Saturday, 4 December 2010

Larders and Pantries

So, my friend Dea Chan and I used mourn the passing of the pantry, of large flats or houses which had enough room for extra food, and how people our age -- especially significant others -- seemed to subscribe to the 'buy enough for today and tomorrow we can eat out' philosophy. But beyond those chats, I didn't give pantries much thought. Mainly because my significant other, from an older and more sensible generation, was brought up on well-stocked larders and believed in continuing the tradition.

He also believed in making me swallow green beans and broccoli and white fish (I'm used to sweetwater/rive fish and fresh, organic vegetables, and their American counterparts hold little appeal), insisting I make a good healthy daal every now and then, tempting me to breakfast (I tend to skip breakfasts) with a delicious cheesy eggs-on-ham, having cook-offs to establish recipe-authenticity, keeping ham, bacon and lettuce and home-made meat sauce at hand, so that when hunger pangs struck, he could whip up a toasted sandwich or a steaming dish of pasta to keep the "greasy and expensive" home-deliveries at bay. Also, he introduced me to clam chowder, Mexican food and stuffed turkeys, cooked me (and his family) five-course Christmas supper from scratch, showed me how to make strawberry shortcakes, a French dressing with three ingredients, and whip up yummy nutty-creamy-caramely desserts in minutes.

I loved that man.

Anyway, but the point is, between home and my offshore love, I took stocking food completely for granted. But now that my chum Dea has finally made her pantry list (and it's a great list, rice and lentils and beans. Her doctor would be proud of her), I'm beginning to realise how different food-storage is across the oceans. Back in Boston, even when the snow was cleared regularly and the supermarket was a seven minute drive away, my aforementioned sweetheart would still stock his deep fridge (freezer) with steaks, chicken breasts, pork chops, bacon, sausages, prawns, and other unnamed (to me, anyway) cuts of the pig, cow and fowl. He'd also have packets of peas and corn (bhutta, seeds separated from the cob) in there, plus tins of refried beans, several kinds of soups, gravy, and vegetables in shelves.

Everything else was fine--and I was grateful he didn't have to make gravy every time we ate pork chops or roasted birds--but tinned vegetables are awful! Except tomatoes. Tinned tomatoes make a perfect and MUCH cheaper substitute for fresh tomatoes in pasta sauces.

Plus his fridge was always chockful of butter, several kinds of cheese (extra sharp cheddar and grated parmesan, esp.), an enormous variety of sauces that I'd never even seen before, pastries, bagels and croissants he picked up at the supermarket's in-house bakery, plus chocolate and caramel sauce, whipped cream, milk, half and half, at least four kinds of ice-cream, and ye gods, ketchup (yes, I despise ketchup, thank you). Of these, my Indian fridge has a small 100gm slab of butter, and a half litre pack of whole milk. In the US, a supermarket pack of extra sharp cheddar might have found space.

And that's not even going into non-perishables like rice, beans and lentils. In the one and three-fourths year we were together, he had to buy rice once. Once. I think the distant memory of harsh winters and self-preservatory winter-hoarding instincts are encoded into western genes. Just like the self-preservatory instincts of not having heat-rotted food inside the homestead is encoded into tropical genes. Nothing else explains the compulsion to buy just enough food to last short periods, in this day and age of fridges and vegetable crispers and deep fridges.
For example, in a small family like ours, we get our groceries by the month, delivered from our local grocery shop (which does NOT sell fruit juice, sweets or chocolates, toys, greetings cards, dairy products, meat or produce). The usual list includes:
  • rice, parboiled (5-6 kilos), kaljeera/gobindobhog (500-700 gms), basmati (500 gms).
  • mushur daal (500-700 gms). For list of staple daals, see this.
  • moog daal -- the preparating is 'richer', therefore eaten less frequently (250 gms).
  • atta or wheat flour (2 kgs)
  • moida or refined/all-purpose flour (1 kg)
  • sunflower oil (1 ltr)
  • mustard oil (2 ltrs)
  • sugar (1 kg)
Plus every alternate month we would replenish our stock of regular spices (cumin, coriander, nigella seeds, fennel seeds, garam masala...) and more exotic ones (mace, nutmeg, shahi jeera etc), along with less frequently eaten staples, like kidney beans or raajma, semolina or shooji, chholar daal or split chickpeas, gota moog or mung beans, kolai and biulir daal, and so on, and so forth. Earlier, dry fruits, butter and ghee was a monthly staple too, but given the current fragility of our collective healths, we're lucky if we see 100gms of butter finished in two months. Dry fruits are only bought if there's an explicit plan for payesh (rich, creamy rice pudding) or polau or mixed chutney.

