Sunday, December 21, 2008

Plane food that isn't so plain, after all

At 33,000 feet above sea level, we were–to borrow a line from Singapore Airlines–flying the friendly skies. I didn’t hear any comparisons to any other aunties’ culinary sleight of hand.

Six soft cubes of paneer snuggled in a bed of mildly spiced spinach gravy. We had the option of eating Saag Paneer with a flaky paratha or with vegetable Biriyani topped with toasted raisins, almond slivers and caramelized onion. Or I could dip the paratha in Panchratan dhal, a five-lentil staple of Mughal cuisine. To cool off, I’d finish with the raita in which cucumber had been diced into tapioca-sized pebbles and seasoned with kala namak.

Our children–who are still shopping around for the world’s best Gobi Manchurian–were seated to my right and tucking in fast. They didn’t have time to talk. The paneer critic of the family, our daughter, was digging into the white cubes with no cheesy comments about how underdone or overdone they were. Had this been a product of my kitchen it may have been creamed by her–even if I’d created it from scratch from a recipe by Tarla Dalal.

The way I sauté paneer cubes when I make Mutter Paneer never fails to bring on a saucy dig or two in my kitchen.

“You still haven’t figured it out,” she will say. Then, she will sharpen her knife. “See how Vanitha Aunty does it, she doesn’t toast or sauté the paneer.” Minutes later she will prick me with a poisoned fork. “Why don’t you just ask Vasanthi Aunty?”

Vasanthi Aunty, the mother of a close friend, is second only to Julia Child according to the ruthless Reichl that I gave birth to 18 years ago.

“Vasanthi Aunty makes the best pasta even if the sauce is out of a bottle from Safeway.”

“I guess I’ll just eat dinner at Vasanthi Aunty’s then.”

“Of course you can tell who made it, mom. Vasanthi Aunty.”

I don’t know how this Aunty does it but it seems when Vasanthi Aunty boils water, it always tastes just right.

For the next two weeks, I tell myself, I needn’t fret over critical appraisals of my cooking. The best part about vacation is that the whole family can unite in criticizing someone else’s food. Eating out on a vacation can be such a cementer of relationships.

“Any more coffee or tea, ma’am?” The Jet Airways attendant in a turmeric-colored coat on the San Francicso–Shanghai sector hovers around me, beaming down at my empty tray.

“No, just water for me, thanks!” I say, handing over my tray with a smile.

I tell my daughter to make sure she eats the gulab jamun on her plate. I didn’t believe she would praise it sky-high (surely, it couldn’t beat Vasanthi Aunty’s?) but I want to tell her it feels quite authentic–without making any unnecessary references to any other cook’s jamun. The best jamun tastes of khoya, sweetie, so try it, I say. When my teeth sank into the Jet jamun, I remembered the khoya I once bought at a street stall in Delhi’s Ajmal Khan Road.

You see how our family dinners are turbulent while on the ground and how this meal aboard a plane was an elevating experience.

And just so we can taxi everyone and everything down to the same plane, even the aunty whose name shall go unmentioned for a few weeks could learn a thing or two from Jet Airways’ chefs to heighten her cooking, couldn't she?

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