I know children love playing around with dough, or licking bowls streaked with chocolate cake batter [points at self vigorously], but I know few kids under twelve who would care to remember, let alone observe, the nuances of their mothers’ recipes. Even fewer who could contemplate that the fried fish we had at the shack the other day could have done better with a tinge of lemon. And of kids who've already got their life ambitions set on a restaurant concept in Paris and New York, right down to the location, menu designers, chef compensation and housing package, and training strategy for the cooks...all already in the planning, I know virtually none. With one exception – my little 12-year old cousin. The boy is a culinary genius in the making, and I am privileged to have already been recruited as the co-partner in his high-flying restaurateur schemes.
But until the day he becomes my boss, he can continue playing sous-chef in my kitchen endeavors. Like he did this Friday, literally tripping over his toes with eagerness to mash the potatoes or stir the sauce for a popular Indian street snack I was attempting to make: Dabeli. Like most Indian street food, Dabeli has this boomerang effect in your mouth where each element ricochets off the other, sweet against sour, chilly against yoghurt, deep-fried against boiled, crispy against soggy, all coming together to have this cacophonic BOOM-SMACK-POW! in your mouth. In a good way of course. In a very good way. In a so-dang-it-good-you-want-to-plunge-headfirst-in-a-bottomless-lake-fullofit way.
Other than a few notable modifications, like lowering the ratio of dates to tamarind in the date-tamarind chutney, or roasting the garlic instead of grinding it raw for the garlic sauce, we followed Tarla Dalal's online recipe to get a sense of what spices and ingredients needed to go in. The snack itself had looked so super easy to make when Sourabh's mom had made it for me back in the U.S. And true enough, the actual elements building up to the dabeli – the spiced potato filling, the date-tamarind and garlic chutneys, and the many garnishes: store-bought sev (salty deep-fried gram flour noodles) and pav (uber-soft and pillowy buns), coriander, pomegranate seeds, peanuts, chopped onions – were nothing ground-breaking.
But one and only word can best describe the final assembly of the Dabeli - slap ghee on skillet rip open pav slam face down toast up pull off slap on potato filling on one side slather tamarind-date chutney on other side sprinkle pomegranate seeds onions peanuts few splodges of garlic chutney garnish with coriander leaves [frenzied activity pauses for a brief millisecond as the chef garnishes with that final coriander leaf with utmost artistic flair and finesse] - it was INTENSE. If someone had videotaped my cousin and me trying to assemble all fifteen of the dabelis in time for lunch, and edited out all the kitchenware and food in the scenes, I think our frantic moves could have given birth to a new age of spastic hip-hop.
It’s safe to say that I would have been a hysterical basket case had I been subject to the deadly dabeli assembly line all alone, but genius cousin was right there like an elf, sliding in the chutney from one side, or shrieking foul play if I missed the peanuts on the top*. My Friday lunch sessions can really turn into sessions of Chopped in the kitchen, except that I’m the lone contestant and I often still lose.
*it only occurred to me a day later that I could have just mixed up all the chutneys and toppings, except the crispy sev, with the potato filling all at once in the bowl and slapped them on the pav in one go. So much for quick thinking. I think my brain had become potato mush by this point too.
All said and done, I think I we won this time. 2 parents, 1 uncle, my cousin's older brother, and then little sous-chef and I all sat around dunking our dabelis into the chutney as we talked about restaurants to try and where to go swim and the upcoming chocolate factory visit and all those other loose odds and ends that get stirred up when plates of warm familiar food bring the family together at the table.
To the little white knight who peeled and mashed the potatoes, deseeded the pomegranates, heaped up the sev, stepped in as the official stirrer in those crucial seconds when I had to step away from the stove, and washed every dish not once, but multiple times [I can be such a clumsy futz with clean dishes in the kitchen] – but most importantly, to the little boy who actually helped start this blog by coming out to review restaurants with me when I moved back to Dubai and everyone thought taking photos of the cucumber on your salad plate called for serious psychotic help – a big THANK YOU. Taher, till the day our roles switch in a kitchen in Paris, here's to many more food excursions and kitchen experiments, just you and me.