With a little help from my spice friends

by spiceaholic on June 15, 2008

There’s a great line in the movie “The Namesake,” where one of the characters scoffs at the idea that she should be “a good Bengali housewife and make samosas every Thursday from scratch.” I’m not quite sure what it is about that line that stands out to me- me agreeing with her or me wishing I were that good little housewife.

I’ve long come to terms with the fact that I would make a horrible housewife — let’s face it, I hate cleaning, I like cooking but only when I want to, and I’m not the neatest person. I think the only thing that bugs me is that I feel like I don’t cook as much as I think I should and that after being married almost 4 years I should be a whiz in the kitchen.

Case in point — with Indian food I feel like I’m still quite the novice. I still rely on cookbooks for much of my legwork. I haven’t mastered the art of “andaaj,” which if you’ve ever tried to watch your mom or aunt cook something and ask how much of something they put in and they answer, “well I don’t measure these things, you’ll just have to use ‘andaaj’ and you’ll know when it’s right” and then you want to pull your hair out in frustration, you’ll understand.

Oh yes, where was I? My self-supposed short-comings with cooking desi-style food, that’s right.

Okay so anyway I guess my biggest hang up is that even though I crave good old home-cooking or I want to try to make something that looks good out of my cookbooks, what I can’t get over is how much time you have to put into it. I joke that if I want to make beef it’s a 3-hour endeavor. And it is! The stupid beef takes like freakin’ 2 hours to get soft, and that’s not counting all the time you spend slicing onions, getting all your spices ready, and then browning the stupid onion and the spices before you even begin cooking the beef. Sorry, there I go off again!

Right, so we’ll just cut to the chase and say that it’s the prep work that scares me off from experimenting more. I have to make sure I have all the ingredients, because of course the list of spices involved is a mile long. Then I have to measure out everything and chop up whatever needs to be chopped. Then the afore-mentioned browning of the onions, which I have discovered through lots of trial and error is a crucial step if you want any kind of decent gravy and you can’t rush it.

So as you see, for me there’s no way in hell I can pull off this kind of food during the week after I get home from work or from the gym. Almost all desi-cooking experiments are reserved for the weekend when I can take my sweet time.

Yet there is a way to pull it off. But not without some self-imposed guilt-trips on my part.

I am talking about those lovely prepackaged spice mixes you can get at the Indian groceries — like Shan masala mixes, in particular. Or even some of the spice pastes in a pouch I’ve seen at World Market or Whole Foods.

I personally think these are great — the spices are all measured out for me and the directions are usually pretty straight-forward. I usually tweak stuff to make it even easier and usually don’t use even a fourth of the oil they call for. Now, the resulting food does in no way taste like anything I ate growing up, but that’s fine with me. Sometimes I want to try something new and not put a lot of effort into it. And sometimes convenience wins out over authenticity for me.

Now then, where was that guilt-trip I promised? Oh right. Well part of me feels like I’m cheating when I use these masala mixes. I’ve had this discussion many times and the conclusion amongst my friends is that it’s not cheating because you still have to cook the stupid dish in the end. Oh and that we’ll never be like our moms and make EVERYTHING from scratch because that’s just not possible for us. I’m fine with it when it’s just food for the hubby and me, but when I’ve used the mixes when we’ve had dinner guests that’s when I feel guilty. I just have this stupid idea that I should wow people with my efforts and that by using something that’s pre-mixed I didn’t put in all the effort nor did I hit upon that particular spice combo all on my own.

See where I’m going? I know, I’m spending way too much time worrying about it. But the other thing is that when I use these mixes, as yummy as a lot of them are, I’m not really coming any closer to making foods the way my family does. In fact, on a recent trip to visit some relatives, my phupi (dad’s sister) sniffed at the notion of using Shan mixes because “they taste all weird. They put all these spices in there that we don’t use.” Then again, who’s to say that we make it the correct way in our family, right?

I can go on playing this tug-of-war in my head about this or just accept the fact that sometimes life is just too busy and to take the help where I can get it. If I can get all my spices pre-measured and not have to do too much other prep work then that’s half the battle. And if it means that I can actually pull off a desi-style dinner during the week, then that’s extra brownie points for me. And if it means that I made enough food so that I don’t have to cook for a few days, then that’s even better!

Oh and speaking of making samosas from scratch, no I haven’t done it, but I have figured out a couple short-cut methods to make it easier! But I most certainly will not be making them every Thursday.

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