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The pandemic has all of us dining in and cooking more. And while big-batch cooking seems to be at the heart of many Indian homes - think rajma-chawal, piles of puffy pooris with aloo bhaji, idlis to go with a pressure-cooker’s worth of sambar - there is also a growing crop of urban singles who have been navigating this period entirely alone.
When mealtimes in the Indian context are celebrated for being a communal ritual, how does one - well, cook for just one? For many singles, the thought of cooking for themselves can seem like a daunting and taxing task. How much, how often - and the most important question - how many dishes will I have to wash once I’m done? And for younger individuals who may be living away from their families for the first time, stocking a kitchen with the right tools and ingredients is also new territory.
According to 25-year-old Delhi-based food blogger Raman Okram, cooking solo can be both fun and challenging - and he believes you can make it work without much fuss. He chronicles what he’s cooking on his Instagram handle @ramanokram: a colourful, eclectic and mouth-watering grid, with everything from plump dumplings and flaky spring rolls to creamy one-pot pastas and “throw-it-all-in” egg fried rice. What started as a way to feed himself in school and college has now grown into a passion and profession.
Curious Cook To Full-Time Foodie
Okram grew up in Manipur and attended boarding school, which is where he first got a taste (no pun intended) for cooking. Senior students of classes 11 and 12 in his school were allowed access to the kitchen - along with some basic utensils - to cook up what they pleased. Okram says that they’d receive coupons worth Rs 150-200 per week, and use them to buy basics like eggs, bread and Maggi to make their own meals. He would also strike up a deal with the school cooks and procure a few extra ingredients from them from time to time, and experiment.
Cut to his graduation years at the prestigious Hindu College in Delhi, and Okram was cooking more, while sharing an apartment with his roommate. He got serious about fitness and started grilling lean proteins like chicken - and there’s been no looking back. Now, he lives alone and cooks for only himself which requires a slightly different approach - and he’s sharing his tips and tricks with us for the benefit of home cooks everywhere.
Shopping And Planning
Okram says that he doesn’t menu plan but goes with the flow. He does however, believe in making a weekly run for fresh produce. For fresh vegetables and any out-of-the ordinary ingredients he needs, he visits Delhi’s INA Market, Foodhall or Modern Bazaar. (Okram cycles everywhere and carries his own bags.)
He says that it pays to frequent the same stores and develop a relationship with your grocers and shopkeepers. They are a treasure trove of information - from tips about the best brands to use for a specific type of cuisine, to how to tell when a fruit or vegetable is at its peak - it’s the best way to learn about your ingredients. For meat and poultry, he prefers local butchers to supermarkets as the meat is fresher and they offer the best cuts.
Dry goods and condiments last a long time, so he advises picking them up once a month. A well-stocked pantry is where you start building flavour and adding flourish to your meals, so he recommends stocking up on good-quality spices, sauces and seasonings. Some of his essentials are:
· All kinds of pasta and noodles
· Light and dark soy sauce, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce
· Stock cubes
· Chilli paste (like Gochujang) and tomato paste
· Dry herbs
· Butter, mayonnaise and parmesan cheese
· Sausages and bacon (in the freezer)
He also keeps plenty of home-made fiery chilli oil on hand, which he uses liberally in his cooking as an ingredient and topping. His favourite pantry ingredient? The humble egg - because it is easily available, nutritious and oh-so-versatile.
The Kitchen Set Up
When it comes to equipment, Okram relies on both an induction and a regular gas burner for his meals. He says that just an induction won’t cut it, since some dishes require actual fire for better flavour. (Okram shoots his recipe videos in his living room where the lighting is better and uses his induction stovetop for all of them.) Other basic kitchen utensils, like a good knife and spoons of different sizes also come in handy, but one doesn’t need to go overboard - opt for fewer, better things.
Being a dedicated foodie, Okram does own a few pieces of special equipment, like a barbecue and a grill, but says they’re not a must-have to make great food. His most recent acquisition is an Instant Pot, which has been quite the game-changer. He says it’s convenient because you can “throw stuff in, set a timer and forget about it,” - and use it for everything from dal and rice to soups and stir-fries.
