Where are you, Mr. Pandey?

Weddings in North India are moments of great celebration. Families and friends from far and wide join the bride and groom over many days of fun filled merriment. Food is an integral part of this experience. For the Mathurs (a North Indian Hindu community), food defines the purpose of a wedding! We live to eat, marry to eat and eat our way through moments in life, both happy and sad!
Most traditional Mathur families had their favourite cooks, who would be called in when the occasion demanded. The cooks would arrive a few days before the ceremony and would chart out an elaborate menu. They used to carry their own cooking implements that had been passed down through the generations. It is said that the pots and pans added their own unique flavour to every dish. After much discussion and deliberations (typically over several mouth watering meals), the Mathurs would decide on the menu. What followed was a frenzy of activity where the finest of ingredients would be sourced. Being fond of their food, most families had a direct connection with the source of ingredients and freshness and flavours would consistently be second to none.
The cooks had an amazing repertoire of capabilities. From snacks to pickles to the most delicious deserts and everything in between they had the ability to make every meal a celebration. Our family’s cook was a delightful old gentleman by the name of Gopal Pandey. His age was indeterminate. I thought that he was quite old but his slight frame was a power pack of energy. A meal for a few hundred guests would be prepared with amazing speed and panache. In fact, it was quite a sight to watch his small team orchestrate a sequence of frenetic chopping, vigorous stirring and frying. The old man, bent with age would go about his craft like a virtuoso.
We loved him especially for his ability to weave magic with the meats. His piece de resistance was a dish called badam passanda, which was a sublime combination of blanched almonds and the finest cuts of goat meat which was slow cooked to perfection. The fragrance of the dish was so over whelming that suddenly neighbours who often looked at weddings as social disturbances would be at their civil best. The tragic part of this dish was that no generous estimate could ever satiate its demand and as a kid I was always left wanting a lot more! As a family, I don’t think we ever managed to get the estimates right!
Over the years, I remember Gopal Pandey continuing to cook up a storm and improve his craft further as we navigated through our journey of celebrations. In the early 2000s, the trend shifted to hosting weddings in hotels and farmhouses and his appearances became few and far between. As we got busier, our weddings also got less elaborate and the convenience of hosting it at a hotel or a farmhouse was just too tempting. I don’t recollect having met him for the last decade.

In my recent visit to India, I learnt that as he grew older, his sons decided post their education to get proper ‘office’ jobs and looked down upon their rich culinary legacy. I guess progress is also about moving on and forging a new beginning. However I can’t help but feel nostalgic. The wonderful smell of the badam passandas still lingers…

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