Some years ago, my wife and I shifted to our present house near the beach. It’s some distance from Mangalore city, and we had trouble finding domestic help from the day we moved in here: we had to fend for ourselves, and we began to share household chores. As a result, I started learning to cook, something I’d put off for a quarter-century. I have since learned to fend for myself, and even enjoy cooking sometimes, to the extent that my wife can take a month-long holiday, leaving me to take care of the house and our pets.
But this is the story of why I put off learning to cook.
The year was 1989, the place Melbourne. I was unmarried, and had a small flat a few hundred metres from the beach, and, being a programmer, worked from home. That meant, unfortunately, that I also ate at home. Given a kitchen, I could produce only tea (bags please), coffee (instant), boiled eggs, and, after I learned to use a knife without cutting off a finger or two, rudimentary salads.
I struck up an acquaintanceship with a neighbour, a Greek called George. Over the weeks, he became my friend, guide, and confidant. And so, when I confessed to him a month after we met that I often missed spicy Indian food, he told me of the only Indian restaurant he knew: one in Flinders Street run by ISKCON. I had lunch there next afternoon, and discovered that its food was Indian but bland, being intended for Australian palates.
George then took me to a suburb called Dingley, and a warehouse full of foods from all over the subcontinent. So I stocked up on rice and spices from Punjab and coconut oil from Sri Lanka and papad — pappadam, actually — from Kerala. and, one day shortly after, decided to try my hand at cooking lunch. Being a lover of pappadam in all forms, I thought I’d start with deep-frying some.
I’d never done it before, but I’d seen my mother at it often. She used to heat oil in a wok, drop a pappadam into the oil, wait for it to cook, and fish it out with what was called in Malayalam a pappadam-stick, a stiff wire with a point at one end and a bulb-shaped wooden handle at the other.
I didn’t have a pappadam-stick, but a barbecue skewer instead, a stiff wire with a point at one end and a ring at the other. The first pappadam came out fine, and as I ate it I dropped the next in the oil, and then the next. Just when I was done with the third, though, the phone rang, and I went to answer it, leaving the skewer in the oil.
I came back to the kitchen after a twenty-minute chat with a client, thinking I’d continue with the pappadams, and picked up the skewer, burning my finger and thumb. With a loud yell of pain, I dropped the skewer on my foot, and, naturally, let out another, louder yell. So when George, who heard the second yell, came running to investigate, he found me nursing small burns on my finger and thumb, and a three-inch-long one on my right foot. The burns on the hand were minor, but the one on the foot looked nasty: nasty enough for George to insist that I went to a doctor.
The doctor, who, like all doctors, had no qualms about prying into the private lives of his patients, asked how I got the burn. When I told him, he managed to disguise his laughter as a cough. But when I was leaving, he grinned, telling me that I’d made his day.
A few weeks later, I felt a strong urge to eat meat, cooked Indian-style. I called up a Malayali friend, got a recipe and some recommendations on what kind of meat to buy at the supermarket: go for the best, and since it lasts in the freezer, buy a large cut. That evening, I bought a two-kilo chunk of meat along with my regular groceries. George popped in to invite me home as I was putting away my purchases, so I put the meat in the freezer and went over to his place.
Next morning I took the meat out, thinking I’d cut off a bit to cook for lunch: my Malayali friend had instructed not to thaw meat out and put it back in the freezer without cooking it, and I didn’t have a cooking pot big enough to hold all the meat I’d bought. That was when I discovered how hard frozen meat gets. None of the knives in the kitchen made the slightest impression on it. By now it had become a matter of honour (how could a frozen lump of meat get the better of me!?) so I cleaned a chisel and tried to hammer a little lump off the big lump. The handle broke at the third blow. I considered borrowing George’s chainsaw to cut it but gave up the idea because George was out.
That left me no choice. I thawed out the whole lump of meat and cooked it in two rounds. Both rounds tasted terrible. I ate all of it because, like I said, it had become a matter of honour. And, honour intact, I decided to give up cooking, a decision I reversed only a quarter-century afterwards. Now that I’m old and my honour is in tatters anyway, here’s some advice for bachelors: learn to cook. It’s a useful skill, and if you’re willing to forgive yourself a few mistakes, it can be a lot of fun.
And when you buy a large lump of meat, cut it up before you put it in the freezer!
Shashi Warrier has written fairy tales, thrillers, a semi-fictional biography, satires, and a love story. Besides writing, he teaches strategic communication at a business school....