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Cooking Cucumbers and Stirring Memories

Posted Sep 17 2009 2:29am
My mother has always been a consummate cook and house manager par excellence. The parties of our childhood years when the Indian community gathered at our house to sample my mother's cooking is etched indelibly in my mind. I've eaten meals cooked by various people whom we've visited over the years but it is my sincere opinion that none can match her. I feel now that she could've done more with this skill but she chose instead to focus on nourishing her family and enriching the lives of her children with wonderful food and affection. It was perhaps her eager wish that her children excel in these more basic aspects of life, not just in the academic area.

None of us children particularly showed interest in household chores. She waited with quiet patience for me to evince some interest in the kitchen and when that was not forthcoming she felt compelled to force-feed these skills to me. She started by calling me in one lovely summer evening when we kids were out at play. That day, I was a reluctant pupil to say the least. Indeed, which young teenager these days would agree to spend time sweating in a hot kitchen? In today's context, I would've been quite young to have started cooking. Certainly, seeing my sisters-in-law, I feel perhaps I was. However, I remember how my mother told me that though I was upset at the moment, I certainly would appreciate that she forced me into this, sometime in the future. At the time, my gratitude must've been wishful thinking on her part. But I really am grateful ... I deeply appreciate what she did because she taught me to manage a household on my own. By the time I married, I'd become pretty efficient in the kitchen, facing none of the adjustment problems girls today experience. I'd learnt pretty well how to organize the household chores and had developed it into a skill, and I've never served burnt food to anyone in my family, thanks to my mother's initiative.

Maybe such training in the kitchen was not required. That's just an observation on hindsight. I did not expect a tiny family for the most part to feature into my future. And certainly not diabetes. Cooking is just an hour's work at the most for me now. Planning is almost nonexistent, except in terms of carbohydrate intake and calorie count. Diabetes has forced changes into our lives so much so that no longer do I make full course meals. Nor do I make a lot of traditional food because I've found it doesn't work out well, unless I modify it. Perhaps girls like my sisters-in-law have gone about their lives the right way after all, filling their teen years with fun and frolic, leaving house management to be learnt only on an as-needed basis. Besides, technology is at our fingertips, so we don't really need to spend so much time and muscle power kneading that dough or chopping up those vegetables. Drop ingredients into a food processor (I don't own one; I'm still old-fashioned) and it's done for you. The only skills you need are putting it all together and then eating it all up.

My skills have more or less deteriorated from lack of use. During those drowsy weekends that are deplorably getting more and more frequent, a blanket of laziness and ennui engulfs me until noon (my saving grace I guess is that so far I've never slept in till noon), when I turn to my small long-suffering family and inquire as to what I should make for lunch ... as if there'd be time enough by then to make anything elaborate! That's what my informal management education has been reduced to. If you were to ask me ABBA style, "Does your mother know?" I would only have to shamefacedly pray she doesn't find out how much I've degenerated.

In case you're wondering, the dish in question, which on that lovely summer evening started my culinary journey, did not quite turn out the way it should have, with some burning of the tempered ingredients and a bit too much water added, but in the end it was tolerably edible. I made it from scratch, with my mother keeping her distance, only directing me now and then as to the steps of the procedure. I learnt to tame the domestic fire that evening and came out unscathed.

Coming to the present, it appears that it no longer matters where you are stationed in India, or anywhere in the world for that matter. Vegetables, once native to one place, are now available in most places at some point or other. A particular kind of cucumber, which is eaten only after being cooked, was previously found only in the south. It is three to four times larger than the salad cucumber, and is more yellowish in color. In Bangalore, it is called the Mangalore cucumber. Someone told me that in Mangalore one can just call it cucumber (or southekaayi in their local parlance) and people know what you mean. Not having sampled this for a really long time, I was pleased to recently find this vegetable in the city where I live. No longer do I need to wait until I make a trip down south to relish dishes made of it.

This particular kind of cucumber was never my particular favorite as a child, maybe because of its abundant use down south. It doesn't have a strong flavor, partly because it is mostly composed of water like its more slender cousin. In large families, where food needs to be prepare on a larger scale, this vegetable can be added with other veggies for more bulk, without altering the taste too much. Now, however, it makes a delightful variation to the usual things I cook.

So that one lovely summer evening, so many years ago, this is the dish I had made at behest of my mother.

You'll need one medium-sized Mangalore cucumber. Halve it in the middle width-wise, halve the halves again lengthwise, then cut each resulting quarters lengthwise into inch-wide strips. Remove the seedy portion that is present at the center. Slice the strips width-wise into 3-4 mm thick pieces. They should all be as equally thick as possible as they need to cook evenly. Also, slicing them too thin can melt the flesh away when cooking; too thick and they take too long to cook.

In a flat-bottomed pan, heat a teaspoon of oil (use only the simmer option of the stove) and crackle half a teaspoon of mustard seeds. Add half a teaspoon of urad dal and stir till it turns a gold color. Add a fistful of curry leaves and stir some more. Then add the sliced cucumber pieces, stirring a bit. Cover this and allow this to cook a bit in its own juices. Sprinkle some water in the beginning if you feel the vegetable sticks to the pan.

The cucumber gives out water and shrivels a bit. Go ahead and add requisite salt and chilli powder at this stage as you now have an idea of the quantity of the vegetable.

Cover and cook in its own juices as much as possible.
Stir it now and then to even out the heat distribution.

The cucumber is fully cooked when the white opaque flesh turns fully translucent. If water is needed, sprinkle some now and then.

Once done, garnish with grated coconut and serve hot with rice and rasam/dal.

This is my entry to the IFR: Memories event hosted by Manisha at Indian Food Rocks.

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