Le Cordon Bleu of the less dedicated

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The latest status of my Instagram profile. Not a celebrity yet, but I swear I am getting there!!!

I first joined Instagram in 2015 because my boyfriend said it’ll give us a place to post our pictures together because our entire families were on Facebook and would love (understatement) to get a good scoop about our lives. The fancy-shmancy  filters made me look a lot prettier than I actually am. So thats how it started, couply photos and great filters. This was also around the time that I had just started adjusting to graduate student life and did not cook AT ALL. I saw that people not only put restaurant food pictures on Instagram (A practice frowned upon on Facebook), but have dedicated food accounts! I followed all of them. I was homesick for Indian food. Totally unmotivated to cook, I just followed all the Pune, Mumbai, Delhi based food accounts. I was like a teenage boy who’s just discovered free internet porn. All day I just looked at and commented on pictures of pav bhaji, paneer tikka, cheese masala dosas and chilly chicken. That was my sad Instagram presence; I was  that creepy dude on Facebook who commented “Meddem u r very prity. Plz accpt reqst”. But not for long.

After I put on a ton of weight and depleted my savings on restaurant food, it was time I turned that stove on and cooked something. Susheel is great at taking pictures. He said I should put a picture on Instagram of the food I cooked. And that was it, I thought I am going to become an instant sensation. Breaking the internet with my amazing new food account. I got an unoriginal new handle. An Indian rip off of ‘Shiro Dreams of Sushi’, continuing the Indian legacy of putting a desi twist on things and calling them our own (Pritam’s music, Bollywood movies, our constitution!). A PhD student who cooks, that has got to be unique right? Seven billion people in this world, sure it was going to be an unique account. I soon found out there were seven food accounts of PhD students from my University. I can do the math. Slightly disheartened, I continued my food account nevertheless, holding back on the hashtags because lets face it, they’re tacky. The likes on my pictures never crossed that stage where you stop seeing the names of people who pity-liked your pictures. Then Susheel had a brilliant idea, he sent me links to articles on how to create successful Instagram food accounts (you won’t believe how many of those are out there).

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My earliest food post that I thought was breaking the internet

And there I was, with a public profile and fingers locked and loaded to type out hashtags with the speed of light. I followed all the successful food accounts and commented on each  one of their pictures. My right thumb and shoulder haven’t stopped hurting since. Surprisingly, this worked! Instead of being creeped out by this kid who keeps commenting “Such a lovely dish dear!” on all their pictures, people started liking me back. I soon reached double digit likes and had my own set of stranger followers. I am sure all my friends unfollowed me because I had become a hashtag sellout. As I crossed three hundred followers, I decided just normal food pictures weren’t enough. I started trying out new recipes, bought new pretty plates from World Market, conjured up more and more hashtags. I also started this fail blog to put up my recipes. I soon realized there are two things I couldn’t do to get more likes, write recipes and tag a million other people in my pictures. I can never seem to remember what all I put in the food and in what quantity or order. Also there are already so many recipe accounts that I read to cook that it is redundant and unethical to put up recipes. The motto of my entire life has been to cause the least possible inconvenience to others. Waking up to being tagged in a million poorly taken food photographs must surely be annoying for the Insta celebrities. Its also not justified that tagging fifty people on a Facebook photo is unsophisticated, but is totally acceptable to do the same on Instagram. This is not different from an ugly dude tagging fifty hot girls in his profile pictures to get more likes!

As I reached four hundred followers, I realized there was an ugly underbelly to the community Instagram food celebrities. For one, they have cliques that follow and comment on each others pictures all the time. Like a mutual contract. Nothing wrong with that. But having a ton of followers is not the end of being a celebrity, you should follow the minimum number of people. Which is a paradox because you need to follow more people to get followers. I soon realized that people follow you, then  you follow them, the next day they unfollow you and you end up looking silly! I realized this when the same person followed me twice in the same week. Also, to look cool, you don’t put many hashtags in the caption. You put them as a comment under your picture. When people comment on your photo, the first comment gets hidden. And I thought doing catalysis on nanoparticles was complicated!

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Buying new plates and silverware for this beautiful picture. Totally justified right?

