I’m not sure if the grass is ever greener on the other side, except if you’ve escaped the shroud of pea-soup thick smog that’s taken over Delhi, then the grass here is definitely greener along with the trees and the shrubs. So much so that we’ve been taking pictures of the leaves and sending them back to family in Delhi since the other gal thinks they look fake. It sets you off on a curious tangent to ponder the differences in a place that you don’t notice until someone who spends less time there points them out. At the same time as we are snapping pics of would-be fake plants the Prime Minister of India has dropped a bombshell stamping out would be fake, or black money. The smog thickens…
But that’s not the India I see, I see the culture and connection, the spirituality and ironically a sense of freedom I don’t always see here. I tell the other gal often that one day I’ll make her fall in love with India. But for now, she’s enjoying the freshness of the air in Australia, the broad stretches of white sand and the lapis blue of the waves beneath the summer sunshine. For an hour at a time; because we’ve learnt this week that you pay for parking by the hour at most beaches, not pay by the hour in advance, but literally an hour at a time. So you dry yourself, dust off the sand and pop another five dollars in the meter, or maybe move your car and then go back to the beach…repeat…and herein lies just one of the many reasons why your driver in Delhi is worth their weight in gold.
If there were beaches in Delhi (picture scenes from Bombay), the other gal says it would become a dumping ground (both rubbish and morning defecations) with people selling everything from warm coconuts to hot chai and not a swimsuit to be seen. But at least while you were rummaging enough space to lay down a beach towel, your driver could pop out and pick up your groceries, do a quick stop to get take-away or even run to the chemist and grab any medications you might need. You can literally buy some antibiotics over the counter, one tablet at a time, contrary to when we walked into a chemist here and I was asked for photo ID to buy an everyday painkiller. Really? After photocopies of my licence were duly taken I was given the box of tablets. This type of over governance while funny, often seems quite silly and ultimately time consuming. In India, it’s precisely the lack of governance that has probably gone a long way towards creating some of its many challenges but surely there’s a middle ground somewhere. There you can pick up birth control over the counter, here you need a doctor’s appointment and with many places only open for the same hours that most people are working, it’s a little tricky. That said, I’ll let the irony speak for itself. In the spirit of convenience however, the other day we saw a vending machine in Sydney dispensing Havaiana’s beach thongs for $30 a pair and wondered what’s next.
Every time we get in the car we laugh at the sheer expanse of Sydney, literally everywhere is 60km away and we spend hours chatting and laughing on connecting freeways and endless roads that lay like charcoal ribbons through the sparkling greenery. It takes an hour to get anywhere though we’ve covered great distances. It’s of no concern here to see that a place is 100km away, in Delhi that distance could take the better part of a day. I remember once seeing a sign for Agra that said 183km and thought we’d be there by lunch, but what with the donkeys, auto-rickshaws and rambling cattle I’m sure the sun was setting with the last visitors trickling out of the Taj’s carpark. We laugh at what we would see in India covering that far, here we see expanse and so we get why public transport doesn’t quite hit the spot here; the other day she asked if we get buses along the main road and when I asked if she’d seen one, she replied “I’ve hardly even seen a bus in Sydney.”
Our highly congested all-too-regular traffic jams on occasion resemble Delhi but without the dust and the street-side carts piled high with sweets pressed together open to the wind and pollution. If the residue of firecrackers from Diwali wasn’t enough to fill the air, we hear people are burning piles of cash rather than declare it in India’s latest wave stamping out black money. Yes, the air is cleaner here, but what you see on any given stretch of road in Delhi truly is a feast for the senses.
What Sydney may lack in a sort of unpredictable vibrancy, it makes up for in exactly what is born of it’s expansiveness; a far reaching open sky, clear air and a magnificent coastline that looks like a map from up high. It’s a city that needs time to navigate but here we never seem to have enough to fully enjoy its beauty, in India all we have is time. We love the differences, the personality of each city and laughing over the little comparisons that make you realise that you can’t really compare at all.
Every heartwarming story has its sprinkle of sadness, a dash of masala and a cupful of hope; after spending a casual morning with Masterchef India contestant Rohini Chawla, I see too that her story has all of these ingredients. It was her father who inspired her lifelong connection to cooking along with her decision to join Masterchef and ultimately it was his sudden passing that urged her early withdrawal from the competition. She had come full circle, or so she thought. Today, what she gained through the Masterchef experience only strengthens her beliefs in the food journey she had begun all those years ago standing in the kitchen preparing Sunday lunch with her beloved Dad.
