Thursday, August 16, 2007



When I started working at the Indian restaurant, the chef was a gentleman whom I mistakenly called "that nasty little Bengali". Primarily because of his casual disregard for every other employee except the Sikhs and myself.
He was respectful towards the Sikhs, because nobody messes with a Sardar - especially not with the big Punjabi tandoor-wallah, who came to us from a restaurant where he had chased the manager with a talwar when pay was withheld once too often, and at a different time pushed a seekh through an arrogant know-it-all coworker.
He was respectful to me, because I once pulled the tandoorwallah off him and saved him from being whacked with a cleaver.

Later he became fearful of me when I threatened to shove him face first into the deep-fryer if I ever found him using monosodium glutamate again. I was standing on top of him when I told him so.
I refrained from eating the food at the restaurant after that, having no wish to be poisoned by a nasty little thing-spawn.

[Actually, a U.P. wallah.]

However, when at the end of that year the nasty little Bengali (nasty little U.P. wallah) stormed out in a huff, things changed.
I think I may have been responsible for that.


The chef we hired to replace the nasty little kloojak was Jeet Singh Rawat. No, not another Sikh - the surname Singh is common to all Sikhs, but not all Singhs are Sikhs. This Singh was a Kshatria from Garhwal, about two hundred and fifty miles north of Delhi. Like many hillmen he was not quite so deft with spices as Muslims usually are (and the departed nasty little U.P.wallah had been very adept at spicing), but he was a much cleaner man.

By clean I do not only mean fastidious and capable of maintaining a sanitary kitchen, but also clean in his attitude and behaviour. Jeet Singh Rawat was gentlemanly. He did not push himself forward, and treated everyone else equitably. And quite unlike the nasty little monster, he did not throw temper tantrums or hurl epithets. During his years in our kitchen there was far, far less discord at the restaurant than before.

[Excepting, of course, for the immediate vicinity of the badtempered South Indian Christian woman - whom the Sikhs nicknamed Talwar Singh, and I refered to as 'voh badbu-walli untni', or sometimes ooloo. She was not welcome in the kitchen. She was probably responsible for nine-tenths of the unhappiness and spite within a ten-mile radius of her overstuffed self at all times. The owner of the restaurant, who clearly was in it for the entertainment it provided him, kept her on for eight years. She finally left to open a "French" restaurant, taking her slow-witted ghulam with her. ]

From 1991 till his death in 2002, on those days that I worked at the restaurant, I very much looked forward to his cooking.

His chicken tikka masala, when he still made it with the pistacchio-cream sauce, was divine. His malai kofta was heavenly.
Knowing my tastes, he made saag paneer just the way I liked it - not too much cream, and with a little extra ginger. Or potatoes in cream and butter sauce with a just the perfect amount of fried dry chilies and mustard seed. Tichwan, with alu instead of mooli, and toasted cumin.

In Indian society, sharing food happens often in a religious context or a ceremonial context, but until recent times was somewhat restricted or coloured by caste considerations. Sikhs instituted the langar as a means of dissolving caste barriers by having recipients of food eat together in the Guru's dining hall, and at many temples special foods are handed out as prasad - blessed gifts or foods which have a certain sanctity because of the context and the place. The idea that shared food is in some way sacramental also underlies the Sikh attitude. And it is not entirely strange to other cultures either.

The nasty little Bengali's uncleanliness of character spread pollution. His food was not a hospitable concept by any stretch of the imagination.

But Jeet Singh added a sacramental quality to the food. An aura of good fellowship and comradeliness. Eating the food which he prepared for me was sharing prasad.

He died suddenly of a heart attack in September of 2002.

Much more than the food, I miss the man.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you

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