Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

Pollan dons an apron and heads into his home kitchen to understand the fundamentals of cooking


Fifty years ago, my mother, then a teenager, lived in a joint family in a flat in Bandra East in Mumbai. For her family, making nankhatai was something of a bonding ritual. My mother and her two sisters would prepare the dough for this soft biscuit. My grandmother would keep an eagle-eyed watch as they measured out plain flour, crushed sugar, mixed the ghee and finally crumbled in cardamom seeds. The pliant, fragrant dough would be worked into plump white balls and the sisters would hop onto a train to visit their local bakery in Andheri, five stations away. There, they would stand in line with other home bakers, waiting to place their miniature moons on beaten aluminium trays that would be hefted by the bakers into the bakery’s massive oven. My mother still remembers the taste of fresh nankhatai – fragile white balls with crisp, golden edges that dissolved into your mouth. My mother’s memories of nankhatai was on the edges of my mind as I read Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. A food activist and professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in California, Pollan has previously investigated the intimate relationship that humans share with their food sources, through books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. This time, among other things that Pollan writes about cooking as a “much more sociable activity” than it is today. “Even today,” writes Pollan in Cooked, “in many Mediterranean villages, you find communal ovens, where people bring their proofed loaves, roasts, and braises, and pass the time in conversation while waiting for their dishes to come out of the oven.” For my mother and her sisters too, the nankhatai ritual was also a time to discuss mundane occurrences, share intimate stories, and bond.

How food is woven into a community’s social fabric is just one of the many ingredients in the elaborate recipe that is Cooked. For this new book, Pollan dons an apron and heads into his home kitchen to understand the fundamentals of cooking. His culinary journey looks at four basic elements – Fire, to understand which he goes back to the oldstyle barbecuing of meat slowly over fire; Water, which takes Pollan on a quest to make the perfect stew/braise; Air, which is understood through the workings of baking bread; and, Earth, for which the author experiments scientifically by brewing beer.

Through his experiments in the kitchen, Pollan puts together a compelling argument about cooking as an art, a survival skill and as “an essential, defining human activity”. He questions the futility of the processed foods that are now standard fare in our refrigerators and cupboards. Those cans and plastic boxes encroach upon our memories of food and its cultural vitality. He wonders why we spend less and less time in the kitchen and takes journeys to understand where his food comes from and how it is cooked. Pollan goes beyond the supermarket aisles and into the farmyards and some master kitchens. He also get us to chuckle at some of his trials, which include chopping pork until his arms grow rubbery. From the humble yeast to innocuous plant matter and the whole hog, Pollan gives the reader a taste of what it is like to get back into the kitchen and cook. Recipes from his culinary escapades are available in the concluding section.

Pollan’s book, though very North American, comes at a poignant time for India. He writes, “How’s it that at the precise historical moment when Americans were abandoning the kitchen, handing over the preparation of most of our meals to the food industry, we began spending so much of our time thinking about food and watching other people cook it on television?” This line could uncomfortably reverberate in many urban Indian households. Our supermarkets are packed with processed foods – from ready-to-eat dals to prepared ginger-garlic pastes and assembly-line bread to instant noodles. Of course, their popularity is fuelled by their easy accessibility as compared to more responsibly grown and healthier produce. Since they are mass-produced, it is cheaper to buy biscuits, than to prepare them at home. Not to mention the effort that goes into, say, baking a nankhatai. While we load our trolleys with precisely these foods in an attempt to cut our time in the kitchen, we spend more time watching TV shows such as Masterchef Australia, debating restaurant food reviews and Instagramming photos of meals. There seems to be time to do all of that, yet when it comes to cooking our meals, as Pollan points out, “fresh is a hassle” and “time is the missing ingredient in our recipes – and in our lives”. At the end of Cooked, Pollan manages to pique the reader’s interest in the intrinsic value and joy of making food in your home kitchen. While, I doubt that most readers will start baking bread or brewing beer after reading Pollan, I for one, am going to my oven to bake a batch of fresh nankhatai.

Michael Pollan Penguin,

By Bijal Vachharajani on September 27 2013

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