The best thing about Instagram is that anyone can be a celebrity. Theres no way to tell if a beautiful food picture is actually delicious. As I reach five hundred followers, which will go down to 495 by noon tomorrow, I am losing a sense of why I started doing this in the first place. What happens when I become an Instagram celebrity? Does that mean I am a great cook, great photographer or just talented at hash-tagging? Do I get richer? I don’t have the answers. Honestly I can’t even justify why I spent $30 on buying new plates to take better food pictures. It’s a great thing to be famous, even if it is in a small community. But it is not worth the time and energy spent playing mind games and double tapping pictures till the phone screen cracks. Having said that, I will now intersperse this wall of text with my Instagram pictures to get more followers, cause I am sneaky that way. Happy ‘gramming my folks! #hypocrite #instawannabe #hashtagsarentlame #hatersgonnahate

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The Holy Grail of Desi Chinese in Amrika

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Valentine’s Day 2016: Susheel and I cooked together and did what we loved the most- eat Desi Chinese!

When I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2014 with a pocketful of dreams and a tummy full of appetite, the last thing I thought I would miss was Chinese food. I wanted to try all the different food from all over the place. I spent my first quarter at school eating something new everyday, Turkish begendi, Polish peirogies, Mexican fajitas and of course American pancakes. There was SO much to try. I did not crave for Indian food till the first set of exams arrived! There are many Indian restaurants in and around Evanston and Chicago and I planned to try all of them. On my way to a nice little place called Mumbai Indian Grill, I mentally planned my dinner, Veg Manchurian for starter followed by Paneer Biryani. Or maybe I’ll just have a Triple Schezwan Rice. How greatly was fate going to crash my hopes!! On the menu there was no Manchurian, no Schezwan and there was an odd thing called Vindaloo that sounded like black magic. What on earth was Vindaloo and why the hell was there no Chinese food? I just ate really American bland Chicken Makhani “entree” and left hoping I would find real restaurant Indian food someplace else. Now, I know I was being unreasonable. Back in India the restaurants don’t say “Indian Food” because, well, for us it’s just food. And one restaurant usually has both desi and Chinese food because that’s the way it is! I was foolish to expect there to be chilly Paneer or Machurian on the menu.

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Princess Chicken at Mandarin House, Evanston, IL

So my next attempt was to try and find that food in the Chinese restaurants. People who’ve been living outside India for a while are now laughing in their heads at my naive expectations. Evanston has ton of lovely Chinese, Korean and Thai restaurants. Racist people like me think its all the same food. Well, it is not. And it definitely doesn’t include Veg Manchurian. I did eat some Schezwan food though. Nothing like the garlicky, red and salty version we eat in India. Was it better? I couldn’t say. Did it had to be sweetish? I wish not.

Just as I was adjusting my palate to the Chinese and Indian food here, calling Schezwan sauce as ‘hot sauce’ and Naan as ‘Naan bread’, my roommate found the perfect place to go for her birthday celebrations. An Indo-Chinese restaurant, Bombay Chopsticks, in a suburb, Schaumburg, thirty miles away. We did not have a car, there is no direct public transport, but off we went there in two Uber XLs. A giant group of nine people. When we saw the place and the menu we absolutely went berserk. We ordered everything our hearts desired. My roommate was paying so we ordered to our hearts’ content. My roommate, in her birthday euphoria combined with the bliss of seeing ‘real’ Chinese food went overboard and said “Let there be food!” Of course the bill was humungous and it hurt our eyes to look at it. My poor roommate was shocked and we all helped her with the bill. But was that a price too high to pay for the great food that we had? Maybe yes, because at the end of the day, we were all poor graduate students. We went home that day hoping our souls would be satisfied for at least a year.

 

But knowing that there was Desi-Chinese (I soon found out it was called this West of Quetta) thirty miles away from me made me even more restless. Exams were taxing and research wasn’t easy. If Dumbledore plonked the Mirror of Erised in front of me, I would see myself eating a plate of chilly chicken. Dark times. Then one day Susheel and I decided to go to Schaumburg and eat there as a gift to one another. We took the public transport for an hour and a half, trudged over the deserts for 7 days and waded across the frigid river for a week to reach the golden mountain. Not entirely true, but you get my point. We ate again at the restaurants. Turns out it wasn’t that great. Maybe our hopes were too high, maybe the euphoria of discovering a new place had worn off, whatever, the food wasn’t great. Heavy heart, lighter pockets, we came back home swearing we’ll never go chasing the golden deer again.

