The Social Act of Cooking Together
I taught a class recently where yet again, I came away with even more appreciation for the act of cooking. And the act of dining together. Having conversation. Uninterrupted by television or checking email. Uninterrupted by phone calls or outgoing tweets. Interrupted only by morsels of food, rapidly taken in. And the only time Facebook may have come into the picture was an actual conversation about it, not checking it.
A set of strangers (some came in pairs and knew each other only), trickled into the brightly lit spacious and modern kitchen. Flanked by several feet of countertop, the coal-colored stove top ranges awaited the students. Trays with ingredients measured out and spices that were labelled (albeit in my terrible handwriting) rested on these gorgeous gleaming granite surfaces, scattered throughout the kitchen, spotless for the time being, waiting anxiously for spills and stains. We gathered around the large middle counter and began class.
Quiet at first (as is usually the case), the students carefully listened, attentive, like children watching a puppeteer at a birthday party or, like I imagine I would be if it was my first day at the Culinary Institute of America, eager to absorb all the information. As the cooking later began, the kitchen came alive. Sounds like the hiss of splashing curry leaves in shimmering hot oil, mustard seeds popping out of their pans, sizzling slivers of pungent and lovely garlic, and pots clanking in excitement. The heavy weight of large chef’s knives on plastic cutting boards, the diffuse hum of the exhaust fan, and the white noise of the chatter that gradually began: now class had really begun.
I heard snippets of conversations starting, as I walked around assisting my students in the instruction, decrypting the handwriting of my labels, and showing a few basic knife skills to those that needed or wanted it. I answered many questions, anything from the difficult technical subject of cooking rice to the subject of the Indian restaurant scene in Austin.
But there in the background, as I made my rounds, I heard beautiful chatter. A smattering of sounds, laughs, grins, and at times anxiety over minutiae like burnt cumin seeds or spilt spices or accidentally beginning tarka with whole garlic cloves rather than chopped. Remember the scenes in Ratatouille, where all the chefs and sous chefs are cooking and prepping simultaneously? It’s loud in there isn’t it? Don’t you want to just be in it, raptured in the essence of stirring, pouring, glazing, whisking, smelling, tasting, feeling?
People at the beginning of class sometimes ask for their glass of wine, but by the end of the cooking segment of class, they’ve perhaps forgotten about it, naturally on a buzz from the camaraderie that materializes from the act of cooking together.
As they all begin dining on the food they worked hard at learning and preparing, the quiet no longer consumed the kitchen like it had at the beginning of class. New conversations start, old ones from the kitchen continue. People now actually learn each other’s names. Lovely concept isn’t it? To meet a stranger and cook and talk with them, and think to find out their name later?
I’m a social butterfly, and these feelings give me butterflies. A warm quiet, like the kind of feeling you have after a comforting meal or dessert. I demonstrated this simple homey dessert at the end of that particular class: Sooji Halva.
Try it out and when you cook it or eat it, I invite you to bring conversation into it. Ask your kids if they want to add the raisins in or stir the semolina. Have them butter your ramekins with their little fingers. Perhaps your friend or partner can join you and you could make two versions simultaneously. Or cook another meal with friends and don’t worry about the mess. Don’t worry about the end result of the dish. Don’t worry about being able to multi-task. Just cook and be merry.
Semolina Halva (Rava Sheero)
- 4 tablespoons ghee or clarified butter may substitute regular unsalted butter
- ½ cup sooji also known as rava or semolina, best purchased at an Indian grocer
- 2 cups milk warmed
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ to 1 teaspoon fresh ground cardamom
- ¼ cup sliced almonds + 1 tablespoon for garnish
- 2-3 tablespoons golden raisins
- Heat ghee over medium heat in a small skillet or saucepan until melted.
- Add the sooji and stir continuously. Allow the sooji to roast until golden light brown, about 5 minutes. The contents of the pan will glisten and gently sizzle in the ghee.
- While stirring, slowly pour in 1 cup of the milk. Turn heat to medium-low.
- Add sugar and cardamom and keep stirring.
- Cook, stirring often, while the milk slowly absorbs into the sooji. It will begin to bubble thickly, like when cooking polenta or oatmeal in hot liquid. You’ll see little air pockets erupt, and that’s when you can add the rest of the milk, and the almonds and raisins. Cook for a total of about 8-10 minutes.
- When the semolina is cooked, it will stop sticking to the sides of the pot and will come off easily from the sides; it also won’t stick to your mixing spoon as much.
- If too thick, add more milk or even water so that the halva is creamy and not too lumpy. If too thin, cook further. The consistency should be much like oatmeal or porridge.
- Remove from heat when done. Spoon into large serving bowl or individual buttered ramekins and sprinkle with more of the almonds.
- Serve warm. It will thicken upon standing so you may need to reheat with more milk and serve again. If using ramekins, invert onto dessert plates after about 15 minutes and top with fresh fruit.