Ever wonder what gives Indian cuisine that kick-ass punch?
Hop over to some blog posts on story and food: What’s whey’n on your mind, Samosas’n story telling, Mocha, mousses and mayhem, Writing’f roti, 2 secrets to strawberries and sweet reads, Rush for roti.
Welcome to my masala box! An eight-piece spice rack that graces almost every Indian household. (It’s actually ten-pieces if you count the flat steel plate that slides on top (to prevent the spices from mixing) and the lid. What’s unique about this portable spice holder is you can carry all the spices in one hand and sprinkle with the other. The masala box is also dish-washer proof, unbreakable because it’s made of stainless steel and holds the basic spices I use in every (almost every) curry.
Ready for a tour?
At 12 o’clock you’ll see red chilli powder.
At 2 o’clock we have ‘umchoor’ powder, unripened mango (lemony flavor).
At 4 and 6 o’clock there’s ‘dhaniya’, ground coriander seeds.
At 7 o’clock we have ‘haldi’ or turmeric powder.
At 11 o’clock we have ‘rai’, mustard seeds.
In the center you’ll see ‘jeera’, cumin seeds.
Now, you’re probably wondering why ‘dhaniya’ gets a double dose. If you’re not, now’s a good time to wonder. The heart of the matter lies in ratios (not strictly set) which dictate how much of one spice you use in proportion to the others.
Let’s say I’m creating a curry to serve four people. I usually start by flavoring the oil with fresh, cut-green chillis, grated ginger and ‘jeera’ or ‘rai’. Then I toss in the tough veggies (ones which need a lot of cooking like potatoes, green beans and cauliflower), sprinkle some salt, a pinch of ‘haldi’ and allow the vegetables to cook on a low to medium flame.
So why only a pinch of haldi you ask. Turmeric is bold. A dash will color the food bright yellow and add flavor. But too much and the curry will turn bitter. Trust me on this. I speak from a trail of trial and errors. Then of course, there’s ‘umchoor’ powder – you add anywhere from one quarter to one-third of a teaspoon after the curry is complete, just enough to give the dish a slight tartness.
For someone who’s been cooking for over 30 years (including the prep and clean-up after!!), I’ve learned the art of cooking runs parallel to storytelling. The end product is the story you’re dying to tell, but how effectively you relay the story depends on the culmination of spices you use to flavor the tale.
Like ‘jeera’ or ‘rai’, my primary and secondary characters are central to the story and sit bang in the middle. They don’t just flavor the oil, they are the foundation, the set-up. Red chilli powder is like my leading character’s goals and motivation – the initial layer of spice on which the story rests. Mess this up and my foundation cracks. ‘Dhaniya’ powder is like the plot (conflict) that kicks in proportionate to the protagonist’s want or desire and her desperation to achieve it. The conflict must always be more than my leading character can handle or how will she rise to the occasion? Haldi (yellow turmeric) gives story the ambience and color. I use it in tiny amounts and sprinkle more in later as and only when needed – like the story world I create. Put in too much and I lose the reader. Then comes ‘umchoor’ –the lemony powder – which is equivalent to the loose ends and subplots which must tie up nicely at the end. Umchoor is not central to the story but it adds that final zing! And just like there are exceptions to every rule (writing included) so it goes with spices too.
I vary how much spice I use depending on the veggies and curry I’m cooking. Whether it’s bell peppers stuffed with paneer, shahi aloo or mutter paneer.
So too goes with storytelling. You may work with a formula or tried and tested theory but the best stories are organic (I know, I know – that was totally unintentional!). My stories spring from my characters. Try to apply a formula of masalas like I did with another dish and it won’t work. Every time I cook I must work with a new balance of spices based on the vegetable’s texture, taste and absorption. So too the story revolves around the character.
But there’s one spice my masala box cannot hold. One spice without which all the others are useless. Here’s the remaining array of spices in my kitchen cupboard.
Can you guess?
Salt is the all-time bad-ass spice. The one and only that brings out the flavor of all the other spices and of any food. I can manage, substitute and scrape by without the others but never without salt. Like backstory, salt is invisible, never has an immediate presence but a distant feel and yet it’s paramount to the dish. Without backstory, the truth is you really don’t have story.
I’ve often heard the saying to ‘sprinkle salt on your wounds’. Ever think about sprinkling some on your character’s wounds? Give it a try and see him/her jump. Put him through the rough patches, force him to cross hurdles, dip him in boiling water and see if he survives to tell the tale. Then you know how tough your character really is.
Which is why I always push my characters (yes, all of them) to the limit – so they can tell their tale and give their own unique flavor to story.
So what’s your secret spice to storytelling?