Vegetables and fish are bought every Saturday from the local bazaars and eaten through the week. A sample from last Saturday's bazaar-list: potatoes, onions (we only get pungent reds), green chilies, ginger, one small garlic, two cauliflowers, two small brinjals, the leaves of the fenugreek plant (methir shaak, delicious!), red edible leaves (laal shaak), five or six bitter gourds, a bunch of radishes, one slice of a sunshine-yellow pumpkin, and one slice of aeNchor, the English name of which escapes me. Unripe jackfruit, I think. Then we bought 600 gms of rui machh (a kind of river carp), a fistful of living tyangra machh, and 500 gms of chicken -- slaughtered and plucked right in front of us. Then on Sunday my mother had 500gms of apples, four bananas, and the last batches of musambi (sweet limes) delivered to our home.

So I suppose the actual content of the pantry (I eat far more vegetables, and of greater variety, at home than I ever did in the US) apart, the shopping process is also vastly different. Things are much more... ordered and controlled abroad. And clinical. There's no clamouring, bargaining, no temporary fruit shack on the footpath, no possibility if getting a fish head from a supermarket, and certainly no sqwaking chickens being beheaded swiftly in a spray of blood and feathers.

And now that I write that sentence, I think I know why so many Indians are vegetarians.


Sachinky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sachinky said...

You make it sound like the two of you are no longer together ("loved," "were together") -- why so? Your boyfriend definitely sounds like a keeper!

Anyway, now I will go and replenish my unstocked pantry.

therapy said...

Yeah, I've never been able to watch the chicken slaughtering either. Makes me want my blanket.

Dea-chan said...

Hmm, an interesting post on the cultural associations of pantries. I DID love our discussions about how awesome they were. :-P

I think L, you and I all approved of pantries because not only have we been dirt-poor at times in our lives, but we also had to COOK at those times (unlike Mister).

All of your veggies sound so tasty. I almost never get cauliflower, because I have a habit of going "oh I haven't had this in a while" and let it go bad because I didn't have a plan for it. :-P

Rimi said...

Sachinky--oh, he's a keeper all right. But he's an American who lives in his native land, and I'm an Indian who does likewise. Ergo :)

N--oddly, by the second chicken, I could stand it if I averted my face at the actual moment of beheading.

T--you know what, of ALL the things I miss about food in the US (great meat, great dairy products, easy availability of international ingredients) I do NOT miss vegetables the most. I just cannot stand American supermarket vegetables -- and I know they're not your favourites either. If you want really tasty vegetables, come to the tropics :-)

Rimi said...

Oh and the poverty theory is definitely rings true, but here's why I think it's very generation and culture specific:

L and I, plus my mother and I, were having a conversation about this post and mentioned poverty, and both of them were astounded. They -- and I too, I think -- associate a full larder/fridge and pantry with wealth or at least middle-class comfort. To have more food than you need right away showed you didn't have you live a hand-to-mouth existence.

Also, I just realised this: regular eating-outs is kind of looked down upon in India--young people who do it get a LOT of grief from their families. It's like, there's something wrong with your household if you have to get your meals outside. And I find L. and his buddies share the feeling. Eating out is ceremonial for them -- to celebrate something, say -- or a fall-back plan at the end of a long day, maybe. I never got the feeling L. or his two friends I saw pretty often shared my idea that eating out was fun, and cooking at home was work.

Oh well. Like I said, different generations AND different cultures.

Sachinky said...

Oh, so you finished your M.A./PhD and returned home? I thought you were still studying in Boston -- just visiting Calcutta for a while.
Sorry to hear things didn't work out.

Is true, if I had a well-stocked pantry, maybe we wouldn't have to eat out as often as we do. Plus, we're lazy and hate doing dishes.

panu said...

mone aachhe anek anek din aage ami toder sabaike noncook aar cantcook e pantry te ki ki rakha uchit pathiyechhilam??

kirokom mone pore gelo.

Clarissa said...

"I do NOT miss vegetables the most. I just cannot stand American supermarket vegetables"

-That's so true! They look and taste like plastic, more often than not. Which is sad because I can't live without fresh vegetables. In the summer, we have a farmer's market in our town, but it is closed between October and June.