If I had to choose a favourite place to be, most days I’d pick in the kitchen with people. My own kitchen, when friends are packed into the nook rather than spreading out into the rest of the house – or my parents’ when everyone is over and attempting to tag team on dinner or brunch and collectively get the cousins fed. But I really love being invited into someone else’s kitchen, especially a person or family with a history of dishes outside my usual repertoire (not that I really have a usual), who have been making certain dishes for years to feed their families, who cook for people so often they have drawers full of portable Corningware to fill and send out the door, like Dilshad and Rozina. (I try to adopt a lot of my friends’ moms, aunts and grandmas.)
Dilshad and Rozina – the mom and aunt of a friend and also sisters who live together with their husbands, who are brothers (how cool is that?) – invited me into their kitchen last year and let me watch them make beef biryani. I’d made chicken biryani before, but not beef – they marinated and braised the meat for hours before I arrived, and then let me poke around and ask questions and watch their process as they warmed the spices in oil, simmered the sauce and made two kinds of rice (Rooster and basmati, if I remember correctly, finished with a drizzle of ghee in the oven) in enormous thin metal pots they brought from Tanzania. They used spice blends they ground themselves in a grinder they bought at a garage sale soon after they arrived in 1988.
The kitchen island was about the size of my kitchen – built to accommodate as many friends and family members as possible at stools around it – but they did the actual cooking in a small spice kitchen, a closet-sized room with an oven, counters and cupboards just off the main kitchen, like a glorified walk-in pantry. That way the mess (and any aromas of oil and spices) would be contained – they could just shut the door and serve their meal in an impeccable kitchen. (I never seem to think of these things. Everyone seems to have a second fridge, but a second kitchen – that would be something.)
Before serving up our biryani – have I mentioned yet that it was one of the most memorable meals I’ve eaten? – Dilshad loaded a plate to bring to the mosque that afternoon for nandi – an Ismaili custom of making a little extra food to auction off to the congregation for charity, which is one of the loveliest ideas I’ve ever heard. What a great way to contribute to your community and ensure everyone eats well.
Like so many great cooks, they don’t measure – they just go by feel, a skill children of good cooks find frustrating when they can never quite recreate a dish no matter how intricately the recipe has been written down. This is why I like to go watch – this recipe comes from my mental notes.