Cooking together tomato and chicken, I attempt to make space for it among the medley of flavours that stains the moist air of Saket, a residential neighborhood in southern Delhi. I couldn’t swear that the recipe is an invention of mine, but it would be too ambitious to call it “chicken cacciatore”, just because it reminds me of the same dish that my nonna used to make.
Therefore, I have renamed it Saket Chicken. Life away from home also entails creativity in the kitchen. It takes a bit of what you find, mixing together ingredients that we think could go together without producing an unpleasant taste and voila! If you like the result, it will be re-used. If it is eaten simply to stave off hunger, the flavours almost unnoticed, the menu will disappear, if is definitely bad and your budget allows for a second meal, it will end up in the rubbish sooner than expected.
There is a place that sells chicken a few blocks from my house. A room on the ground floor which looks like a garage when closed, but well-maintained when open. I found this place because in India chicken is mandatory if you want to eat some kind of meat. Pork is not advisable because it doesn’t usually come well preserved and cows are sacred. Chicken is the only meat that by its wide consumption guarantees that you will not spend the next few days sitting amongst the white ceramics and floral design of the bathroom.
When I enter the shop to buy the chicken I would never have been able to guess the spectacle that is laid out before me. In this shop there are no chairs, the place is tiny and Rajnikant awaits his customers sitting crossed-legged on a marble step. I want two boneless chicken breasts and two legs. Rajnikant slowly takes a large knife and put the plastic grip between the toes of one foot, holding it vertically with the blade facing up. With his hands, he grabs the chicken and passes it along the blade with a spectacular technique. Before I realize what is happening, he repeats what he has just done and gives me the four pieces I asked for.
The appointment with Rajnikant, and the one with the greengrocer, is repeated several times a week. We begin to get to know each other, exchanging a few sentences. The second floor of the grey building, number 52, block E in Saket, feels like home; and dinners with friends and chai tea from Anita – the landlady-, part of my daily routine.
With the barometer well above 35 degrees, it is difficult to do almost anything: work, take a rickshaw, walk, read and, sometimes, just to think. Most of the time days off are spent under the fan vegetating, waiting for the monsoon to do its job and at the same time, to lower a couple of degrees on the thermometer, to return the city to at least a somewhat livable place. But India always has some surprises.
The ring of the bell echoes through the air with a childish melody. The magic eye deforms the face of a woman I do not know. I run to get dressed because the few centimetres of skin showing are too many for these latitudes. The upstairs neighbours’ maid enters smiling and begins to recite a prayer in Hindi which I’m sure does not contain any of the ten words I know in the language. I look at her like an idiot, she is smiling and talking, while on the kitchen table is a tray of fried food. She goes back upstairs and down again with another container. The homeowner comes down only with the latter serving, with an improvised theatrical appearance. It is a tribute to a celebration whose name I cannot remember, but most of all, the official welcome to the neighbourhood and building.
WRITTEN BY ANDREA FAGIOLI