Let’s eat together

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on April 03, 2020

Calamity and the kitchen The Covid-19 outbreak plunged food blogs and newsletters in gloom   -  smolaw11

As the world learns to live under lockdown, the kitchen is where it still looks for comfort

In this strange time of disappointments and dissolving certainties, there is one thing that we know for sure: We all have to eat. As a result, those of us who are stuck with the job of getting meals on the table also have to plot. And try to conjure up dishes that are, if not Instagram art, at least palatable.

So what if viruses and lathi-wielding policemen are lying in wait when you leave the house for chicken and rice? So what if the shops are shut and the fruitwala’s phone is out of service range? We still have to ensure there is more than just cauliflower bhaji for the cauliflower-phobe. That cheese-toast is not force-fed to the lactose intolerant. And that the frivolous lemon berry yoghurt cake does not use up every ounce of butter in the fridge. All this while knowing that — even while we grouse about feeding a family without help and without our favourite brand of pasta — we are the lucky ones.

Naturally, then, food has become a bit of a preoccupation in these days of depleted shelves, curfews and quarantine. It is a chore and a pain, certainly. But it is also an unexpected source of conversation and community.

The news stories from distant cities bring to mind old acquaintances. Ever so often, I dash to the computer to start email conversations after decades of silence. Friends call from faraway places. A Turkish policeman, who helped when we were pickpocketed in Istanbul two long years ago, writes to ask if we are fine. And — perhaps because it’s one of the few topics that doesn’t involve terrifying statistics and dashed plans — we inevitably meander towards the food aisles. And end up chatting about beans and eggs and butterscotch cookies. The Turkish cop writes that as restaurants are shut in Istanbul, he’s learnt how to stir-fry mushrooms and bell pepper as a topping for fried eggs. A musician we know sends across photographs of his grocery store in rural France — which makes Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard look like a veritable treasure trove in comparison.

Our British friends say that they’ve just made a Thai curry with aubergines and pineapples and are about to make Indian daal for dinner. My friend in New Jersey doesn’t know whether to giggle or groan when she describes her recent sorties to the neighbourhood grocery store. “Can you imagine,” she says. “I walked into Target and empty, empty shelves. Who would have imagined that you’d have to stock up in a country like America!”

Many people clearly did.

I’m an ardent reader of food blogs and newsletters from around the world. And it was about three weeks ago that I noticed that the focus had shifted from deliciousness to doom. Suddenly, pieces about churros with strawberry sauce were replaced by articles with titles such as How to Prepare Your Home and Kitchen for Coronavirus. (Lots and lots of dried beans and canned tomatoes, apparently.)

Then the lockdowns began, and anxiety was replaced by frenetic activity. Wherever you looked, there were elaborate cooking projects to conquer boredom and depression. Salted maple peas, macarons, cakes that had more layers than WhatsApp has rumours. Special coronavirus cookery shows, and online classes demonstrating the esoteric likes of ancho salmon with corn relish and avocado rice. Hashtags in the ilk of #bakeyourmindoffit and #letscookthroughthis. Newspapers offering recipes for stress baking and so on.

In my mind’s eye, I imagined entire continents stirring and slicing and keeping calm in kitchens redolent with the aroma of cinnamon and cooking apple. All very cosy and appealing, but also unrealistic.

When my daughters’ school closed about 10 days ago, I decided to join this icing-slicing movement. On that first janata curfew, we actually did bake the lemon berry yoghurt cake that used up half our butter. But, as the reality of a 21-day-long lockdown sinks in, I’ve figured that ‘distractibaking’ is not for us.

First, we don’t have enough butter. Second, we don’t need distractions. There’s just too much else to do. Online school. Sweeping the house. Checking the dismal statistics.

Suddenly, the wider food mood has changed from exacting to forgiving. In his quarantine-cooking show called Keep Cooking and Carry On, Jamie Oliver actually assured his audiences that they could cobble together a passable meal even if their pantry lacked — gasp! — filo pastry and pine nuts. It was uncharacteristically understanding of the TV chef.

So what now? Some practical souls are suggesting ways to use up those sacks of dried beans and cans of tomato. While others are advocating “gentle foods” — warm, brothy, velvety fare that is as comforting as a blanket. Steamed eggs. Mushy khichdi. Simple Japanese hotpots. Which sounds lovely till you figure that these dishes require Japanese step pots, egg steamers and curry bricks — not the stuff you can organise in the middle of a lockdown.

So gentle foods don’t help. Nor does ‘distracticooking’.

What helps is the realisation that while we are isolated, we aren’t alone. That like us, there is a great big planet out there, battling fear and confusion. And that with every meal we get on the table, we are doing our bit to bring order to our disordered world.

Shortbread biscuits


  • 250g flour
  • 150g sugar
  • 200g butter
  • Salt


  • Heat oven to 180°C.
  • Mix flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Then add the butter and beat with a handheld mixer till the dough has the consistency of fat crumbs.
  • Press the dough into an even layer in a 9­inch baking pan and poke all over with a fork.
  • Then bake till golden brown, about 40 to 45 minutes. When it cools, cut into bars.
  • To pep the biscuits up, check what you have on hand. A few spoons of toasted nuts or seeds. Some lemon rind, cinnamon powder or an old bar of Dairy Milk that you break up into bits. Mix them into the dough before baking, Or just dust the basic biscuits with powdered sugar and serve.


Shabnam Minwalla   -  BUSINESS LINE

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author

Published on April 03, 2020

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