Monday, August 22, 2011

Shooting pictures for my book - Memorable moments

That perfect moment!
My HT Column this month was inspired by Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara. In it I said that everyone has a retirement plan, including me. But losing someone I loved last year taught me that there are no guarantees. There are no guarantees that our retirement plan will synchronize with fate’s designs for us. So in line with the thoughts of that column I want to share with you another life’s experience. If you have a recipe of your moms you have always meant to write down or a dish your grandmother cooks that you have wanted to learn, do it, NOW, don’t push it off to another day.

My words came home to me a few days later while I was shooting the pictures for my book. My Mumbai Cookbook is a memoir though which I explore the cook I am today. It travels through my culinary journey from childhood to today. Writing a book, especially the kind of book I am writing is a journey. And like all journeys, each step you take, changes you. You break into guffaws at 4 in the morning when you write a funny line, you melt into tears in the middle of the day when a sad memory leaves translates into words on your screen. By the time you are done, you feel like you have given birth and in a way you have because writing a book is just like having a baby only more drawn out.  

I thought I was done with the emotional upheavals of the journey when I completed the writing of the manuscript. I was wrong. Last week I had the most memorable two moments of my book writing journey.

On the first day of shooting, I shot for the chapter on my Nani. We loved going to Nani's house as children. "Nanis" (maternal grandmothers) are an institution in India. In part I think this has to do with the fact that we live with our "Dadi" (paternal grandmothers) whereas we go on short visits to our Nani. Visits usually filled with indulgence, love and very little disciplining, (unless we did something really bad!). It was no different for me where my Nani was concerned. My Nani is also a phenomenal cook who taught herself modern ‘English’ cooking and I feel that I inherited my sense of culinary adventure from her. Today, when I taste a dish and figure out what has gone into it just by tasting it and then recreate it from instinct I have her to thank for it.

She has also been terrible ill off late and the day of the shoot would be trying for her. So I had planned to have her teach me how to make a signature recipe of she learnt from her mother. Teliya Bataka. This is kind of an instant pickle in which mustard is rubbed with water until it is frothy and smelling pungent. Cooked potatoes are then added to the mix along with oil, turmeric and salt. A simple recipe but as Nani guided my hands, with her fragile but strong grip, my mother sitting on the other side, a sudden silence seemed to decend on the room and the light seemed to change. All of a sudden, Mrigank, started clicking away furiously, mumbling yes, yes, perfect! A minute or so later he was done and I got the most perfect shots with my grandmother ever! I will never forget the feeling of Nani’s hand on mine, her instructions in my ear, the grainy wet mustard against my fingers, the cold steel of the plate and the pungent smell rising to my nose.

My mother always said that I should do my best and leave the rest to God. It is advice I have followed diligently in every task I have undertaken. I do think God was looking down on us in that moment...

The other memorable moment took place on the last day of the shoot, we were shooting the last shot of the day. A Spinach soup that was my fathers favourite dish made by me. It was one of the things I used to make in my early days of cooking exploration. His last words to me before he died were about how much he loved that soup. I had made it once when I was stuck writing the chapter on him. But I could not bring myself to serve it up and used it to make Palak Paneer instead.

The day of the shoot I remember pushing it to the end of the shoot anticipating it would be the HARDEST to shot to style, after all it is nothing but a bowl of dark green liquid. But it wasn’t! In seconds Mrigank had the angle and light he wanted and called me to garnish it. And the cream slid off the spoon and onto the bowl in so perfect a swirl I had to tease it with a toothpick to make it look natural. As I placed slivers of onion on with a tweezer as a final touch, my hand didn’t shake for even a second. My sister Neha and I have talked about how we have felt Papa’s presence around us sometimes. And that day I knew my father was with me in that room, guiding me at that moment.

That night after 15 years of being together my husband and son tasted that Spinach soup my father loved for the first time. And they loved it. My husband and father met just once before he died but that day I could envision Dad at the table with us sipping that soup alongside his son-in-law and grandson.

I have a dedications page in my book. But there are a few people I need to thank just now for helping me along on this journey. My family, of course, for putting aside their lives to write down recipes and pose for my shoots. And Pinky Chandan Dixit of Soam who has always stood behind me with her full support in every endeavour.

But most importantly, at this moment I would like to thank Mrigank Sharma who came into my life as a food photographer and stayed to become one of my closest friends. I know that he will hate me for this but, Mrigank, Thank you, for giving me this week from your life to translate my ideas into visuals so beautifully, and the idlis and samosas and for shaving on the last day so I could get that behind the scenes picture of you! You are a special person and I am glad we are friends! 

To the rest of you reading this blog. Grab the present with both hands. Do those things you always mean to do but end up putting off for later. Life won't give us another chance. Cook that dish, document those recipes, keep those promises to yourslef and those you love!

Nani’s Teliya Bataka
What is especially beloved about this recipe is that my Nani learned it from her mother, who loved to make instant pickles. Guests would be served an array of instant pickles including a raw Okra one.

500 g Potatoes - cooked, peeled and cut into chunks
3 tbsp / 45g oil
2 tbsp/30g Split mustard seeds, powdered
½ tsp / 2g Asafoetida
½ tsp/ 2g Turmeric powder
8 tbsp/200ml water
Salt to taste

In a flat plate or wide bowl, combine water, oil and powdered mustard. Using your hands, rub it well against the plate until frothy and your hands are tingly. Add the Asafoetida and turmeric to the mix and stir well. Add potatoes and mix thoroughly. Allow to sit for one hour before serving cold or at room temperature.

The Teliya Bataka (Mustard Potatoes)

Shooting Nani's Chundo

Nanis Faraali Khandvi for fasting days made with buttermilk and arrarot.

Papa's Spinach soup

That perfect swirl!

All set!

Mrigank doing what he does best!

GYAAN and links

The first of my columns "SPICE ROUTE" in Hindustan Times. It will appear on the first Sunday of every month. Please do read. 

Mrigank Sharma's website

1 comment:

Mrigank Sharma said...


In today's fast paced life, good friends like you are a rare commodity. Therefore when the time came for me to reciprocate for all the fun times me and my associates had in your house on your previous photoshoots, there was no way I would have said NO to your own book's photoshoot. Specially after knowing how important a milestone it is to you. Also you were the one who pushed me in taking up food photography when we were mostly into Interior & Architecture photography. You have put it in words so beautifully, while I have tired to convey my 'Thank You' with the images for your book.

On a personal level, your Nani's house reminded me too of my Nani's residence (as she too comes from a Gujrati background) and all the fond memories of holidays with uncles, aunts & cousins were relived for sometime. All the very best for the book.