An Indian Love Affair with Irish Stew

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An Indian Love Affair with Irish Stew

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

To my mother, for whom cooking for her family was just an everyday fact of life, the fact that her fussiest child’s most loved memories of growing up all relate to the dishes she made is a constant source of wonder. And chief out of the multitude of dishes that came steaming out of her kitchen was her Irish stew, a dish that did and still continues to hit the sweet spot every single time. A dish that defined my childhood, and beyond. Starkly simple in its appeal. One might call it inelegant, or even basic, for it’s certainly not the stuff for lavish or hedonistic palettes, but I still crave it, even years after I first had the joy of tasting it.

So while my mother is willing to oblige an occasional plaintive cry for the dish, she cannot comprehend why both her children consistently demand it, irrespective of the occasion, time or place. When asked what I would like to eat, the weight of this decision does not bear heavy on my mind. A hard day at work? A special birthday meal request every year? A cure for a broken heart? The only meal I requested the day before my wedding? It’s always the same answer. In our household, this is indeed a cure for all ills. Well, only for a handful of its members, I might add. My mother herself doesn’t much care for the dish now, although she grew up relishing it. Neither does my father, or my husband, who disdainfully dismisses it as a “sick man’s meal”.

Irish stew is a dish that defined my childhood, and beyond. Starkly simple in its appeal.

As a child, whose head was always buried in some book or the other, nothing pleased me more than snuggling up in bed with a trusty ‘ole Enid Blyton — whose characters, incidentally, were often found enjoying the same dish I so loved — and have my mother bring me a steaming hot, comforting bowl accompanied by extra buttery potatoes that I would gleefully mash up with a fork, and pair with a smattering of rice. I proceeded to do everything except lick the plate clean, which I might have occasionally done whenever mum’s eagle eye wasn’t trained on me.

Actually, there was one thing that made me happier than eating it. This was watching mum make it. For such a simple dish — it consists of absolutely no masalas or spices that our exotic cuisine is so renowned for — it was quite a painstaking process. All the vegetables — carrots, potatoes, cauliflower, peas — had to be individually boiled because “the water released when carrots and potatoes are boiled is enough to ruin any dish,” stoically maintained my mother. Once this was done, and the onions were delicately browned and tomatoes sufficiently plumped, she got started on the meat she added in; some days it would be chicken and sausages, others would find succulent pieces of meat making an appearance. Then there was the addition of spoonfuls of thick cream, which gave it that rich, soup-like consistency just made to be spooned up. But the best part she saved for last. And that was the dollops of butter that were carefully added in to lend it that velvety, luscious flavour that made it literally melt in your mouth. My grandfather would make his the same way but he would mix in a variety of full-flavoured meats together, so lamb, poultry and cold cuts would all find their way into the pot, creating as delicious and hearty a flavour as what mum made.

For such a simple dish — it consists of absolutely no masalas or spices that our exotic cuisine is so renowned for — it was quite a painstaking process.

When I was younger, I would be content to just watch my mother make this and other dishes she whipped up, never attempting to try my own hand at cooking. But as an adult, when I finally let mum pass on some of the secrets that made her such a hit at family parties because of her seasoned cooking skills, one of the first dishes I attempted was but obviously Irish stew. There was no question of putting my own spin on it. Needless to say mine did not turn out the same. Not even close. The husband tasted one spoon, and shook his head, announcing, “not a patch on your mum’s.” Of course, as I write this, I realise he could just have been wily enough to discourage me making a dish he didn’t like. But it did send me on a quest to taste as many variations of stews as I could get my tastebuds on. On a houseboat in Kerala, I relished an Ishstew bowl redolent with coconut, spices and bay leaves. In Darjeeling, a spicy pork one made my mouth water with both its delectable taste as well as its potent pungency. In my beloved hometown of Daman, I tasted a fragrant, Portuguese-inspired concoction of prawn and cabbage that has since made its way into our household’s pantheon of treasured recipes. As for friends and their lovely mums who so generously fed me their versions, I must confess that while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the sampling, none left me misty-eyed as the original Irish version of home.

With this love, I find myself in august company. While I would never presume to equate my writing with theirs, I find that I do share this passion for a particular food with some of my favourite literary figures. For instance, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road details his legendary love of apple pie; George Orwell is said to have termed plum pudding as “one of the greatest glories of British cookery”; Agatha Christie had a distinct appetite for clotted cream stemming from her years growing up in Devon county; a serving of roast beef is what got the famously reclusive JD Salinger out of the door; Jean-Paul Sartre’s letters to Simone De Beauvoir notes his request for halva, a honey-and-nut delicacy, after he was drafted into the army during World War II; and lastly, I cannot leave out Elizabeth Bishop who claimed to have been the one who introduced brownies to Brazil.

On a houseboat in Kerala, I relished an Ishstew bowl redolent with coconut, spices and bay leaves.

Then you also have those who take this fondness a step too far. Case in point being William Makepeace Thackeray whose indulgence in spicy foods turned out to ruin his digestive system, and be his downfall in the bargain. He burst a blood vessel after a violent vomiting attack post returning home from a dinner party. Well, unlike him, I think I will heed Roman philosopher and constitutionalist Marcus Tullius Cicero’s advice to “Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide”, as hard as this is to do when it comes to my favourite dish.

It is said man cannot live on bread alone. But stew? Ah, now that I could (and probably will) savour right till the end.

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