Rohini was born in Delhi and as the daughter of a Lt. Col. in the Indian Army, her family lived in Agra, Jammu, Leh, Kerala and many other cities. When she was 19, she went to pursue her undergraduate studies in New Jersey and a couple years of later her parents also moved to New Jersey. Four years ago she moved back to India with her husband and their son. Now with a young son and a two-year-old daughter, they are based in Gurgaon. “Being an Army kid, travel has been part and parcel of my life and since being married we have travelled around the world. These broad travel experiences have given me so much growth and I want my kids to also experience the same.” Rohini and her family are true foodies and they love going to the little mom and pop shops to pick up the local spices and to taste the real flavors when travelling. “We love to do the touristy things when travelling, but the one thing that is always a must are a few trips to local spice/food shacks and grocery stores to pick up food items to bring back and these are like our prized souvenirs. I like to stay authentic to the cuisines of the region.” This is absolutely one of the themes that comes through when talking about Rohini’s culinary philosophy and it’s this dedication to authentic home cooking that gives Rohini’s food such heart.
We sat down over morning chai and had the chance to ask Rohini a little more about her life, her food journey and hopes beyond Masterchef.
What was your earliest childhood memory around food?
“My earliest memories are two-dimensional, my Mom made us very simple food but when my Dad was home he would love making “fancy” food; he would make samosa’s and mathi’s and sugar coat them so they became little treats, all from scratch. I was in Kindergarten and so vividly still remember him making these delicacies. This is a skill that I appreciate the most about him and feel proud today that I do the same! Even though it may take a lot of time, my style today is to make everything from scratch as much as possible. As tempting as it is when I walk into a grocery store, I refuse to buy anything that is bottled like pasta sauce etc., the concept just doesn’t suit me. From seeing Papa, I’d say this style of soul cooking is very important; like him, I put my soul into the dish from the beginning.”
As a kid were you an adventurous eater?
“No, my love of food came later! I was a fussy eater, though my parents did a great job introducing seasonal food to us. We ate what was cooked, there was never special food that was made to please my brother and I. Now being a mum of two young kids, I let them develop their own taste as I know that ours change as we grow. I load up hidden veggies in dishes so they get what they need but I’m not as strict as my parents were.”
What was your favourite meal growing up?
“Our weekend tradition would start with Friday dinner usually being a slow cooked lamb curry, and then rajma chawal on Sunday’s in our house was always special. This is a wonderful food memory of mine and I love making such food memories with our kids too. Food has a huge connection with family at a lot of levels. Your mind brightens up at the wonderful memories that food sparks.”
You’ve said before that your father inspired your love of cooking, though this is a sensitive subject, do you mind sharing what influence you feel he had?
“I saw my Dad come back from work and still have enthusiasm to be creative with his cooking. He gave a spin to our everyday Indian food. I have enormous admiration that 30 years ago he was creative enough to jazz up the same ingredients and create something interesting. I love this style of cooking; you give me a red and yellow bell pepper and I’ll make it 5 ways. Nothing goes to waste and you get the best out of the food. I’ve spent so many hours with him in the kitchen when he’s cooking and he would always be happy to toil. Some of his favourite dishes were slow-cooked meat stews that would take hours, like his mutton gravy dish, but he was always so patient because he just loved spending time in the kitchen. I have got this patience and commitment to the dish from him. Even today, though I love entertaining, my happiest time is in the kitchen preparing and serving my friends and family the best food I can create. This is what he was known for. At his funeral service, the most heart-warming stories came from people’s experiences sharing times around the table with him.”
What style of cooking do you enjoy best?
“I love baking, things that are quick yet flavoursome like stir-fries and sautés. I cook everything with love. To get the right flavour I will cook exactly how the dish requires it. If there’s a specific kind of cheese in Greek food and I’m cooking Greek, then I will try to use that same cheese and not try to find substitutes. My favourite style of cooking ultimately is that which is true to its origin.”
What made you try out for Masterchef?
Under a chuckle “I still don’t know…a friend first recommended it and I mulled over it for a while, I googled it, thought about it some more and then thought “ok, I’ll give it a try.” I think I entered to get affirmation from the judges to really see how good my cooking is. I thought Masterchef would be a great platform to understand if all the generous comments from family and friends over the years about my cooking is true. It was extremely hard and stressful leaving my family behind, especially my then 17 month old baby. Overall, it sure has been an amazing experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything…”
If you could sum up your Masterchef experience in 3 words, what would you say?
“I’d say inspiring, reassuring and confidence-building.”
What’s the best criticism you received from the judges?
“I think plating-up; my style has always been rustic, organic, free-flowing but there I learnt the art of fine plating. The overload of edible flowers and micro herbs, I learnt how to present food in a style that was different for me.”
Do you feel the experience changed you in any way and if so, how?
“Yes absolutely! It has given me a huge confidence boost. I have received pats on the back and many affirmations on my ability and this confidence is allowing me to take more risks, to be more adventurous with ingredients that I was scared to work with before and say, yes I can do this. In a very positive way, it has given me a purpose; I’ve always loved to cook and entertain but now I can look beyond this to do something more. It has shown me the path that my cooking can take me on and for that I’m very excited.”
What are you most passionate about in terms of your food journey?
“My whole idea is to bring authentic world cuisine to people that is easily replicable at home. We are all busy, we all travel and have full lives but I want people to become smart, to prepare ahead and create authentic dishes from all over the world. If we prepare, we can bring interesting and creative different foods like Middle Eastern and Italian cooking to the everyday. Instead of going out, let’s create these dishes at home. a) It’s made with love; b) It’s healthier and c) I think the family will love it more.”
