Cooking with Anita Tikoo
ANITA TIKOO IS LEADING US ALL INTO A WIDER, MORE DELICIOUS WORLD OF COOKING
PHOTOS AND STORY: ROHAN KAMICHERIL
t’s December in a leafy enclave in northeast Delhi and I am in the rooftop garden of Anita Tikoo, better known to her avid followers and students as the mastermind behind A Mad Tea Party, an Instagram account, website, sourdough baking school, recipe exchange program, local produce advocacy resource—you get the idea: Anita Tikoo is a busy woman. Though elsewhere in the city the smog that has captured headlines around the world seems impossible to escape, in this verdant redoubt tucked into a tidy balcony, all seems green and pleasant and sheltered.
Tikoo points out the many varieties of greens and vegetables she grows—the arugula, pak choy, haak—that most essential of Kashmiri greens—and even mooli greens. The latter are less in evidence than I had expected—“already picked for our dinner,” she says pertly. I’m surprised that in between writing recipes, hosting classes, and attending to the landscape design and architecture firm she runs with her husband, she has already found time to come up to the garden and pick the vegetables for our dinner. It’s a constant battle between her and the neighbourhood monkeys, she tells me with a resigned laugh: “If I don’t pick the vegetables the monkeys will!”
The eclectic menu for the night’s dinner, which Tikoo has generously offered to cook for me, brings up one of the central pillars of her appeal, but also the source of one of the biggest puzzles around her. She tells me that she’s prepared a Marathi katachi amti and an improvised Kashmiri-style caronde-and-lotus-root dish; and she has just been explaining to me, with an impressive depth of knowledge, the details of a recipe for her favourite sambhar. Where, I ask, nervous about what seems like a rather ham-handed and indelicate question, is she from, exactly?
She breaks into laughter and her eyes gleam with the delight of being asked a question that she is clearly accustomed to answering.
“People always ask me—are you Kashmiri, Marathi, Tamilian, Bengali?” she says, then cocks an eyebrow at me, as if soliciting my best guess.
“I’m Kashmiri,” she says, with a little flourish of laughter. She ascribes her broad culinary tastes to a childhood spent on the campus of IIT Delhi, surrounded by friends from all around the country. Her husband’s Marathi roots have played a role, too, and she tells me that it was her mother-in-law who taught her how to make basmati rice in a rice cooker. But despite this wide array of culinary influences her Kashmiri origins always shine through in little ways.
She tells me that, because Kashmiris always arrange their plates with rice at the top, her South Indian friends often make fun of her when she does the same with a South Indian meal. “They say, ‘hey, the rice should be in the south here,’” she says, pointing to the bottom of her imaginary thali, “’not in the north up there!’”
When we’re back in her kitchen, I’m unsurprised to see all the ingredients for the dinner prepped and laid out in readiness.
On a windowsill there are bottles of various vegetables fermenting away. There are jars of salted hill limes, limes from her own tree, green chillies fermenting with garlic, others with mustard seeds.
“I hope you’re okay with non-bhuna-fied food,” Tikoo says to me as she pulls together the very few ingredients for a traditional Kashmiri paneer-and-potato kaliya. I’m familiar with the ubiquitous process she’s complaining about—the standard pan-Indian recipe that invariably begins with the patient frying (or, bhuna-fying, in her wonderful coinage) of onions, ginger, garlic, tomato, and spices. “More people should cook Kashmiri food,” she says. “No chopping up onions, no endless frying.”
The petite slabs of creamy white paneer get gently fried in mustard oil then removed and set aside to soak in water with turmeric. Next, thick disks of potato get lightly bronzed in the same oil and then set aside. Finally, a little scattering of whole and ground spices go into the hot oil to bloom before the turmeric soaking water, paneer, and potato go back into the pan to cook through and absorb the flavour of the spices. A final touch—one that’s completely novel to me—of milk added to the pan and simmered for just a few minutes, brings the whole dish together. Tikoo sets the pan aside and makes a dusting-off motion with her hands: one more dish taken care of.
Next she sets about frying the maish krej, a salted and dried Kashmiri cheese. “I hope you like stinky cheese,” she warns me as she puts two little ivory rounds into a pan. I’ve never heard of maish krej, let alone seen or tasted this distinctive cheese before, and even its name presents something of an obstacle for me. Tikoo walks me through the pronunciation, which seems to contain at least three or more vowel modulations that go unseen in the English spelling. When I’m finally unable to wrap my tongue around it on my third try, she gamely suggests that I just call it kaladi, its name in Jammu.
Cooking the cheese itself is a mesmerizing exercise in restraint and deftness. The outside of the compact pucks seem dry and unpromising, but as the little cast-iron skillet they’re cooking in gets hotter, they start to release a cloudy whey and begin to melt. While still continuing our conversation, Tikoo turns the cheeses over, gathering up the strings of molten cheese and patting them down to encourage browning. I feel a pang of secondhand anxiety for this scene of increasing entropy: it seems unlikely that anyone could corral this rapidly deteriorating block of dairy into any kind of coherent shape. But Tikoo continues to compact, press, turn, gather, and eventually, improbably—amazingly—the two pucks have started to fry in their own fat, turning brown and crusty with little bits of their molten interiors spilling out through cracks in the surface. The texture and taste of them is intense and unforgettable: salty, tangy, crisp.
Before dinner there is one last chore to attend to: the sourdough boules that have been rising have to be scored and baked for a class the next day. The tidy little balls of soon-to-be-bread, snug in their cloth-lined bannetons, are yet another fascinating aspect of Tikoo’s culinary persona.
She has become an immensely popular guide to the wonders of sourdough baking (and in fact, during the pandemic, she seems busier than ever with virtual workshops on the subject). She admits, however, that she herself started without much guidance or advice from anyone, adding that this may have been for the best. “When you’re on your own you can work without intimidation or fear,” she says.
But now, any semblance of hesitancy from those early days has long since left her. She carefully but swiftly unmolds the rounds of dough and, using just a bare razor blade pinched between her fingers, traces fine, spare patterns on them, each slice revealing a slender glimpse into the fine network of gluten (and the specks of a handful of cranberries in one of the loaves) within.
When the loaves come out of the oven, they’re a riot of chestnut- and golden brown. The thin tracery of bladework on their surface has bloomed into a striking relief map of crags and clefts. Tikoo holds one up to my ear and I can hear the tiny, bristling sound of the crusts cooling. “You’ll take this one home,” she tells me, pointing one of the loaves out.
The parts of the meal, when we sit down to it, are fully as diverse as I’m expecting—perhaps even more, and yet, they all hang together with a fine coherence. The caronde-and-lotus root dish, which Tikoo tells me she came up with inspired by ingredients that she happened to have in the kitchen, is tangy and bright; the maish krej is wonderfully somehow both brittle and gooey against the soothing warmth of freshly cooked rice, and the kaliya with its lovely milky broth pricks faintly with warm spices. We end the meal with a simple bowl of perfect winter fruit (dusted with a pinch of Tikoo’s husband’s favourite—painstakingly sourced—brand of chaat masala).
And though, to my eternal regret, distracted by my food euphoria, I forget my handsome sourdough loaf when I leave later that night, I come away with something else remarkable and unique: the experience of seeing, firsthand, a version of culinary excellence that has strong roots in a specific place and its traditions, but which freely enjoys culinary gifts borne in on every wind—whether it arrive from north, south, east, or west.
Find the recipe for Tikoo's Kashmiri-style winter vegetable mix over here.