…or how to handle massive dawaats without losing your mind or screaming (too much)
There is no word in English that quite encapsulates the subtleties of dawaat: An event more entertaining than a soirée, more intimate than a get-together. It is several tête-à-têtes (might include people next door, too) coalesced into one, where “finger food” does not mean the food is minuscule but rather you should have food encrusted all over your fingers. But then, there is Dawaat -- a transformation of dawaat worthy of the audio-visual spectacle that is an anime power-up sequence. During a sweltering summer a couple of years ago, the wife and I found ourselves facing off against these Dawaats, 3500 miles apart.
At a shiny, new town complex in Cambridge (the original in the UK, not the newer one in Massachusetts), my wife was fretting about a tribute event set to live Tagore songs for 70-odd people, who had also been lured on promises of a traditional meal of pulao, roast chicken, and mixed vegetables. In a shiny, old town house in New Jersey (the newer one in the US, not the one in the UK where companies go to avoid taxes), I was helping my cousin -- and best friend -- organize logistics for her impending wedding celebrations. Hundreds of people had been invited, lured on promises of delicious traditional and non-traditional food, and of course, the joy brought forth by the joining of two families.
Let honesty prevail: The less onerous of tasks were mine. My wife had to fight several battles with unerring diplomacy -- ranging from one event organiser full of groundless bluster and impuissant opinion, to getting attendees to commit on attendance for an event they had clamoured for. While she furiously messaged me as a means to allay stress, I was hopping from shop to shop, providing a discerning eye on choosing sartorial wedding gifts for the to-be-newest member of our family. Aided in this task was my cousin from Australia who was impelled on promises of a delicious meal; our minds and motivations are wholly aligned.
That is how we found ourselves hustling our way into Michelin-starred, Chef’s Table alumnus Blue Hill without a reservation. While my poor wife continued her battle across an ocean, we treated ourselves to the finest in farm-to-table dining. Their signature item, “Habanera” -- a specially-bred pepper -- was a complex mix of flower and fruit, usual piquancy whispering in the background. Perfectly pan-seared duck breast (pink, not bleeding) was served with its own heart (definitely not bleeding), accompanied by a black garlic reduction. What truly ensnared our senses was “bread yoghurt”, silky-smooth dairy with notes of caramel, wheat, and yeast. Finishing off the tasting menu was burnt pistachio sorbet with an impossibly soft texture that melted into a rich, natural creaminess with each spoonful. Served with a wonderfully smoky beetroot mocktail that I would later replicate, it was an indulgent meal that I felt I did not deserve compared to my better half.
Back in Cambridge, my wife had mustered the aid of allies: A couple of close friends who are also a couple (AKA Friendly Couple), and her mum. Several litres of oil, kilograms of rice, alliums, and ginger were ordered online, with Friendly Couple taking up meat and spice duty. The venue itself was mere minutes away: Cooking would be conducted in the generously-sized shared kitchen for her halls of residence. Friendly Couple were to take the lead (I would say I felt usurped but I am utterly hopeless with Bangladeshi food), with my wife and others as sous chefs. My mum-in-law would be arriving later with a classic sweet-and-savoury mixed vegetable dish. Organisation was on-point, so what could transpire to throw things off-kilter?
On the hottest day in the UK on record (back then), whilst Argentina played in a World Cup match (highly distracting for half of all subcontinental peoples), a late morning call informed my wife that Friendly Couple were running late. Verdict? Worrying but manageable, as other things were in order: Deliveries on time, room cleansed. My wife started her mise-en-place by slicing up a few kilograms of onions, garlic and ginger. Although the kitchen was designed for seven people (all politely warned), ventilation was disastrously poor; I can imagine gases from the alliums trapped in an enclosed, greenhouse-like space wreaking havoc on eyes. It was appropriate that tears were shed; with five hours left to go, Friendly Couple informed my wife that they had forgotten an essential piece of stage decor, and would be doubling back. Given they lived around an hour away, the delay would be substantial. Down in London, my mum-in-law joined her daughter in a synchronised panic attack.
Once Friendly Couple arrived, the pivotal poultry dish could begin: A classic deshi wedding-style chicken roast. The heavy pot was frighteningly large (a small child would fit) but necessary for the twenty chickens who had given up their lives to appease hungry Asians. Pieces were rubbed in dry spices before being fried to create a wonderful sear, and to let flecks of mouth-watering, caramelised fat accumulate in the pot. Mounds of sliced onions and other ingredients were sweated in the infused lipids to bring out their natural sweetness and flavours, and to let them soften into the velvety sauce that is a hallmark of quality curry. Due to the sheer size of the pot, it needed to straddle two cooker hobs, continuously rotated at quarter-turns to prevent any one zone from receiving too much hot love. Once the chicken was reintroduced to the bubbling sauce, I was told the aroma was stunning.
As opening time hurtled towards them, some organizers wrapped up preparations for a traditional chopped salad -- sharp onions, juicy tomatoes, and refreshing cucumber. Their task completed, they rushed out to start signing in guests; this is obviously the moment at which my mum-in-law popped into the kitchen after a break, weighed and measured the salad with a critical eye, and found it wanting. This she announced out loud in suitably acerbic fashion, with egressing event organisers still in earshot; what a time to be alive! With the show eventually under way, everyone had a chance to enjoy beautiful renditions of Tagore songs, experience elevated by the fantastic acoustics of the auditorium. As dinner time approached, all event organizers made to leave and that was when the artist started a well-loved song that was emotional for my wife; she uncharacteristically announced that she was absolutely staying put, and that others should sort out logistics. (That made me fiercely proud). Unsurprisingly, dinner went down extremely well with consensus that the chicken roast was one of the finest any had had in a very long time. I was not bitter at all that any leftover chicken was not kept frozen for me.
For my wife, this nerve-wracking event was followed by four days at an academic conference in Manchester, after which she jetted over to New Jersey to attend my cousin’s wedding, which is a riveting tale for another time. Once we finally had a chance to swap war stories (mine a border skirmish, hers a full-scale campaign), we raised a metaphorical toast to those who rose to the occasion. To close friends and family who always answer when Dawaats call: We salute you.