(FPJ's My Space column gives a platform to Indian and international students abroad to relay their experience which can be helpful for many other students wishing to study overseas. Stay tuned for more!)
Ameya Kulkarni, a student at HEC Paris experienced a lightbulb moment, and several such in the last one year. He realised that mastering the trials of ‘studying abroad’ requires not only academic prowess but also a mastery of the culinary arts. So, even if you've never set foot in a kitchen before, here is how you can have fun cooking with Ameya’s tryst with pots and pans, and quick recipes which we will publish for the next three days. Here’s the first part:
Moving abroad for my Master’s in August last year was not the first time I had left home to live by myself. Having previously experienced campus life during my undergraduate years and a year of working in Pune, I thought I was prepared for the challenges of intendent life.
However, during the former period I had my hostel’s mess, and during the latter I could easily order online or go to a nearby mess hall. I was used to having a plethora of food options accessible to me at literally any time of the day- in IIT-Bombay, where we had canteens and campus eateries open till 3 AM! While I occasionally dabbled in cooking to impress my friends, I never truly developed the habit of preparing meals for sustenance.
I blame this on a mix of laziness and an ingrained belief that cooking was arduous and time-consuming, something beyond my grasp. As a result, when I moved abroad, I found myself completely unprepared to tackle the food-related challenges that awaited me.
HEC Paris is in Jouy-en-Josas, a village located around 20 miles from Paris. The village centre, a 10–15-minute hike from the campus, boasts only a handful of restaurants, most of which are beyond the budget of an international student. The massive Auchan supermarket nearby packs a ton of ready-to-eat options like packaged meals and a bakery, but these options are not really filling and easy to get tired of.
On campus, I was surprised by the lack of food options: a restaurant universitaire (RU), akin to a student mess, open only for lunch six days a week and a gourmet restaurant open in the evenings on weekdays.
In addition, there were vending machines and a few food trucks, albeit pricey and unreliable. The RU's offerings failed to impress my Indian taste buds, and a single meal typically cost over 4.5 euros.
Fortunately, I had brought some Theplas from home, which, along with some vending machine meals, bread, eggs, and instant noodles, served as a temporary solution for the initial weeks. I soon realised that I needed to acquire cooking skills to ensure a reliable source of sustenance, particularly for dinner and weekends, or on occasions when I could not spare the time to visit the RU.
Turning the Pasta hurdle into cooking opportunity
Battling my culinary self-doubt, I decided to ask a few friends about what they were doing for food. One response caught my attention: Pasta. Pasta has always held a special place in my heart, especially Alfredo.
Whether my mother prepared it for special occasions or I indulged in it at restaurants and buffets, I always preferred pasta over other options like noodles. It turned out that Pasta was something of a “secret” French staple- never advertised to the outside world, but consumed on a regular basis in households.
I was immediately drawn to this idea and decided to do my research. Intrigued by this idea, I decided to dive into some research. After a few days, I devised a plan. I would buy a packet of pasta from the supermarket, along with a selection of complementary spices—thyme, basil, parsley, and oregano—some fresh veggies, and a jar of pasta sauce. To my surprise, my first attempt at cooking pasta turned out remarkably well. I hadn't expected my homemade dish to taste that good.
This initial success motivated me to experiment further, exploring different types of pasta, sauces, spices, and vegetables. I even incorporated chicken into my culinary repertoire, honing my pasta-making skills to the point where I could effortlessly prepare it in my sleep.
To enhance my meals, I added easy side dishes to the menu, such as garlic bread, mashed potatoes, and nuggets. Before I knew it, I had completely stopped relying on the RU and began cooking all my meals from scratch, relishing the joy of preparing and enjoying the food I made.
Discovering the joy of cooking inspired me to venture into even more dishes. You see, I had always been a fan of food shows and YouTube cooking channels, but I lacked the confidence to try the recipes myself.
However, my triumph with pasta instilled the necessary courage to embark on new culinary endeavours. Over the following months, I dabbled in various cuisines such as Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, and Middle Eastern.
From fajita wraps to shawarmas, each attempt brought me a sense of accomplishment. Of course, there were a few missteps along the way, like the time I struggled with making dough—I am still working on perfecting my roti-making skills.
But overall, my experiments were met with success, at least according to me and my friends who occasionally tasted my creations. I learnt a lot from YouTube channels, and I would especially like to recommend Binging with Babish, Sam the Cooking Guy and Chef Jack Owens. After all this culinary exploration, I felt ready to confront the cuisine that had always intimidated me the most—Indian cuisine.
Indian spices, masalas save the ‘days’
My parents sent me a package containing three essential spices that were not easily found in France but formed the heart of Indian cooking: turmeric, garam masala, and red chilli powder.
Finally, I could recreate the Indian dishes I had been craving for so long—various curries, veg kadai, paneer/tofu, and pulao. As someone who does not easily ask for help, I took it upon myself to learn Indian recipes.
My go-to resource is a fantastic Indian YouTube channel called Spice Eats. They provide both video and written instructions, making it easy to follow along and quick to refer back to. Establishing a routine, I began selecting a specific cuisine each week, organising my grocery shopping accordingly, and preparing meals in advance.
This involved cooking a large quantity of food at once and portioning it out for busy days. On special occasions like holidays or gatherings, I even ventured into creating new dishes such as crumb fried chicken, kebabs, and mini taco bowls.
Cooking has become a source of joy for me, enabling me to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Each day feels like a treat as I savour the taste of my own creations.
In conclusion, my journey of cooking as a student studying abroad has been transformative. From initially feeling unprepared and reliant on limited food options, I discovered the joy of preparing my own meals. It has not only nourished my body but also brought a sense of fulfilment and creativity to my daily life. In the spirit of sharing, I would like to provide you with three recipes from different cuisines that I regularly enjoy, which are easy to make and healthy as well. I hope you find them helpful and that they inspire you to embark on your own culinary adventure towards self-sufficiency while studying abroad.
The author is a Master's student at HEC Paris' flagship Grande Ecole Master in Management programme.
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