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When I come home, I start cooking immediately: Abhijit Banerjee

The Nobel Laureate teaches My Kolkata to rustle up a dish from his book, ‘Cooking to Save Your Life’, while chatting about jhalmuri and jhol

Samhita Chakraborty | Published 15.11.21, 12:46 PM

Ritagnik Bhattacharya

When Abhijit Banerjee received the Nobel Prize in economics in 2019, along with his wife Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty and Kolkata went into a tizzy celebrating its Ballygunge-bred South Point and Presidency College “homeboy”, Banerjee’s brother Aniruddha let everyone in on a secret, one that their friends and family have known all along — that Abhijit Banerjee is a fabulous cook who could win any MasterChef challenge! 

Banerjee has now documented his passion for food and cooking and welcomed food lovers into the “holy mess” that is his kitchen in a book titled Cooking to Save Your Life (published by Juggernaut). Accompanying the recipes and Banerjee’s tips, observations and stories are beautiful illustrations by Cheyenne Olivier. Incidentally, Cheyenne came to live with Banerjee and Duflo as an au pair for their two young children, and ended up cooking with Banerjee in their Boston home. 

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Early in November, Banerjee invited two members of My Kolkata into his mother’s home on Ballygunge Circular Road and he and Cheyenne taught us how to make one of the recipes in the book — Sesame-Crusted Potatoes (recipe at the bottom).

In between the peeling of potatoes and the popping of mustard seeds, My Kolkata chatted with the duo on all things food and cooking. Edited excerpts from the kitchen conversation. 

 

MK: A meal is a story, you say in this book. So is an interview. You have plated your book into courses, so have we. Let’s dig in.

Hors d’oeuvres AKA not the main meal by other means

Your Nobel Prize did not come as a surprise, but this book sure did! Is this the first time a Nobel Prize-winning economist has dived so deep into a heavy-bottomed pan?

Abhijit Banerjee: To me it did (smiles). 

I don’t know, it’s a question for a historian. The Nobel Prize in Economics exists since 1969. I was eight years old then, not paying any attention to economists… maybe they were great cooks, maybe they have written 17 volumes on food. Economists are interested in food mostly as an input into production, so the interest is not remote. Food is a part of the reality of economists.

Yes. You mention that Cooking to Save Your Life is a book by an economist and a social scientist. You even invoke Karl Marx to explain hors d’oeuvres!

AB: (Laughs) I think I use Karl Marx in two different ways. One is to say that he wrote this famous preface and the preface is often read separately, but no one cares to read the book (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy). The book is actually pretty good. That’s a bit the danger in being too elaborate with your hors d’oeuvres. That’s often a problem in India. You eat so much hors d’oeuvres that you end up eating nothing afterwards. You know, the six kebabs that keep coming around and these nice people offer it to you at the party and you absentmindedly gulp three kebabs and three more and a little piece of fish and by the time the meal arrives, you’ve had one kilo of high-protein food and you feel like throwing up. So, I think that particular sequence should be avoided.

The other reason is Karl Marx makes this distinction between the base and the superstructure. The base is food and the superstructure is cooking. And the superstructure is irrelevant, nobody cares about it. The real thing is food needs to be produced (so that) workers can work, production can happen, capitalists can get rich. Cooking is superstructure, like religion and all those things. This was a very classic Marxist move, to separate them. And I deeply disagree. I feel that cooking is so much about the way people live their lives. So, being a social scientist who ignores cooking is, in a sense, strange.

Soups AKA something wonderful from almost nothing

How did you get around to writing a book about food? 

AB: The book started when my brother-in-law, Esther’s brother, kept saying, ‘Why don’t you write down the recipes?’ He said he would love to have some of these recipes to cook from. So, for Christmas about five years ago, I wrote down some of them, essentially what’s now the chapter on soups. 

As I started writing, I realised that just writing down the recipes would be an extraordinarily boring read. So, I started to think about what story I was trying to tell. Every Christmas I would add a chapter or two and the book kept growing. At some point Cheyenne came to live with us, she was our au pair. And she was interested in cooking, so we would often cook together. I started to share the book with her. We were discussing cookbooks. And that’s how the idea of what shape it would take as a book came about.

Cheyenne Olivier: We have always cooked in my house but we never really received people at home. That’s something I discovered when I started living with Abhijit and Esther. Thinking about telling a story with dinner or inviting people, all that was new to me. As I was with the kids, in the kitchen or helping out, I started to realise that if I was giving a hand, there was a whole theory behind it.

I started to ask questions. Abhijit started giving me one part of a dish to cook, then the whole dish but under supervision (laughs)…. And then I heard that there was a book (the manuscript). I was waiting a bit to see if I could see the book. Should I be a better cook before I deserve it?

I was trained as an illustrator, what I picked up first was the little introductions before each recipe. I told Abhijit you are building a whole set of characters here and whole scenes, they are somehow connected to each other but not in an obvious way and that’s why I thought about doing illustrations that would emphasise the narrative of these stories. An illustration can tell more than frontal photographs.

