How Did I Start Cooking!

This is my story of how I started cooking. As with most Indian children, usual I did not get much chance to do any cooking in India When I went to USA I had got a room in International students house(I-House) in Berkeley. For the first few days, the mess facility was not available. I and one more friend of mine from Delhi went out to eat in a nearby Indian restaurant called “Pasand”. There we met a gentleman who was a helicopter pilot. He had gone from India on contract to Sprinkle pesticides in the agriculture field. While doing this he met with an accident as helicopter caught fire. He had an injury in his legs and he was not in a position to fly anymore 

He was being paid by Insurance Company and was being retrained for another job. During this period he used to stay in a room in the hotel that had cooking facility as well. For the next couple of days, he showed us how to cook food such as Rice/Dal etc. This was our first lesson in cooking.

After few weeks we had four days of Thanksgiving holidays. All of us had very little money in our pockets. Eating Out was an expensive proposition. it was then that I decided to organise group cooking. There were 23 Indian Students in I-house. There were two common cooking areas available for students to cook. But we needed cooking utensils, ingredients, and plates, etc to eat. We found out there was a “Faculty Wive’s Association” which used to help students by loaning used kitchen utensils and plates etc for a nominal security deposit of $5-10. We went and got all of that along with cooking ingredients. While we had few girls in the batch most of them also did not have much cooking experience. With very little collective cooking wisdom, we made food and survived during these four days. After the first quarter, I moved out to a three-bedroom apartment which I was sharing with two other Indian students. We used to take turns to do cooking, cleaning, etc. Our total food bill used to come to about $60 per month per person.  

At that time, we did not have access to internet or any such resource. An American friend of mine found out a few Indian cooking recipes from the early versions of internet. He took a print out and gave it to me. This had various special dishes like Navratan pulao and others that were both good looking as well as tasty. On a special occasions like Holi/Diwali I started to to follow the recipe and hone my cooking skills. I also tried cooking Non Veg recipes, once in a while.

World-famous computer scientist, Dr Narendra Karmarkar(now in Pune) was also sharing our apartment. He used to move from I-House to my room when I came to India in 1982 and 1983 for my elder brother’s and my marriage. After I returned to the USA in 1983, he moved out of my room but started living in the living room. Somehow he took a liking to my cooking and would only eat in the house if I had cooked. He especially liked my Dal.  It so happened one time that He misunderstood that I had cooked and started eating. He immediately realized that something was not right! He asked about who had cooked. Vibhas, another apartment mate and also from Maharashtra, replied that he had cooked. Narendra got angry at him saying that he does not know how to cook and left the dining table and went out to eat!

Dr Shobhit Mahajan(right) and Dr Pradipta Banerjee(Middle) enjoying chicken cooked by me!

One of my seniors from IIT Kharagpur, Suresh, was also doing PhD at Berkeley. He got married and right after marriage, he and his wife came to Berkeley. His wife, Lata, had not traveled much. outside Orissa and had to directly fly to USA after marriage. As a courtesy I invited both of them to dinner. I decided to cook chicken for them. As I was cooking chicken I felt that gravy was not thick enough. In desperation, I decided to break an egg and pour it into the chicken being cooked. Afterwards they had food and left without discussing much about food!

After sometime in 1983, I got married and my wife joined me towards the end of the year. I moved to to a married student housing complex of the university at Albany village. Suresh was also living in the same complex. As our families grew close, Lata revealed one day that after coming from India to US her first proper meal was in my house and she remembered the chicken mixed with the eggs very well . I was a bit surprised hearing that since I was not at all sure about that recipe. it was just an experiment on the spur of the moment to deal with an emergency situation! Then she explained that after coming to the USA, she used to be very scared of her husband, who had a well built “body builder” type body! Being scared, she would hardly eat and the very first full meal that she had after 10-15 days of coming to the USA was the meal in my house!

I kept experimenting with cooking by trying to cook things that were cooked traditionally in my house such as “Badi cooked in Maithil style”. We used to frequently have “potluck” dinner/lunch get-togethers too among the Indian families. Some ready-to-cook items from India were also available such as GITS Gulab Jamun mix. We used to cook fish also and “Mangur”(Catfish) was my favorite.

One Bengali family from India had also arrived and started to stay in the same complex. We quickly started mixing. Many times we used to go to Chinese Market areas to buy fish. They would typically have large aquariums with fishes swimming around. You could point out to a particular fish and they would take that out and cut it for you and give it. We took along our Bengali friend to one such marketing trip in our Car. He chose a fish and shopkeeper took out the swimming fish and started to cut it in pieces. Suddenly my friend blurted out – “Is the fish fresh?” ! He could not resist his habit of asking this as it is a common practice in Bengal. Unlike other parts of the country (specially western part), where markets open bit late, in Bengal they open early morning around 5-6 AM. Many go out early in the morning to buy vegetable, fish etc. They would always ask this question to fish vendor to verify if the fish is fresh. Vendor would invariably answer that it has just been brought directly from pond or river etc and convince the buyer!

