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I first met Monica Bhide between the pages of the 2005 Best Food Writing anthology, where her essay, “A Question of Taste,” nearly caused me to cough up my lunch. Her article, first published in the Washington Post, recounts the rolling waves of horror that Bhide experienced when watching Jonathan Krinn cook, back when he was chef at 2941 in Falls Church.
“He took a spoon, dipped it in the sauce and then proceeded to…dare I say, lick it,” Bhide wrote. “I was stunned. Completely horrified and stunned. He offered me some and I shook my head. ‘Are you okay?’ he inquired.”
“I stuttered, ‘You tasted the sauce…How could you do that? Don’t you know you are not allowed to taste while you cook?”
My immediate reaction to Bhide’s reaction to Krinn’s cooking style was nearly as hysterical: What is she talking about? Every chef I knew back then—admittedly, like, two—practically lived with plastic spoons protruding from their whites. Tasting was the best way I knew how to check for consistency, balance, seasoning, body, and a little thing called flavor. Serving food that you hadn’t tasted was, to me, the gastronomic version of Russian roulette, hopefully without the grisly ending.
But I would soon learn, once I turned the page on Bhide’s essay, that tasting food before offering the first plate to the gods was a sort of sacrilege for Hindus. Bhide remembers how her grandmother, after everyone ate, would take that first plate and set it in front of the cows that used to loiter around the neighborhood. “Cows are considered sacred in the Hindu religion,” Bhide wrote, “and feeding them is said to be akin to feeding God.”
There are no cows in Bhide’s backyard in Northern Virginia, but the traditions of her native India are still strong in her home. Bhide has a collection of Ganesh statues, large and small, sitting on various shelves in her living room. More Hindu statuary is crowded onto a tiny table nestled into the corner of her kitchen. This is the family shrine where prayers are offered.
Bhide has been a professional food writer for five years now after tossing aside her previous job as an engineer. In her new line of work, she has quickly established herself as an authority on “modern” Indian cooking, which is really a nice way of saying that Bhide isn’t afraid to substitute ingredients or promote packaged spice blends or bend tradition in her recipes. Her loose and unpretentious approach has found a loyal audience among home cooks.
Yet the writing life does have its complications for a woman raised as a Hindu. She must occasionally eat beef or taste food before it’s finished, like when she has to develop recipes around odd ingredients, like lavender. But when she’s on familiar ground, Bhide still follows the traditions of her family and religion: She doesn’t taste as she cooks. “Its root is in religion,” Bhide says, “but now it’s just habit.”
At my urging, Bhide has invited me over to watch her prepare a few recipes from her latest cookbook, Modern Spice.
Before I went to Bhide’s house, Sudhir Seth, the chef behind Passage to India and Spice Xing, told me that he doesn’t taste while cooking, either. Time and experience, if not religion, have made tasting unnecessary for him. “The more you keep doing it, the more adept you are at it,” he says. But Vikram Sunderam, the Beard-nominated chef at Rasika, fully believes in the power of the tasting spoon. Why take a risk, he thinks, when one bad meal can turn a diner away forever? “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” he says.
Of course, the stakes are lower here in Bhide’s tidy white kitchen, where the worst that can happen is I walk away disappointed. But Bhide is smart. She’s preparing three dishes she knows well—roasted cauliflower with fennel, rice pulao (white, not brown), and “Monica’s Tomato and Coconut Fish Curry,” her signature dish that she’s making with shrimp instead.
To start her curry, Bhide has tossed a teaspoon of black mustard seeds into a pan with hot oil. She calls them “angry seeds,” because she knows it’s time to add the other ingredients once “they get mad.” Sure enough, before long, those seeds start popping like small-arms gunfire. That’s her cue to add the fresh curry leaves, ginger, garlic, and dried green chili for a quick sauté, before tossing in unblanched tomatoes.
“We’re going to cook the life out of them,” Bhide says about her tomatoes. She’s not kidding. She’s ultimately looking for two visual clues: The tomatoes should be without any shape or form—which she may facilitate with a potato masher—and the oil should start to leach from the edge of the mixture. When those things occur, the curry enters its final stages; Bhide adds some spices and stirs in the frozen shrimp and coconut milk, then simmers the combination until she gets her last visual: translucent crustaceans.
The secret to her rice is far simpler: She simmers the combination of basmati rice, cumin seeds, garlic, onion, spices (including that gorgeous yellowing agent, turmeric), vegetables, and water until the whole thing looks like the cratered surface of the moon. The only problem is, Bhide has added so many frozen veggies that they have blocked her view of the rice through the glass-topped pot. Without the usual visual, she has to eyeball the rice around the perimeter to know when to pull it.
Bhide’s cauliflower, at least to my eye, doesn’t seem to require any special skills, other than the good sense to buy a reliable kitchen timer. No, wait, I take that back. Bhide has prepared a dry rub, which requires her to roast fennel seeds until the moment they turn fragrant. I’m not sure what that fragrance is, even when she tells me. But once the seeds reach that point, she blends and grinds them with dried red chiles and tosses her florets with the dry rub and crushed coriander seeds. The veggies are then popped into the oven for 30 minutes or so. Still, I give Bhide crap for relying on the timer, which somehow seems so….so Western. Maybe I’m being harsh.
In the dining room, however, I’m taken with everything Bhide has prepared. The cauliflower is a seduction, each floret light and crunchy, charred and aromatic. The shrimp curry isn’t undersalted, as Bhide feared, but packed with fragrance and heat, even if I wish she would have simmered her crustaceans a beat longer for a firmer texture. Her rice provides a stunning visual, its sunny yellow grains concealing pockets of bright vegetable. Her pulao, however, has a certain stickiness, which bothers Bhide. She prefers a northern Indian style of rice in which each grain attains a separate but equal status, like segregation in a pot.
But it’s the kind of rice that might please her mother-in-law, who hails from south India, Bhide notes. She seems to take little solace from this fact, though, as if she has somehow betrayed her own cooking traditions. Or tasted the food before offering it up to the gods.
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