You have given very practical tips in this book — a clove of garlic “as big as the top of your pinkie”, or “onions sliced not thicker than an iPhone”. Is that something you missed in cookbooks you followed as a beginner?

AB: I had understood that I needed to explain more than what cookbooks explain. The problem with most cookbooks is that they live in some kind of an ideal world where everything is perfect and the pictures come out looking so yummy, so beautiful, so sensuous. In fact, when you start to cook, you realise that things don’t quite look like that. I think there’s a whole skill in food photography, which involves using lots of filters and fake food (laughs).

And the cooking shows! They have the same feature, which is that the cook is in perfect control. The mess in between… I think Cheyenne was very insistent that we capture the mess in the book. She’s a very neat person and when we cook, it’s like a holy mess! 

CO: Yes. Kids are coming back from school and you do this and do that, you have a call in between and you also cook.

AB: And in an hour the guests will arrive. So, I think that the general visual we have of cooking from cooking shows is completely misleading. Because that’s not how it is, and therefore it’s discouraging. Cheyenne is very sensitive to this and her illustrations capture the, to be polite, dynamic nature of cooking (chuckles). Therefore, a lot of the visuals are not meant to be descriptive of the dishes.

CO: Another thing I learnt with Abhijit is that your whole body is engaged in cooking. You smell, you touch, you try, you drop, you hear something… and I really wanted to bring that aspect…. That’s why it’s almost abstract…

AVB: I think it’s also the case that they give you the sense that there is a beauty but the beauty is a little bit about your own, there’s a certain abstraction to each dish, and then what you do with it, what exactly the implementation of it is always going to be your own creative choice. So rather than provide the picture as the ideal, we provide the conceptual idea of the dish as the ideal.

Abhijit Banerjee and Cheyenne Olivier prep the potatoes

Abhijit Banerjee and Cheyenne Olivier prep the potatoes

Salads AKA gratifying the senses

Let’s talk about your relationship with food. When did you start appreciating good food?

AB: In our house, food was always a major subject of conversation. There were different views. I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have narratives about food. My grandfather in particular wanted to have huge pieces of fish, he would describe meals. My mother, she’s Maharashtrian, she moved to Kolkata and encountered strange things like the head of the fish (laughs)… so there were many such narratives. I don’t think anyone remembers a time when they didn’t appreciate food. People always like food, just different food.

CO: Isn’t it that you came to the US and realised that bad food could actually exist?

AVB: No, no, I had learnt bad food could exist when I was in JNU. Awful food exists (laughs). 

So, we were a household where food was a subject of thought and interest. I was brought up to think about food as a subject of interest, as against Marx (laughs), who thought it was the superstructure. I think that was more the key part of the way I grew up.     

How and when did that translate into cooking?

AB: My mother was very busy, so when I would go and sit with her, she’d say pop those peas or peel those potatoes. I think when I do them, my hand gestures are my mother’s hand gestures. When I am separating egg yolk, I know I am doing exactly what my mother does. So by the time I was 12 or 13, I could take over various things, if it was needed. When my mother started travelling a lot, I think I was 15 or 16, it was either our cook — who was very good but he cooked just six things — or me cooking (laughs). So I started to wrestle a little bit of control from him and started cooking. 

And then when I got to the US... especially since as a graduate student I was dirt poor, so you could either eat well by cooking Indian food, which is extremely well-designed…. Even if you cook a meat dish, you don’t need to put a lot of meat in it. You leach the meat for the flavour into the jhol, the gravy, and you eat the gravy with bread or rice. That’s how we lived. 

If you are inventive and you are willing to put in the effort, you can get a huge amount of gain (from cooking). I mean, US in 1983 was something else (laughs)... you couldn’t find anything you wanted to eat! It was the land of the deep-dish pizza, which is one of the most disgusting things I have ever had. It was like a thick piece of bread with a lava made from bad cheese. Really awful. The excess and the complete tastelessness of it… so if you didn’t cook, you ate really badly. And I am greedy, so I decided I will cook.

Now I can afford to go out but I actually like cooking. I find it very relaxing. I would come home and Cheyenne and I would have a discussion about what’s the plan and we would launch. When I come home, I start cooking immediately, I don’t sit down. I make tea and I start cooking that minute. I am not a big sitting down person.

Feeding people and hosting seem to be a large part of your relationship with food… was that from the beginning?

AB: From the beginning. Meaning, as a grad student, the first year I lived in a dorm. I had a group of friends in the dorm and we figured that it would be easier if one person cooked for five people every day in rotation. That had some risks, some of those people were not stunningly gifted cooks (laughs). On the other hand, it was more communal, more fun. So from the beginning I was cooking meals for several people… and sometimes their girlfriends or friends would come. I started to notice a pattern that they tended to invite their friends when I was cooking (laughs out loud).

CO: Just as Anette stays when she knows you are cooking....

AB: Our cleaning lady, who’s a wonderful, incredibly interesting African-American woman of 83. She comes in the morning, she cleans for a few hours, the rest of the time she’s on the phone talking about every problem in the world… and she’s very explicit. When I am cooking, she stays for dinner (laughs).