With such success and your new Masterchef profile, what do you hope to do next?
“I really want to write a book; I want people to start entertaining at home. In India we are all big hearted, we love to entertain but bringing in caterers when we have guests has become the norm. I want to change that. I want people to start cooking at home; when you cook and people enjoy your labour of love, the satisfaction and happiness that this brings is priceless. I want to share easy entertaining recipes, where people think outside of the box, where they prepare ahead and bring wonderful world recipes to life. “
“And one day I want to open a food truck, though there is a lot of red tape here, I’d love to one day make it possible. I’ll have a rotating menu, you’ll find new and different foods to expand your palate, some days there would be all baked goodies, the next day it might be a different world cuisine. I love change and love to express this change through my food.”
If you were to jump ahead 3 years, where do you hope your food journey has taken you?
“I’m still finding my direction, but I hope that people start associating me with the ability to bring world cuisine to them in a very simplified manner. If I can do this, then I’m on the right path.”
What are the personal qualities that make you a great cook?
“Well I’m fun and I think my food also turns out to be fun, in terms of its flavours and the way it is presented. As a warm person, this warmth comes through my food because it brings everyone together, in a happy fuzzy way. I’m also patient with my food preparation and I try to create everything from scratch no matter how long it takes. I don’t mind sacrificing my sleep when it comes to creating a beautiful dish.”
If you were preparing your favourite meal for someone, what would it be?
“This is one of the simplest dishes and the whole family loves it so I would cook Aglio olio spaghetti with basil pesto chicken and now that I have conquered my fear of yeast, a freshly baked bread to go along. This is such a special meal because it’s a dish that all my family loves and my son even helps me pick the fresh basil from our balcony garden and keeps an eye on the spaghetti and my little one can’t wait to slurp up that pasta.”
Rohini’s the kind of girl whose big smile and big heart shines through in everything she does. When she laughs, it’s a big laugh and you can feel the happy place that it comes from. I think cooking is that place because it’s bonded in many ways to her love of family. I imagine her father would be proud; with his flair for making ordinary food extraordinary and his dedication to create beautiful food for his family, when you talk with Rohini, you can feel she shares his heart for this connection. Maybe it’s he who has come full circle.
Under the burning sun rows of school kids walk together, their eager beaming faces smiling at the western tourists who are already hot and sweaty by the time they’ve made it from the car park to the first arched entrance. Actually, if you clamber past the long lines for tickets, the rush of teenagers making out and the occasional dead dog, you’ll be well and truly rewarded with one of India’s most sacred and beautiful effigies to her past. Humayun’s Tomb, or the other Taj as it’s sometimes called, is the breathtaking and stately final resting place for the Emperor, commissioned by his son Akbar 76 years before Agra’s Taj Mahal was built. It may not have the Taj’s snowy white marble facade, but what it lacks in reputation it makes up for with an easy and relaxed welcome.
Maybe because of sheer size or simply because Delhi is so old, with so many chapters to her history, that sadly some monuments get left behind. There are few grand approach-ways or stately entrances, most often you see rough stonework walls that stretch for avenues and curve along the road but when you follow them they’ll take you to wonderful relics of the past. They’ll lead you to the landscaped beauty of the Mogul gardens, symmetrical waterways and noble domes that sit against the backdrop of a pale heated sky and echo the sounds of the adhan. Sitting on the upper stone level of Humayun’s Tomb you see the sprawling gardens, the curved domes of the smaller tombs and Persian spires just barely taller than the canopy of ageing trees. It’s like the mystical story books that told of warrior kings and desert queens from childhood.
Emperor Humayun was the second in the line of Mogul rulers and lived a life well assigned to the pages of a novel. In a nutshell, he inherited the throne as a 23 year old man, opium was his drug of choice and history records the early years of his reign with little aplomb. None of his three brothers supported him as Emperor and years of infighting weakened the kingdom until Humayun was defeated and wandered the deserts remaining in exile in Persia for the next 15 years. In the ultimate comeback, Humayun staged an attack on the rulers of Delhi and regained his empirical status. Sadly, within a year of reconquering India a sudden fall down the stairs of his library cut short his life. He had achieved what he was meant to do, inherited, lost and won an empire all in one life. Thankfully in his palatial tomb his memory and legacy remain.
There’s an enchantment about being in a city full of jewels of the past. To know that empires have been built and fallen around the streets that take you across Delhi is quite something. Out from the jagged lines of concrete houses, vegetable carts and kosam trees, the peak of a worn down stone archway surprisingly appears. There are sandstone and brick tombs standing alongside intersections and busy roundabouts as a wonderful reminder of the many faces that the city has bowed to. Humayun’s Tomb is the resting place for many of the Emperor’s family and to think it sits so quietly and unobtrusively in the centre of the city’s urban hustle creates a beautiful synergy between the old and the New Delhi.
* Adhan: call to prayer
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