This is something I wrote for a website called Chillibreeze. Sometimes, you write from the heart. This brought back many, many memories.
I grew up in a house with two kitchens – a big one where my mother and our long-time maid Sowmini, made breakfast and dinner, and a little one where the maid cooked our afternoon staple of rice on a fire of wood shingles.
Even as a small girl, it was the smoke-filled, soot-encrusted ‘rice’ kitchen I really loved. For, that was where Sowmini would roast cashew nuts. She would throw the nuts on the logs and tell the eager brown-faced girl near her to wait patiently. Soon enough, I would hear a telltale hiss, a sign that the nut oil had seeped into the wood. A few more minutes of mouthwatering anticipation and I would have a handful of coarsely blackened cashew nuts to carefully crack open and crunch on.
Cooking with wood comes naturally to Sowmini because that is everyday reality for her. My family is not rich. We have always gotten by more or less comfortably. But our maid is one of a faceless category that has its life and lifestyle analysed threadbare in reports on why the poor remain poor. These reports will tell you that our maid, along with two billion other people around the world “rely on wood and charcoal for cooking fuel.”
Sowmini is also a minuscule decimal point in another category – the 60 per cent of India’s rural population, which according to one study, uses up some 200 million tons of biomass a year cooking “on primitive woodstoves.” She and people like her now have non government organizations (NGOs) telling them their wood fires eat into our diminishing resources and worse, adds to climate change.
So, she and the nameless others are asked to change their lifestyle and instead, opt for clean, smoke-free and environment-friendly solar cookers. The NGO that says this is ready to provide the cookers too. Another NGO says forget the cookers, hybrid wood-gas cooking stoves are better than anything else by far.
Actually, I think Sowmini would be open to these ideas. She studied up to the second grade, but has a brain that works faster than an Intel Pentium 4. She is 50-plus but passes for 30 because she eats healthy – she cannot afford junk food, and walks a lot or takes the bus. Her home is well ventilated because for a long time, it only had a thatched roof and no doors.
The NGOs that want our Sowminis to change are, however, silent on the newest fashion in the richer world: wood fires in up market restaurants. Foodies across the globe now expound lengthily on this trend and gush unceasingly on the myriad flavours the wood fires impart to food.
Sowmini has never been to such restaurants. Neither have I and probably never will. Because no matter how delightful the ambiance, or how wonderfully ‘hot’ the haute cuisine, the experience will probably pall beside that half-remembered joy of eating the blackened cashews a faceless woman lovingly roasted on a wood fire for a little girl, many years ago.