce the heat and let it cook for another 10 minutes, then turn off the heat. After 15 minutes we opened the lid and it smelt great. I thought that was it and we were done with the dal. I thought it was ready and I was quite impressed by how little time it took. But then my mum told me we had to season it. By seasoning, I thought she meant simply put coriander in (a stable herb that pretty much goes into every single Indian dish). But I was wrong! Turns out we had to make that from scratch as well. By this point, I was kind of over it.

The seasoning entails: half a medium diced onion; table spoon of oil; 1/2 cumin seeds; 1/4 red chill; one diced tomato. Once again, I was surprised by how little oil was used. It made me realised how healthy this Indian lentil dish actually is — minimal salt, minimal oil, lentils is a form of protein, it’s boiled and it tastes great. I was also not surprised by the little bit of chilli my mum put in. While my mum hates it because she and my dad love spicy food, I, unfortunately am not true to my Indian roots because I hate chilli! I can’t stand it; I hate the burning sensation in my mouth. This is why, my mum has to put a considerable less amount of chilli than usual in her food so I can eat it. She has to compensate for herself by eating green bullet chillies on the side.

Anyway, with the seasoning we had to let the oil get hot in the pan before we could put the cumin seeds in. Once the cumin seeds were in and started to ‘splutter’, we then put in the onion. We kept cooking the onion till it was sauté and then we mixed in the chilli and the tomato on slow heat. We let it all simmer till the tomato softened and became like a paste. We then mixed the seasoning in with the dal and sprinkled it with fresh coriander.

then do seasoning — half minimum onion diced; 1 table spoon oil when oil gets hot in pan put 1/2 cumin seeds, when they splutter, then put diced onion — sauté till the onion are translucent — then put 1/4 red chilli; one minced/diced tomato — on slow heat, let this simmer till the tomato is softened — then mix the seasoning with dal. then put fresh coriander. I was pleasantly surprised by how easy this all was to make. It actually gave me hope that I may be able to cook decently if I just practiced enough as it did not seem too difficult.

The raita was also easy to make — we needed two cups of home-set (Indian style) yogurt; two handfuls of boondi (which had to be soaked in water till it softened, then we had to squeeze the water out); we then mixed in the boondi into the yogurt and added 1/4 teaspoon salt; 1/4 teaspoon chill; and 1/4 ground cumin. Finally we sprinkled coriander on top and vola, it was done! I loved how quick and easy this was — especially considering i love raita. As we were making this, I asked my mum what boondi would translate to English, however she did not know. So as we were prepping the food, I decided to whip out my phone and quickly google boondi (but first, of course, I checked my Facebook if I had any messages/notifications). I was quite surprised to learn that boondi is a Rajasthani snack made from sweetened, fried chickpea flour. I didn’t know it was made from chickpea flour nor did i know that it was a Rajasthani snack. I found this interesting because we were making a typical North Indian dish; not a Rajasthani dish. Yet boondi raita is commonly eaten with North Indian food. I expressed this to my mum who then reminded me how diverse India is in terms of food cuisines. Due to the rich array of different cultural backgrounds in India, you also have different variations of Indian food. There’s Rajasthani food, Punjabi food, South Indian food etc. I couldn’t help but think how restricted is the Western understanding of Indian food. People associate Indian food to butter chicken and curry. But there is so so much more to Indian food than simple butter chicken! It reminded me of how when I tell people i’m Indian or when we talk about Indian food, butter chicken is the main dish that pops up.

Finally, we then made the roti! The dough for roti simply consists of flour and water. When the dough was well mixed, then took small balls from the dough and dipped it into a bit of flour. We then rolled them out with a rolling pin. My mum is really good at this but I totally sucked. I had to redo my a few times because I’d roll it out too thin and the roti would break. I also struggled to roll it out into a perfect circle the way my mum’s did. My first roti looked like the map of Australia…while gradually it improved and started looking more squarish/roundish. As we did this, we put the hot plate on the stove and let it heat up. What I struggled the most with was actually cooking the roti on the hot plate. You have to cook the roti on both sides. However, I couldn’t tell when the right time to flip the roti was. Also, my mum simply picks up the roti from the got plate but I could not do that — I was too scared i’d burn myself. So roti-making was a little difficult. But I thought maybe with practice it’d get easier.

And vola! I prepared an Indian meal with my mum. My dad was pretty happy..but I must admit, this experience did not motivate me to cook Indian food or cook in general. I personally love baking, but for some reason, cooking has always been a different story. Nevertheless, I’m proud that I cooked up a meal today and learnt something new. I feel a little more Indian now.

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