In 1986, I returned to India after completing my PhD and joined Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata. Initially, we stayed in South Kolkata in my in-law’s house and had to travel almost 3 hours each day to reach my office in Salt Lake. After few months, we moved to Salt Lake and could save time and energy by avoiding long travel. Somewhere I picked up a simple Indian cookbook. I started trying few recipes out of that. One of them was “Chicken Do Piaza”. I tried cooking that and it turned out to be excellent. Since that time it has been my favorite chicken recipe and I have tried eating the same recipe in restaurants in different parts of the world but it never tests as good as mine!

Later on, I also purchased a cook book of “Tarla Dalal”. It was with glossy pages and colorful photographs. Seeing that I decided to bake cake for my daughter’s birthday. I got various ingredients as well as accessories to bake the cake. I am a very disciplined learner and follow the recipe to the ditto! I used to go to grocery shop and ask them to make exact measurements like 275 gms etc as mentioned in the book and follow that. Cakes started to come out well both taste wise and look wise. Some friends suggested me to bake cake for their children’s birthday for which they were willing to pay money too! But I never took that risk!

In August 1995, I moved to Gujarat to join Institute for Plasma Research(IPR), Gandhinagar. During initial few months, I stayed in guest room of IPR hostel in the premises of Ahmedabad Education Society near Swastik Char Rasta, Ahmedabad. A number of research scholars used to live in the same hostel complex(many of them had opted for a job provided to them to work on upcoming Superconducting Tokamak – SST-1). Once in a while, during weekend, I used to do some special cooking (mostly assisted by few other residents). It used to be a bulk cooking – mostly non veg. One of them (“D”) was particularly notorious for not able to resist to wait till cooking was over!

Later on I moved to a rented house in Gandhinagar. My family shifted fully much later. Many IPR scientists had also found houses nearby and my house had a frequent gathering of them for the love of my cooking. Once I made “chicken do piaza” and after eating lunch, left it in a pressure cooker on the stove. When I was taking an afternoon nap(my favorite time on weekends), I heard some noise. Later in the evening, when I opened the pressure cooker, it looked like a “Cat” had taken away part of it. (Suspected cats were sons of landlords staying upstairs as the stove was next to the window!). After my family moved from Kolkata to Gandhinagar, once in a while we had lunch/dinner parties for IPR scientists (mostly young ones from IPR hostel days). Dastgeer and Poonam had good competition in cornering a large chunk of nonveg items!

From 2002, I had joined as Professor at Dhirubhai Ambani Inst of ICT(DA-IICT) in Gandhinagar. Semester exams got over in the first week of Dec 2006. I was still in the office around 7 PM when suddenly a number of students working with me on projects started to bombard me with messages using different channels of communication – phone, SMS, Orkut, etc. asking for a party! My wife was away and she was not in a position to help out with the crisis situation and there was neither food in the house nor supplies. Finally, I asked a few of my students to get in my car and we all went to the market to buy things. After that my kitchen was a chaotic scene and I had to make Chicken Do Piaza as well as Paneer Do Piaza along with other items. Students helped in the process of cleaning and cooking too. The running commentary was going on as well. Eventually, food was ready and we had a group photo and students went back to campus almost at midnight.

Ready for food!
Group photo after dinner!

In 2013, I moved to Delhi and many times, I used to be without any help. My wife continued to work in Gandhinagar and my daughter was doing PhD in USA. My son in law was working on his startup in Delhi NCR and he would stay with me at times based on his work convenience. I used to cook myself for weeks at a stretch, when no help was available, in spite of hectic work schedule. I added couple of breakfast recipes to my list – Poha and Upma (thanks to YouTube!). In Oct 2016, my daughter came back to Delhi after completing her PhD and after few hours of landing, we all went to her in-laws place in Jaipur to celebrate Diwali. I got an opportunity to show my newly acquired skill of making “Upma” and made it for all.

In Nov 2017, we were blessed with a Grandson, Aadi. After 4-5 months, I had a gathering of my relatives in Delhi area to introduce them to new born. I tried to cook about 4 Kg of chicken and found that I did not have a large enough cooking utensil to handle it. I some how managed it by splitting the cooking among couple of them. In 2018, I moved to Pune to take over as Founding Vice Chancellor of D Y Patil International Univ, Akurdi. I had a cook, who used to be irregular and once disappeared for almost 3 months. My cooking skills came handy in all such situations.

