This past weekend was a little crazy, for DC as well as our home. It was Inauguration 2009 and we had a number of guests in town, some staying with us and some with other friends. We decided to have a dinner on Sunday at our house, to get everyone in the same place with out dealing with the madness of downtown DC. I decided to make a traditional Pakistani winter favorite called Haleem. It is like a heavy soup made from a variety of lentils and grains, plus beef and spices. Traditionally this dish was considered very special, kind of like turkey or ham on Christmas day, due to the fact that it takes a long time to make. Aside from the cleaning and soaking of the pulses, you cook the ingredients for a number of hours until the meat is so tender, it melts just by touch.
When our guests were eating dinner, most commented on how great it was for me to get everyone together and how I really went out of my way to make this meal. They were impressed that I would take on such a task and made additional dishes as well. Yes, it was a lot of people and I made more than just Haleem; but to be honest, it wasn't as complicated as everyone made it seem. Granted most of the people over that day don't usually cook and I'm positive few had ever made Haleem. Had they ever attempted, they would've learned that things are very different today than they were a generation ago. Cooking today is by no means as complicated and time consuming as yesteryear.
More often than not we find that our produce and meat is already clean, cut, trimmed, cubed, diced, de-stemmed, peeled, packaged, etc. before we bring it home. You also find a number of instruments or gadgets in a modern kitchen which make dicing, mashing, pureeing and grating a breeze. I think back to not long ago when I first moved to Pakistan, how the produce had to be cleaned before refrigerating. The stems, leaves, roots with dirt would still be intact for most vegetables. I also remember my aunt using a stone slab to grind spices and grains for a variety of dishes. There was no such thing as ginger paste or garlic paste in a bottle, you made it all yourself from fresh garlic and ginger root...on a stone slab (no blenders or grinders). In short, things that seemed to be a delicacy or special treat are not so much a feat anymore. With Haleem for example, one no longer needs to clean or peel husk off the pulses (lentils and grains), you don't need to cut the fat off the meat since your butcher will do that for you, packages with all the pulses pre-measured for you can be found in most Asian/Indian stores, either a spice mix or your own ingredients can be used to make Haleem without having to grind or crush the seeds or spices. With modern day technology cooking time for this dish go from 8 hours to about 4 or 5 hours. The prep time which would've taken my grandmother half a day, took me only about an hour...and this was the time in which I soaked the grains and lentils so they would cook softer.
With modern conveniences, anyone can cook almost anything. So why then is there such a hype around cooking? Granted there is always the art and science behind cooking. There are those naturally gifted individuals who, as they would say in Urdu, have "flavor in their hands" (haanth mein maaza hai). And those gourmands who have a knack of picking up on ingredients or flavors from a single bite of food. But beyond those people, today it is possible for anyone to follow instructions on a box and make a great meal. There are a million books, blogs, guides, schools and self proclaimed teachers to tell you how to make almost anything. Be it from a box or from scratch, anyone can do it...at least once! Why make it more difficult than it has to be when all the prep work is already being done for you. I challenge you to try something difficult, something that your mother or grandmother may have spent a whole day making. Look for short cuts and alternatives to their recipe and then share with us how it turned out.