What do you cook to impress your mother?

AB: (Thinks a bit) That’s a hard question. Because my mother has a strong commitment to not being impressed by her children (laughs out loud). At least publicly… maybe privately she’s impressed.

What I have not tried on her is some of the cold soups that are in the book. I think they would impress her. She doesn’t want to travel and I am not here when we get strawberries, so I think if I could make the strawberry soup (Tomato &  Strawberry  Gazpacho, Page 38)… that kind of thing would impress her.

Cheyenne, what would you cook to impress your sister (an acclaimed pastry chef)?

CO: Oh. I would not try a dessert (laughs)!

AB: You can try Lauki Kheer (page 252) on her. Lauki Kheer is so weird for a dessert, an almost-not-sweet dessert made from a vegetable, it’s weird enough that she won’t know it.

CO: I think my favourite are the vegetable dishes in the book, I’d make the cabbage and coconut (Stir-fried Cabbage, page 94).

Meat of the matter: de gustibus non est disputandum — we don’t argue with tastes

Growing up in Kolkata, what’s the food you enjoyed? You’ve written about dreaming of jhalmuri during school hours. Tell us about your schoolboy shenanigans with food…

AB: There were no shenanigans. South Point was an awful school… we had 70 to a class in standards XI and XII. So nobody was paying attention to anything, you could do whatever you wanted. Almost every day I would bring a novel with me just in case I needed to read a novel, sometimes I would get caught, that was a separate problem. But as a result, you could dream of anything. The commitment to the classroom was very minimal. I would get hungry around 3.30pm. And, as I was telling Cheyenne, not just jhalmuri, there were all these fruit chaats you’d get — the raw mango with chilli and rock salt, or the Madrasi kool, all those things with different spices. So every day I would have a different game plan — today, jhalmuri, tomorrow… the last hours were not very educationally intense (laughs). 

You mentioned a couple of years back that the eating out culture in Kolkata has really caught on. When you come here, do you have a favourite restaurant? Is there some place you’d recommend Cheyenne try out?

AB: I don’t eat out that much. Because my mother likes to cook, especially for me and my brother. And then I have friends.

I was telling Cheyenne about this place, Bohemian. They have interesting food, it’s creative, sometimes it works better than others, but generally I am a big fan of their ambition. They take the Bengali palate and turn it into something that is presentationally very different. I think I am very impressed by how much they succeed. Good food yes, but more importantly, interesting food. Good food in Kolkata is even now very much in people’s homes, really marvellous food.

Desserts: An occasional act of defiance

You’ve described desserts as an act of defiance in the book. Tell us about a culinary act of defiance you are proud of… 

AB: It’s an act of defiance in the sense that these days, especially, you are very conscious of all the reasons why you shouldn’t eat dessert. Or potatoes, for that matter (laughs and gestures to our plates loaded with sesame-crusted potatoes). The thing that I make every year, which is not in the book but I’ll still say it because it’s really my most radical act of defiance, is I make Christmas cake, where I buy roughly two kilos of fruits and nuts, soak them in a bottle of rum and cook a cake with it. It’s 100% poison (laughs) and incredibly delicious! Dried fruits held together with a tiny bit of flour. It’s wonderful. Almost no one should eat it but for Christmas we eat it.

Recipe for Sesame-Crusted Potatoes (Page 28)

Sesame-crusted potatoes rustled up by Abhijit Banerjee for My Kolkata

Sesame-crusted potatoes rustled up by Abhijit Banerjee for My Kolkata

  • ½ kg potatoes, either red or white, ideally each about the size of a golf ball (Again, very important that they are shiny and smooth. Wash them well but do not peel.) 
  • 1 tsp salt 
  • 6 tbsp vegetable oil 
  • ½ tsp brown mustard seeds
  • ½ tsp cumin seeds 
  • ½ tsp nigella seeds 
  • 8 fenugreek seeds 
  • 1 dried red chilli 
  • A pinch of hing 
  • ½ cup white sesame seeds 
  • ½ tsp turmeric 
  • 1 tsp salt or to taste 
  • 2 tbsp aamchur 

METHOD

  • Lay the potatoes in one layer at the bottom of a saucepan large enough to hold all of them. Cover with water so that the water level is roughly at twice the height of the potatoes, add salt and bring to a boil. Take the potatoes out when a bamboo skewer easily passes through the potato, about 10 minutes (more if the potatoes are larger, of course). Run cold water over the potatoes, and then allow to cool and refrigerate until 10 minutes before cooking. 
  • Peel the potatoes, using your fingers or a fork. 
  • In the meantime, heat the oil in a large frying pan (12” or so). When the oil is hot, throw in the mustard seeds, and when the popping starts to subside add all the other spices except the sesame seeds, turmeric and aamchur. After 45 seconds, add the sesame seeds, give it a quick stir and add the potatoes, turmeric and salt. Fry at medium heat for seven minutes, letting the spices form a crust over the potatoes. Remove from heat, mix in the aamchur and serve right away.
Last updated on 15.11.21, 02:22 PM
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