My Daughter along with Son in Law and little Aadi, moved to Silicon Valley in California in Aug 2018. In Nov 2018, I also went to spend time with them during Diwali break. During 2-3 weeks of stay, I used to cook frequently to give respite to them due to their hectic work schedule of US. As my grandson’s first birthday was close, I decided to celebrate that before returning to India. My daughter asked me to bake cake for little Aadi too since I used to do it for her! I had not done this since 25-30 years and some how managed to do it with the help from daughter and son in law. I almost ran in to couple of disasters ! Here is the outcome.

First birthday cake

I also joined my daughter in Nov 2019 for Aadi’s 2nd birthday celebrations. I again took the bulk of the burden of cooking during my 2-3 weeks of stay. This time I wanted to learn some new baking skills. I learnt to use “Fondant” and try out multi tier cakes. I did a trial run by making one of them in the earlier weekend. Aadi had demanded his cake to be blue and white! I finally managed to deliver this one to his liking.

Second birthday cake
Traditional maithil food

As Aadi’s 3rd birthday approaches, I am feeling sad to be not able to travel given the prevailing situation. Aadi has already demanded a “Blue Firetruck” cake! I am going to help it being baked virtually this time.
[Update on Nov 22, 2020 – As Aadi’s birthday came, my daughter and son in law made the “blue” fire truck cake with me giving moral support online. Here is the photo]

3rd birthday cake

Update on Jan 11, 2022 – I got chance to be in USA in Nov-Dec 2021 and celebrate my grandson’s birthday and bake cake. Here is a photo of that cake themed on space travel as he likes to learn about planets and specially “dwarf planets”.

Aadi’s 4th birthday cake!
Baby shower cake made for daughter’s friend in USA

Update on Nov 27, 2022 – I also could be in San Jose, USA to celebrate my grandson’s birthday and another opportunity to bake a special cake. This time the theme was “Numberblock” – Aadi loves those videos and is good for children to learn Mathis in a fun way. Here is the cake from the occasion.

Numberblock theme based cake!

Update : Nov 26, 2023 – I was present in San Jose to participate in Aadi’s 6th birthday. This time the theme was “Science” and I used this occasion to put Nuclear Fusion process on Cake! Here is the cake:

6th Birthday of Aadi

Early Childhood – Having spent my time from age of 10 at Netarhat School in Ashram, we learned to work with hands cleaning dishes, floors, toilet, etc every day. It has come in handy throughout my life including research. No work is small for me.

I have started a social movement called 1-in-1 (encouraging children to work with their hands at least one hour in one week doing things that we consider dirty). All children must be given training in life skills and they must learn to value the dignity of labor.

Author: Prabhat Ranjan

Prof. Prabhat Ranjan is Vice Chancellor, D Y Patil International University, Akurdi, Pune. He was heading India's Technology Think Tank, TIFAC( as its Executive Director since April 2013 to April 2018. Earlier he was Professor at Dhirubhai Ambani Institute for Information and Communication Technology, Gandhinagar (DA-IICT) since 2002. He was educated in Netarhat School(near Ranchi), IIT Kharagpur and Delhi University. He received his Ph D from University of California, Berkeley where he carried our research on “Nuclear Fusion” at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory during 1983-86. He immediately returned to India after this and carried out research in Nuclear Fusion area at Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Calcutta and Institute for Plasma Research(IPR), Gandhinagar. He played a major role in India’s Nuclear Fusion program and was Project Leader of the largest operational Indian Fusion Reactor, ADITYA, at Institute for Plasma Research from 1996-2002. His current interests include applications of Wireless Sensor Network to Wildlife, Planetary Exploration (Chandrayaan mission), Nuclear Fusion, Healthcare, Agriculture etc. He has received National Science Talent Search Award, IBM Faculty Innovation Grant and HP Innovate 2009 award, NPEDP-Mphasis Universal Design Award 2012, Bihar Gaurav Samman 2012 etc. In March 2022, he was also honored with EduStar India’s Most Impactful Vice Chancellor Award for 2021-22. He has been recognized by outlook among few visionaries, who can lead India towards 5 Trillion Dollar Economy. He has been also honoured with Maharashtra Ratna Gaurav Puraskar by Shalini Foundation in 2024. He is also recognized among the top “100 Great IITians : Dedicated to the Service of the Nation”.

3 thoughts on “How Did I Start Cooking!”

  1. Its very interesting how cooking becames a central aspect to social gatherings. I especially like the ” cat episode “. Its also inspiring to see the 1-in-1 movement. Do write about it more in next posts, we need our kids to imbibe these life skills. I totally find it mandatory. ( I have a son who is 13 and younger brothers sons who are 7 and 5)

    One more blog idea i would like to propose is how TIFAC vision 2035 needs to update owing to the covid situation which your team might not have anticipated.

    There is so much to be done, and just knowing that you are around gives me hope and keep me on my toes.

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