This week our Home Culinaire is someone who epitomizes all that Commeat stands for – a life journey built around food, travel, people and experiences. She is none other than Marryam H Reshii, one of India’s finest and most celebrated food critics.
Between the food connoisseurs, who rely on her recommendations, to the nation’s food critics who chase her stylistic wake, Marryam commands a legendary following. From an upwardly mobile Dhaba with the perfect Dal Tadka to the famous chefs at glitzy hotels, they all woo Marryam with equal fervour. For each knows how her one say could practically make or break their ambitions. With more than three decades of experience in observing and commenting about the food landscape in the country, she has had a ringside view of how far India has travelled in its culinary journey.
Born and brought up as a Goan Catholic, Marryam loved food, as most Goans do. It was in kindergarten that she first came up with a dish in her head and tricked the family’s cook into preparing it – French Toast with Chocolate Sauce still remains a personal favourite with her after all these years. Even though the growing years at Marryam’s home were about simple food that the cook rustled up, her arrival at the boarding school in Nainital at the age of 11 was a huge shock to Marryam. For the first time she did not have access to good food. “We were fed awfully boring food”, Marryam used to say at that time. As a way of coping she started to maintain a diary, circa 1970. She would ask all her school friends the names and recipes of what they ate during their winter vacations and note it carefully in the book, which has miraculously remained with her all these decades, after changing houses and cities several times. “I used to create the dish and flavours in my mind while noting all the details carefully” says Marryam. Little did she realize then, but this probably was her first stint as a food writer and there has been no looking back since then.
Entering college, Marryam moved in with her sister to the hostel and experimented with different ways to explore new flavours. Marryam remembers how “we haggled with vegetable vendors to give us one potato for 10 paisa and used to steal mustard and tomato ketchup from a restaurant in Connaught Place. For heaven’s sake we were still students with a small pocket and saw French Mustard for the first time in this restaurant”. She and her sister used to come back to their hostel room and would make some mashed potatoes with the purloined accompaniments. Such were the simple joys when less had more meaning and French mustard was a window to the world beyond.
With college ending, Marryam moved to journalism and her involvement grew with each passing year. She began to explore and file stories on travel, leisure and lifestyle – with food sometimes being a part of it. As she went deeper into it, her interest in cuisine became more and more clear to her. “I finally decided to write just on food, but I was discouraged by my boss who said that I would starve”, says Marryam. Well, the story did quite not work out like that. Marryam’s palate for detail in flavours and textures and her sharp ability to portray them through her words became her calling card and passport to the world of food.
Before the transition in her professional life, Marryam also had things change on the personal front, with her marriage into a Kashmiri Muslim family. “Everything suddenly changed – from a nuclear family to a joint one; from speaking in English to conversing in Kashmiri and from eating at a table to having meals on floor on a dastarkhwan, it was a new universe for me”. When I was a newly wed bride, my mom-in-law used to teach me Kashmiri dishes. And when we had my aunt and sister in law there, I used to be in a tailspin, because everybody argued with each other over the exact methods of cooking.”
“Now my style is Kashmiri”, she told us, as she took us through the three basic masalas that go in all the Kashmiri dishes. Further, there is difference in Kashmiri Pandit and Muslims with their masalas – while the Kashimiri Muslims use onions, shallots and garlic, Pandit families use heeng or asafoetida.”
All this while, Marryam was bustling about in her kitchen, rustling up an authentic Aloo Maaz (Aloo means potato and Maaz means meat) for us. Once ready, it looked fiery, but the flavours were subtle and we could taste each and every element of the dish – almost like a forest full of bright orange Chinar foliage, but with each flavour distinct and breath-taking in its own right.
“Kashmiris like their meat – for lunch, for dinner and if they had their way around it would be on the dastarkhwan for the breakfast as well” explained Marryam with a twinkle as we tucked into the Aloo Maaz.
As we were about to leave, we were given a pouch of her very own Kashmiri spice cake called ver. Apparently, each household has its own distinct blend, which is kept secret. We clutched our pouches as we headed back to the office – almost like a talisman, which would lead us back to more culinary trysts with Marryam.