Featuring Kamini Agarwal from Mumbai
She composes poetry on instant demand at weddings and get-togethers; she dances with a grace that defies her age; she sings melodiously (the ghazals she has performed for All India Radio are proof enough); she has performed in front of the camera for several serials on Doordarshan; and she cooks effortlessly. Kamini Agarwal, 66, a Baniya from Uttar Pradesh now living in Mumbai, has a true ‘zest for life’—a phrase aptly used by her dearest friend Sulakshanaji Arora when introducing Kaminiji to me. Speaking to Kaminiji about her varied interests, I could not help but admire her zeal and compassionate spirit.
I grew up in Lucknow. After my graduation, I got married and moved to Ahmedabad. After some years, we moved to Assam and then to Chennai and, finally, in 1995 we moved to Mumbai. My husband, Hari Om Agarwal, worked with ONGC [Oil and Natural Gas Corporation] where he retired as DGM [Deputy General Manager] in 1999. ONGC has a strong history of fostering local cultural groups and I enjoyed participating actively in these wherever we shifted. I also served as a secretary to the group in Mumbai. We are blessed with a son and a daughter who are now settled in Mumbai as well.
My mother! She was an awesome cook and I learnt just by watching her. She never really taught any of us how to cook. In fact, I remember making rotis when I was in Class 5! And I can see the journey of how the process of cooking itself has changed over the years: from chulha to angithi to the kerosene stove to the gas stove and now the microwave!
All my friends and family love my aloo tamatar ki sabzi, which I make in a jiffy. My friend’s daughter Shivani Arora once told me, “No one else can make such a tasty dish at this speed.”
When sudden guests arrive, I prefer serving a meal to snacks. So it’s usually a meal of rotis, a sabzi—preferably stuffed mirch—arhar ki dal and steamed rice. Another favourite and quicker option has always been hot parathas with aloo tamatar ki sabzi. I always keep bread and boiled potatoes in the fridge. If you wash the potatoes well and pressure-cook them along with the skin, they stay fresh in the fridge for up to two weeks. When you want to prepare a dish with potatoes, simply heat them in the microwave and proceed. My preferred dishes with potatoes are sandwiches, cutlets and a variety of aloo chaat.
For me, half the fun of cooking is the hungama one can create with leftovers. Here are my top two favourites:
Green tea in the morning! I used to be addicted to tea and would have 10-12 cups every day. I have now reduced that to three cups, and that’s all thanks to green tea.
When you store vegetables such as ridge gourd, bottle gourd, brinjal, carrots and radish in the fridge for a few days, they tend to shrivel up. So whenever you want to use them, just blanch for a minute in hot water and they will become as good as fresh. This also allows you to peel them without wasting too much of skin. My other tip is to help preserve coriander leaves. As soon as I buy the fresh leaves, I clean and wipe them well. Then, I dry the leaves in the sun, crush them and refrigerate. Use whenever required and you will find the dried leaves as flavoursome as fresh ones.
As a family, we prefer home-cooked meals. But if there was one restaurant we frequented during the early years of our marriage, it was Havmor on Relief Road in Ahmedabad. We loved the dosas there. I became a dosa fan ever since.
ALL FOR A CAUSE
In 2000, I established Dheeraj Satsang Samiti in Borivali along with Anil Lath. We supports widows abandoned by their family. We give them shelter and empower them. We are interested in women’s welfare, and we raise a voice against injustice. If any of the domestic help working in our locality are ill-treated by their husbands or family, we report it to the police and take active measures. Today, we have 125 members in the group. Further, we have placed a large drinking water tank for passers-by, like auto and taxi drivers, vendors and maids. We have also adopted 12 street children and teach them. They have shown tremendous interest and improvement, but it has to be
a diligent and constant process.
A HOBBY I CHERISH
I love writing poems and bhajans in Hindi—I have a collection of almost 150 poems in my diary so far. I also compose bhajans in melodious tunes that are loved and sung by members of our group. When we lived in Chennai, I joined Anubhuti, a poetry group headed by Neeraj Gupta. I was also a part of Abhyudaya, which was a theatre group headed by Sushma Ahuja. My poems and articles have been published in popular magazines such as Kadambini, Reader’s Digest (Hindi), Mukta, Vama and Meri Saheli. Recently, many have been published in Saamna too, which is a local magazine. I must add that the credit of inspiring me to write goes to my friend Sulakshana Arora. She always urged me to write more and more. Let me share one of my poems that is kitchen-inspired [laughs]. With the analogy of kitchen ingredients, I have explained the myriad aspects of life: “Mera dil hai ek masaledaani, iski bhi hai ek dilchasp kahaani….” [My life is like a spice container; it has its own varied flavours.)
One of the best values I learnt growing up was to know how to be content. More than accumulating wealth and property, we cared about being happy. When I got married, my father gave me some exquisite furniture, which we did not use for almost 17 years because of my husband’s job that required us to move frequently. But it did not matter. How can chasing after material success ever lead to contentment? The routine and rat race, the competitive life people lead today are crazy. In that sense, I think we grew up with more happiness and togetherness than I see now.
I like my life as it is. I feel loved and cherished. All of this would have not been possible without the support of my family. I appreciate their encouragement and participation in all my activities and interests. If there is one wish I have, it would be to see my poems published in a book.
(Stuffed green chillies)
In Uttar Pradesh, a common meal is steamed rice with dal (arhar ki dal) along with any sabzi. A favourite in Kamini Agarwal’s family is stuffed chillies with dal and rice. These stuffed chillies are cooked using very little oil, can be preserved for a week and are ideal as travel food.
Wash the green chillies and pat dry. Remove the stalks and carefully slit them lengthwise.
Roast the besan in a non-stick pan on low flame until it turns light brown in colour. Remove from pan and set aside. Mix the masalas: chilli powder, coriander powder, amchoor, garam masala and salt with the besan. Add 2 tsp of oil to the besan mixture and mix well. Stuff the slit chillies with the besan mixture. Keep the remaining mixture and set aside. Coat the chillies with ½ tsp of oil. Now, heat the pan again with ½ tsp of oil. Reduce the flame and place the stuffed chillies in the pan. After 4-5 minutes, turn the chillies and cook again. Within 3-4 minutes, switch off the flame. Add the extra besan mixture and coriander leaves on top and cover for 3-4 minutes. Serve with rotis or steamed rice and dal.
Pratibha Jain, an author and translator from Chennai, is the co-author of two award-winning books Cooking at Home with Pedatha and Sukham Ayu. Her area of specialisation is documenting Indian traditions through research, translation and writing
Photos: Haresh Patel
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