Oranges?! She exclaimed.
I nodded. She had a gaping look on her face. "You're sure, right?" I nodded again. She did her most meaningful sway towards the kitchen. The sway that told me "you are as crazy as a Shreesanth on the dance floor without the stabilizing slap from Harbhajan". But I was stuck. The words were out of my mouth. Now I had to do the dish – Chicken with Oranges! That too, on my daughter's birthday. It was not "Izzat ka sawaal" as frankly in all these years the "Izzat" has gone for a royale toss, without the help of Saif's colours! It was more a sense of belonging to a very illustrious batch of chefs that had streamed out of a dilapidated campus in Hyderabad back in 1988. Not many know that I, the Omelette peddler, had Sandeep Kachroo, Rakesh Upadhyay, Srinath Sambandhan, Padmanabhan, Shantanu Mukherjee and the likes as classmates, chefs who have been featured in mags, channels and posts for their expertise with knives and pans. So, it was their arses on the line, not mine.
That was that and I had to ungainly move on. A couple of days passed by. The thought planted at the edge of my pituitary, I do not think through my thyroids, but probably that is where the recipe nested and grew as I plodded through my motions at Badminton, morning papers, office and the pyrotechnics at Durban. It gained hydra kinds of abilities while I conversed with smartphone pals over Facebook and twitter. It stayed right through my entreaties to my new chauffeur to go straight on Palm Beach Road! Readers should know that it is not humanly possible to make an error in going straight on Palm Beach Road in Navi Mumbai. Only my chauffeur can do it consistently. He deserves applause right now. Oh yes, the recipe. Yeah, it stayed right through all these minor quibbles of life, as it were.
On the Saturday evening, the Christmas evening for more believers and guzzlers, I reached the hallowed halls of Big Bad Bazaar to buy stuff that would make my effort a reality. I entered through with a bus, er..a big neanderthal trolley that could may be hold a full size Shane Warne frolicking with fuller sized Liz Hurley. One second later I found a mound that had sacks of Oranges neatly packed and displayed. I grabbed at the nearest sack. Finito! I had the ingredients for the recipe that had built up in my mind. So what was I doing there with that blasted bus in front of me! I had no clue. What had the denizens at home sent me in for? No idea! This was very embarrassing. I had smart women all around me shopping as if Big Bad Bazaar was about to close down to make way for a synagogue. I had to think of some more ingredients fast enough. Nothing came to mind. So, as they say in every boardroom, when in trouble, fish out your Blackberry. I did just that. Also, they say, when in more trouble, call up the grand lady at home. So did just that. The daughter was on line. I asked her to politely ask if her mom needed anything at home as I was in Big Bad Bazaar. She conferred and conveyed that I was to buy some veggies and nothing else. There, I was stuck. I did not know if the right worthy ingredients were at home, ingredients that were presently lost in the arid Saharan landscapes of the thalamus. And I was not to buy anything other than veggies. So, I had to browse. I cannot browse anything other than books and DVDs. So, I was in very unfamiliar surroundings. I started loading the bus with biscuits, noodles, pasta, Haldiram tidbits and other assorted munchies, in the hope that the recipe shall come back to me in full blown Fujicolor! It did not. So, ultimately after a lot of soul and shop searching, I landed up at the Veggies archive where I decided to buy up all the museum pieces from that morning's mandi heist. The bus was rapidly full. I fished out my small black card that magically wrote up Rs. 1475 against my name and I was through. The boys there wanted to give me a "High Five" for my assorted foolishness at shopping but they desisted and calmly left me with five bags at their doorstep. I made my way back home. I had one ingredient for my recipe. Oranges!!
The Birthday arrived. The Grand Lady had made a cake for a minor morning celebration and that was cut, some photographs taken of absurdly grinning individuals for immediate dispatch to Facebook. The lady had asked me the previous night as to how I wanted my chicken to be marinated. I rapidly said Lime, salt and pepper and quietly waited for the dam to burst. It would if the lime was missing in action. It didn't and I figured the lime was in place. So, I ate cake and left for office. Quietly.
Late afternoon at office. I was trying to multiply 8 * 21 by hand, by pencil and then by the calculator when the phone buzzed. The Grand Lady was on line. The heart started hammering. I knew what would be asked. I still did not have any answer to any of that. The question came over the waves.
"What would be the ingredients that you require for your whatever chicken dish?"
It was like Abhishek Bachchan being asked what kind of preparation he would require to Act. The premise itself was incorrect. The objective itself needed a change. He and Act? Never. He shall swivel, smirk and shuffle, but Act. Nope! Never!!
So I had to improvise. Like I do with many a powerpoint. "Chopped Onions, Ginger Garlic Paste, Soya Sauce, Vinegar, Sugar, Salt, Chilli Powder, Orange juice – about 1.5 glasses". Also, that I would be back home by 8 pm and if possible, could she just do the onions and keep? Polite request, it was. The airwaves became silent. I looked at my smartphone. It looked pretty unsmart and dark. The air smelt of mystery and deceit. Then the crackle, "Yes, OK". Hallelujah! Balle Balle! Sicilia! Shakira!! The second phase of recipe making was achieved. The Mis-en-place achieved over the Blackberry. I joyfully opened the browser to crank up cricinfo.com and seek to understand why Laxman did not take up Tennis when he was as good with the Forehand cross court volley as Federer! The 7 pm coffee tasted good.
