Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Women, cooking and traditions

I stole away to India for a week for what I would call a time of life enrichment. When I left, I had plenty of good intentions of giving but I think I received more than I had set out to give.

For seven days I lived in a small town city called Pondicherry, which is about a 2.5 hour drive from Chennai – depending on traffic. The city, a former French colony, is home to one million inhabitants, so I imagine that this is small city in relative scale of India.

I explored parts of the city by foot, avoiding cows, goats, human traffic, motorcycles and bicycles but inevitable got hit by a cyclist – it was his fault, I stood completely still and he never stopped peddling – trying to absorb as much of the city as I could. Part of this experienced involved endless tasting of the varieties of muruku, hunting for a good samosa seller and scouting the local market.

Other than the city, I saw and listened to a lot in the kitchen with three women. I learnt about the hardships, struggles and realities in life. All the cooking that I tasted were cooked by mothers, women who cooked to feed their families and cooking methods and foods that have been passed down through their great grandmothers to their grandmothers to their mothers to them. The only thing about what I shall call heritage cooking is that learning through this method is that a lot of it is learnt through practice and time. Without written recipes that instruct accurate measurements, verbal instructions and a connection for food is all that you have to rely on. My lesson was simple. I wanted to learn to make chapatti. Perhaps I scandalized my host when I insisted that I wanted to help and I wanted to cook, but I put my foot down, “teach me” I said, “I want to learn how to make chapatti”.

Chapatti is actually really healthy. And whilst I was there it always was my preference over rice at the dining table. So since I was consuming so much of it, it seemed natural that I should learn how it is made. In addition to that, much like the skill of cooking rice, I noticed that the making of chapatti almost seemed like a necessary kitchen skill as I never spotted a chapatti store that is likened to out bread stores.


The process that I learnt from these three women is really simple but you have to be one with the dough. To feed six of us, I was given a small mount of atta flour/wholemeal flour that was liberally seasoned with salt and given the following instructions: add water, a little at a time until sufficient. So I followed, and this is what I’ve gathered, you add water, a little at a time, just enough to bind the dough and then knead until a smooth dough is formed and then rest the dough for 15 to 20 minutes if time permits. Following that, form and roll small balls – the size depends on your preference for petit or large chapattis. The next step is the rolling of the dough. This I feel is the most difficult portion. The pressure that is exerted on the dough is of utmost importance for a roundish chapatti – more pressure on one and less on the other. As you roll, “the dough will roll itself” that is to say, as you rock and roll and work your magic on the dough, the dough will naturally rotate and form a circle and this technique needs to be practiced, practiced and practiced. Should you choose to cheat, you can simple roll out the dough thinly and then trace the circumference of a plate with your knife. Once we’ve got the dough rolled out, heat a frying pan till very hot and then place your dough on it, flip it once when some bubbles form, then repeat the same process on the other side. On the third flip, start looking for the bigger bubbles and press down to push the air towards the centre of the chapatti or to areas which aren’t puffing up and rotate the dough as you do so, remember protect your hand with a dry cloth because steam is really hot. Once it is perfectly puffed, you are done. Transfer to a container that is lined with a dry cloth until ready to eat.

Chapattis for me was this. Returning to the basics of cooking and feeding on the memories of how their mothers used to make their chapattis, the beauty of my journey through chapatti (chit chat) making is that is that it is a celebration of a form of uncomplicated cooking and a connecting with the people and their way of life.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful account of your trip June. :) - Jo

12:00 PM  
Blogger heidileon said...

In my country, Mexico, it's the same. The art of homemade cooking, has being pass from mothers to daughters, all the time.

We also need to learn how to cook a proper mexican style rice and of course how to make corn and flour tortillas, very similar to chapati.

7:52 PM  

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