I have always felt that my keen passion for food has turned me into an intemperate glutton as also a complete epicure with an almost accurate power of detecting the individual condiments and spices concealed within a dish, that product of smooth and selfless blending of varying flavours only to create a greater magic, like all other things in life. It is as though the well-seasoned and prudently cooked fare speaks to me as I bite into that succulent piece bursting with juices; the luscious gravy beckons at me even as I cautiously savour a spoonful of the delectable fluid dodging that threatening little circle of smoke over it only to experience the explosion of flavours and textures of intelligently pounded and roasted spices; and I close my eyes so nothing around me can distract me from this gratifying experience. As those textures and flavours melt into my mouth I am able to track every one of those otherwise untraceable ingredients for its subtle aroma or for a tell-tale tang for people like me to notice. You see, it prefers to reveal itself only to those who care to seek it and value it. And I am only reminded of the flawless resemblance that all this bears to life and our own varying abilities to understand it.
While most people obsess over the obvious use of salt in moderating the taste in a cooked meal, which isn’t entirely fallacious, I feel that it is actually the slight drizzle of sugar into the simmering gravy that lends that extra zing and even astuteness to the taste and character of the dish that can no longer now be simply tagged as ‘salty’ or ‘sweet’. Be it the mild bitterness in taste or the burnt golden tinge of the caramelized sugar or its discreet presence only to soften the harsher lines of salt, sugar has always been a more assuring accomplice in this game of blending the obvious.
As an agent of delicious deception that leaves those who gobble and guzzle in pure delight incapable of simplistically describing the final dish as entirely salty or sweet, sugar has taught me great qualities of subtlety and discretion besides the power of sweetness. After all, too much of it will risk having it exposed! It has revealed to me the element of obscurity where neither life nor any person can be defined by a single façade. It has also trained me to observe the beauty within the intricacies that I slowly unravel with every bite and every sip…
Even at a young age I was able to tell whether it was the cinnamon that lent that tangy taste or if it was the coriander powder or the bay leaf or even the extra pinch of turmeric powder that lent character to a dish. And it would not be fully inaccurate either to attribute that uncanny ability to my love for eating. You might even think it is the presence of the ‘Bengali’ in my DNA that plays this trick and results in a loyalty for sugar, and there is a slight chance you may be correct too, but I would still like to believe that it is my sincere love for the undiscovered that attracts me towards these subtle complexities in flavours that make a dish more desirable and appealing.
In fact I have always believed that just like a gentleman is judged by his shoes, a character is judged by the food it consumes. Believe it or not, the kind of food we enjoy says a lot about the person we are. Conversely, it is our temperament, moods and beliefs that quietly govern the kind of spices or food we eat. As for me, I have always enjoyed that beauty within the mystery of life that reveals itself only to those who fearlessly delve into it, ready to surrender themselves to the infinite possibilities, only to discover more.
These condiments are no different from the paints on a canvas that mingle and merge with each other blurring the sharp lines and edges. It’s the way a good make-up blends along the right contours. Hence, for me that touch of sugar that lends softness to the overwhelming presence of certain spices and flavours has always been the supreme deciding factor about the ultimate appeal of a fare to our palate, and it is this soulful experience that allows me a glimpse of the condiments used. Every time I roll a portion of a culinary delight on my tongue, I am able to get a whiff of each distinct aroma of every spice. It is like a gift that comes with a few kilos of extra weight, of course…but I seldom regret that since my Bengali roots seem to bail me out on that front as well with a crafty and specious justification!
It was this love for food that drew me towards cooking, though I solely operate within the closed walls of my kitchen. I took to cooking not by choice but by necessity since the taste of my mother’s and grandmother’s cooking had zealously clung on to my mind and my tongue, and so to try and replicate it in order to sustain myself was the most obvious way to go about it. Though even today I find my cooking miles away from what the other two ladies in my life prepare, thankfully my gift to track that taste and tell the difference between their artistry and that of the likes of me still remains untouched.
It was my mother who taught me the use of sugar in the most unimaginable options like lentils, pulses, vegetables and of course curry! But you would never be able to tell, except for grandma, ma and me who can often trace the absence of this selfless sweetener by the sharp solitary taste of salt. The only time when sugar is not used is while seasoning or marinating poultry perhaps! I imagine this is because sugar refuses to stay in places where its presence is too obviously revealed. Instead, used in the right place and in the right quantity it melts, just like magic dust, irrevocably into the background only to exist as a lingering possibility that soothes the senses. And only one person could validate its existence with complete certainty – the one who cooked it. As for me, I choose to appear conveniently forgetful when a grumpy conventional foodie confronts me with the usual absurd loyalty to salt and a disdain for sugar in every-day meals.
© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013