Home. 8.15 pm. On the way back as I chatted with an ex-colleague over the smartphone, I realized I have two very senior citizens who also matter in terms of taste and skillets, my mom and my mom-in-law. They were vegetarians and so my work had to be further sub-divided into Chicken and Paneer. So, a pack of Amul Paneer was also pulled out from its forgotten corner in the ramparts of the freezer. And so it started, my "bull in a china mall" effort!
The pan had been helpfully kept out on the gas range for me. I decided to do the sauce first and then divide it for both the dishes. I pulled out my favorite wooden ladle to do the sauce. I felt like Saina Nehwal. I could do two cool sets of Badminton right away with that misshapen ladle. The lady was standing by. She knew I could even pull out the water tap over festering frustration sometimes and she would not have me doing that in her kitchen. But I was taken up. The olive oil was hunted down and some normal simple homely refined oil was added to burn up in the pan. I put in all the asymmetrically chopped onions into the pan. I daren't complain about the sizes of the chopped ones as my recipe had been brought thus far by Blackberry and not my hands. The Ginger Garlic paste pack was jailed between the Jeera powder and the Custard powder on the third rack below the eggs in the refrigerator. It was duly rescued. It breathed, looked up at me in obvious deference to the lord and the mighty and got deflated as I pressed out all the remnants in the pack onto the pan. The sautéing was in full swing. The onions paled and were on their way to browning when I added three pinches of sugar, two pinches of salt and some baleful stares at the slurry. I wanted to anger it. I added some chilli powder that I found at hand, I added lots of it. It was like Jai and Gabbar rivalry between me and the slurry, the more evil it looked, the more I added. Then, I opened up the soya sauce and proceeded to add about three spoons of the dark and quirky sauce to the slurry. It frothed and kicked like those creatures in District 9. I calmed the dark mass with some vinegar. I cannot remember how much I put in but it looked about another three spoonfuls. The slurry had some bite now. It needed respite. I provided. The Orange juice was poured in and the sauce went into a simmer. The flame became drowsy. I took a small teaspoon and tried the slush, it felt nice. The salt, I needed to see if the salt was going to hold up, the sauce simmered. The lady ventured to taste at the second go, and she concurred that it was fine. Never before I looked for so much approval from the lady, not even when I went to show her our apartment in Narendrapur five years go. OK, maybe that was a long shot. The sauce making was done without much ado thereafter. I needed to keep it aside while I did the chicken. I wanted a bowl. I hunted all over the kitchen for one. The cupboards were full of bowls but I wanted a very specific looking one. But I did not know what it would have to look like. Trouble. Fits. Rescued just in time by the lady with a simple bowl and a ladle that simply transfers the sauce into that bowl. Clean. Decorous. Done.
The chicken was airlifted from its terminal decline and the paneer was steamed in the microwave. The chicken was loaded into the pan while the paneer was fished out of the steaming water. The chicken sizzled with some oil in the hot pan for a few minutes from all sides as the sauce was poured onto the paneer and let be for some cooking at a later date. The chicken had started to brown. This time the decision was to have big neat cuts of legs and breasts and not butchered into nothing cuts by the street side butcher. So, the browning was even, nice and serene. It reminded me of "Daffodils" by Wordsworth and "Karma" by Subhash Ghai all at once. So nice it was!
The water was duly poured into the pan for the chicken chunks to simmer into oblivion. I relaxed. The lady had in the meanwhile, started on her flavored rice concept. So, I yielded some space to her. It was Ying and Yang. Only the Yang was not yanked into danger zone. All of a sudden, pandemonium.
The flames drowsed and blew out. I stared at it, non comprehension writ large on my face. The lady acted with more alacrity. She trotted off to where we keep a spare cylinder and brought it over. I pulled out the older cylinder and grimly kept pulling at the regulator. Miraculously, it came off. She commanded me to get the regulator onto the new cylinder while she moved the older one out of the way. I did. I did. The knobs turned. The flames came on. Peace was restored. The Al Qaeda moved back into the hills, the North Koreans put back their missiles and Ponting's frown was back in place.
The chicken simmered. The clock turned and after twenty minutes of me walking in and out of the kitchen the chicken appeared ready to go. I poured the sauce with deliberation. The dark orange hue spread out. My ego inflated. This was coming out just as I had visioned. It was just like that vision of 72 cabaret dancers that Kasab had before he set out on his journey to Mumbai with only a few AK 47s. Only the Cabaret dancers wanted me to stick around on earth for some more time before allocating space in their women's hostel up there.
The paneer dish was to be finished. So, the bowl with the paneer and the sauce went into the microwave with a 5 minute time set. It came out bawling. So, had to feed it with some crushed almonds to bring it back to sanity. The Almonds lent it some grit and fibre. It tasted, well, orangey!
Dinnertime. The items were served. The denizens poked at the dishes tentatively. The morsels went into the mouths. The check lists were ticked off just fine. The hunger took over. The chomp chomp and the mastication were the only sounds, would have fitted well with the Sound Design of "Bhoot". The dining table in the end was just left with some empty pans, bones and bay leaves from the flavored rice.
Braised Chicken in Orange Sauce & Nutty Orange Paneer.
Mission accomplished! Pigs can fly!!