Sunday, May 25, 2008

Industrial strength cooking

I enjoyed having a long chat with a master cook, who specialises in cooking for hundreds of people. His frankness and willingness to share tips he has gained over tens of years enchanted me.
Here they are
1. For cooking south Indian wedding feasts for a large crowd, always start with the dal. It takes longest to cook and unless the dal is cooked, other dishes like sambars/ rasams cannot be cooked. After the dal is put to boil, vegetables for poriyals are boiled. Sambars / rasams/ morekulambu / pulikulambu are cooked next.

Rice is cooked just two hours before the feast starts , so that it is hot the time it is served.

If dal does not cook to a mush as demanded in many south Indian recipes, addition of coconut shells , grated raw papaya, crushed ginger or baking powder would help.

When too much salt has been added by mistake, a dry brick or a couple of sheets of newspaper are dunked in the curry and removed after a couple of minutes. They act as giant sponges and suck up some of the salt out. Though very unhygienic and not advisable, this technique is frequently used in many large kitchens. A more hygienic alternative might be to dunk in a loaf of sliced bread or a bunch of fresh tissues and remove them in a few seconds.

Padi- (a cylinder covered at one end) is a commonly used measure in Tamilnadu. One padi holds 600 gms of rice and can feed 6 people. 'Padikku Pudi' is the amount of salt that is sufficient for a padi of rice - that is, a fistful of salt is sufficient for 600 gms of rice.

One kg of rice can feed 10 people.

Cooking rice :
Large aluminum vessels which cook over huge wood fires can hold up to 25 kgs of rice. The rice is first soaked for half an hour and is washed a couple of times.

Meanwhile a in a huge vat, water is boiled ( 5 parts of water for 1 part of rice). When water starts boiling, the soaked and washed rice is dumped in, stirred a couple of times, covered and let to cook. It is stirred every 5-8 minutes. Raw rice gets cooked in 10-15 minutes and boiled rice takes around 25 minutes. when the rice is almost cooked, it is scooped out with huge buckets and dumped into large wicker baskets lined with gunny sacks. The water filters away and the rice continues cooking.

When rice has been overcooked, cold water is added so that any further cooking is stopped. Addition of some salt helps keep the grains separate.

I've been invited today to observe a cooking session for 450 people. It'll be interesting to watch large scale cooking.


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"It is extraordinary to me that the idea of creating thousands of recipes by mixing building blocks takes immediately to people or it doesn’t take at all. .... If it doesn’t grab a person right away, ... you can talk to him for years and show him demos, and it doesn’t make any difference. They just don’t seem able to grasp the concept, simple as it is". ( Thanks Warren Buffett !)

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Okay, let me start from the very beginning. 1500 crore years ago, with a Big Bang, the Universe is born. It expands dramatically. Hydrogen forms, contracts under gravity and lights up, forming stars. Some stars explode, dusting space with the building blocks of life. These condense into planets, one of which is Earth. Over time, self replicating molecules appear, multiply and become more complex. They create elaborate survival machines (cells, plants, animals). A variety of lifeforms evolve. Soon, humans arise, discover fire, invent language, agriculture and religion. Civilisations rise and fall. Alexander marches into India. Moguls establish an empire. Britain follows. Independence. Partition. Bloodshed. The license raj is in full sway. I'm born. India struggles to find its place. Liberalisation. The Internet arrives! I move from Tirupur to Chennai. Start a company. Expand into Malaysia, Singapore and the Middle East. Poof! Dot com bust. Funding dries up. Struggle. Retire. Discover the joy of cooking, giving, friendships and the pleasures of a simple life. Life seems less complicated. Pizza Republic, Pita Bite and Bhojan Express bloom !

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