Getting Down To Cooking… And Cleaning
Now comes the nitty gritty - the actual cooking! Okram says he doesn’t batch-cook but takes each day as it comes, as his process is very organic. He does like keeping cooked rice on hand at all times, though. Day-old rice can make be quickly jazzed up into fried rice for a satisfying bowlful - and on busy days when he’s shopping and filming, his go-to meal is a plate of warm rice topped with a fried egg and his home-made chilli oil. (He’s now taking orders for his OG Chilli Oil and shipping across India - you can follow his Instagram page to learn more!)
Cleanup is a big part of the process and can be the most painful aspect of cooking for newbies. The solution? Okram says it’s about prepping right, cooking smart, and cleaning as you go along. You won’t find dishes stacked up in his sink overnight! He utilises the time it takes for a dish to cook - for example, while a slow-simmering stew is on the stove - to do the washing up.
He is also conscientious about mise-en-place and prepping ingredients beforehand to cut down on the overall time spent at the stove. He uses the “clockwise technique” which means laying out each ingredient, clockwise, in the order it should go in, so he doesn’t miss a step.
The formula is simple: quality ingredients, a few good tools and a little planning are all you need to make a satisfying solo meal. But Okram says the only way you’ll get there is by actually cooking! He adds, “You can watch any number of cooking shows and videos on YouTube - but you’ll only start appreciating food once you start cooking it yourself.”
We’ve rounded up a few of Raman Okram’s recipes that are both fast and flavourful - and we hope his advice will give you the confidence you need to fly solo in the kitchen. So, give them a go, and don’t forget to tag us @beautifulhomesindia and @ramanokram. Happy cooking!
Fusilli With Sausage
· Boiled fusilli – ½ cup to ¾ cup (reserve some of the pasta
cooking water for later)
· Sausage links – 2
· Olive oil as needed
· Minced onion + garlic + chilli: 1/4 cups’ worth
· Handful of mixed greens
· Chicken stock – 1/3 cup
· A few basil leaves and some reserved pasta cooking liquid
· Butter – 1 tsbp (or more, if you prefer)
· Parmesan – to taste
· Salt and pepper to taste
· Cook your fusilli according to the package instructions till al dente and set aside, reserving some of the pasta cooking liquid for later.
· In a pan, add your sausage links and break them up with a spoon, allowing them to fry up and get nice and brown. Add a little oil if the sausage is sticking to the bottom of the pan.
· Add in the minced onion + garlic + chilli and sauté.
· Add mixed greens of your choice and allow them to wilt into the sausage mixture. At this stage, add some salt and pepper to taste.
· Add the chicken stock to deglaze the pan and help everything soften.
· Next, add the basil and a splash of the reserved pasta cooking water to help thicken the sauce and bring it all together. Grate in some parmesan. Mix well.
· Add your cooked fusilli to the pan and top with more parmesan. Mix well and allow the liquid to simmer and reduce.
· Once the liquid has reduced a little, add a knob of butter and allow it to melt and coat the pasta.
· Transfer to a plate and top with more parmesan!
Noodles With Black Bean Chilli Oil
· Boiled noodles – ½ cup to ¾ cup
· Oil – 2 tbsp
· Scallion + garlic + chilli – ¼ cups’ worth
· Button mushrooms, sliced – ¼ cup
· Napa cabbage stalks, sliced – ¼ cup
· Napa cabbage leaves, shredded – ¼ cup
· Black bean chilli oil – ½ tbsp
· Soy sauce + vinegar – to taste
· Sesame oil – 1-2 tsp, as per your taste
· Scallions + chives, sliced lengthwise – ¼ cup
· Salt and pepper to taste
· Boil noodles, drain and set aside.
· Make a paste with the black bean chilli oil, soy sauce, vinegar,sesame oil and set aside. (Adjusting the levels as per your taste.)
· Heat the oil in a wok. Add the mixture of scallion + garlic +
chilli and sauté.
· Once the mixture softens, add the mushrooms, Napa cabbage stalks, salt and pepper. Sauté and let the vegetables soften. The mushrooms will release water and turn deep brown.
· Add the Napa cabbage leaves. Mix well.
· Stir and sauté until the Napa cabbage leaves wilt down.
· Add the boiled noodles, top with the black bean chilli oil mixture.
· Toss well till everything is coated with the chilli oil mixture.
· Add sliced scallions and chives, toss well.
· Pull off heat and transfer to a deep serving bowl.
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