But hope is indefatigable. While planning my BFF vacation to Atlanta, GA with my childhood friend, I came across a bunch of Desi Chinese restaurants there. Hope blossomed in my heart again. We skipped going to Georgia Tech (another place that broke my heart by rejecting me) and went to this quaint restaurant called Chinese Dhaba. The name was perfect, the food not so much. I mean it wasn’t all bad, as you can see for yourself, we did enjoy there. But again my heart sought the food of my country (or my country’s neighbor)!

Finally, I had given up on finding good Desi Chinese food in the US. I used to follow instagram posts of people in India eating all the good stuff. I cried myself to sleep dreaming about Paneer 65 for several nights. I had sold my soul for a visa. This was my punishment. Then the answer came to me in my dream from an angel, it was actually my mom who taunted me over Skype one day, ” All these years you made me cook Chinese at home. And here you are spending millions trying to get to eat a plate of Manchurian.”  Viola! I had the solution. The only way to enjoy Desi Chinese in the US is to make it yourself. I tried an failed several times before I could perfect that Schezwan fried rice. Weekends were mainly just chopping and julienning vegetables for the Hakka noodles. Even Susheel was hooked on to cooking Chinese at home. On Valentine’s day, we stayed at home and cooked a whole elaborate meal.

We had found happiness at last, and that too at the last place people would look for it, in our own homes. Our quest for the best Desi Chinese was finally over. Amen.

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Putting a spin on some terrible restaurant food and adding my favorite Schezwan fried rice

All images are my own

 

Cooking by the pinches and fistfuls: Recipes without measures

Now, I am a chemical engineer, more of a chemist to be honest. I should know the importance of measurement and ratios to get the right product. They say cooking is like chemistry, follow the recipe and you become the masterchef. Miss a step and ruin the meal. I could not disagree more. Cooking is like potion-making. Do as the recipe tells you and you get a drab, standard meal. Add your own twist, and lo!, you are the half-blood prince! Everyone has his own take on measuring your ingredients when they cook. I don’t like measuring them. I feel them, touch them and smell them. No, I am not abusing the ingredients in an indecent manner. This is the way I have always cooked. I am not saying I was born a genius cook or that measuring ingredients is below me. I have burnt, over-cooked, under-cooked and thrown away so many versions of my signature lemon-corriander soup till I made the perfect one! Did I write how I made it? No. There was no way I could remember everything in the exact same way. I did not know that one was going to be great. I did not even know if that one was the best one. Just like in my lab where we are constantly trying to find better catalysts for the reactions that have been carried out for centuries, the recipes can be made better too.

I would be lying if I say I have never read or used recipe books. I grew up reading the recipes of Tarla Dalal. When I was a fat kid trying to lose weight, her wonderful recipes and pictures served as my placebo meals as I ate my salads. I still read and use recipes online for a rough reference to ensure I do not put actual jewels in my Navratan Korma. But I don’t follow them 100%. There isn’t a point to it really. The person who’s put that delicious recipe up has his/her own style, brand of spices and cookware. The taste is anyway going to be different. Whimsical as this may be, it has been my personal inclination. It really annoys my boyfriend because he is usually the one to be subjected to the first version of my recipes. Once I decided to listen to him and follow the recipe for baked vegetable manchurian that I read online. The recipe was flawless, but I wasn’t. New to America, I did not know that the temperature on the oven knobs are in Fahrenheit. I assumed it was Celsius (like all the normal people in the rest of the world) and the result was highly undercooked disintegrating manchurian balls. Since then, I just do as my heart tells me to do. It is a highly inefficient way of cooking, but there you are. That’s who I am. Writing a blog when I should be writing a paper. Cooking meals when I should be eating takeouts like your common graduate student. And feeling and smelling food when I should be using measures!

The images are not my own. They are of products from Etsy or Amazon. I wish I had the salary to afford those.