I hope you are enjoying the most socially active season in Chennai. Not only are there plenty of celebrations between Navratri and Christmas, but the general atmosphere of cooler weather and the year coming to a close make us feel like gathering more frequently. Sometimes we feel like calling everyone we know for a big bash at one of the many hotels in the city. The host only has to choose the menu and perhaps organise some decor, but otherwise can focus on dolling up, mingling with guests, and enjoying her own party as a guest would. The only tension comes when it is time to pay the bill! The other option is to call a smaller group home, in which case enjoying your own party goes down to the bottom of the priority list. But the payoff is worth it, as these smaller gatherings make for more intimate conversations and connections, and have a cozy feeling that cannot be replicated at an outside venue.
As a 22 year old newlywed in a new city/country/culture, I decided that calling people over and forcing my friendship upon them through food and drink was the best way to break down those strong clique walls. I had no cooking experience, nor did I have help for prep work and washing up, but I still chose ambitious menus. This was more than ten years ago, before the proliferation of fancy grocery stores we have today, so these menus required me to embark upon a scavenger hunt across the city, visiting at least five stores to get the various ingredients I needed from fresh basil to imported cheese, etc. These were all endeavours that child-free me had the energy to take on then, and they certainly did help me build relationships with both family and friends who were charmed by my efforts, even the unsuccessful ones. However, years later I have learned many lessons about entertaining at home, and I share these with you in the hopes that they will minimise stress and slog, and allow you to enjoy the process–and the party as well!
Don’t Follow a Formula – Do What YOU Do Best
Those who are new to entertaining may feel like they should follow a similar menu to what they’ve seen at their friends’ dinner parties. For example, the charcuterie board has become a staple these days, so you may think it’s necessary to buy all those expensive imported meats and cheeses, the giant wooden board to place it on, and all the extra flourishes like nuts, berries and preserves that make for a sumptuous, Pinterest-worthy spread. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing! If you are fortunate enough to have a cook, or a helpful mother-in-law who is happy to contribute, then instead focus on what snacks and dishes your house makes best. Items such as cocktail idlis and masala vadai may sound dull to you, but remember that what is standard fare for you may be a welcome change for your guests. For example, my Mangalorean mother-in-law once hosted a catered dinner for a group of Punjabi friends. At the end of the meal, they remarked that while the catering was great, they would have loved some Bisi Bela Bath instead! Every household has some ethnic dishes that they have perfected, and chances are that your friends would much rather taste those than another cheese plate.
Strike a Balance
It took me some time to understand that Indians do dinner parties differently than Americans. If you happen to watch any American reality shows, you will notice that while they do start with drinks and snacks, they do not linger over these for hours the way we do. The snacks are light, cocktail hour is brief, and the guests quickly sit down for the main event of a three course meal. Perhaps this is why the charcuterie board became popular, because there was no sense in putting effort into hot snacks when there was a substantial dinner to follow. Indians, on the other hand, do not like to drink with their dinner, so the cocktail hour stretches out over 2-3 hours during which guests maximise their buzz. This is a generalisation, however, and the lesson here is to anticipate your guests’ preferences and decide accordingly if the emphasis should be on the appetisers or the dinner. If you know your guests would like to drink for a long time, then make the snacks hearty and varied, and keep dinner light and simple. But if it is a one to two drink crowd that likes to wrap up early, then switch it by serving light snacks and a heavier dinner. These days, people are calorie conscious and don’t eat large quantities. I have seen the disappointment on a host’s face when no one makes a dent in the main course because they have filled up already; it is extra frustrating when the host has lovingly prepared the meal herself. Which brings me to my next point…
Combine Catered and Homemade
In my aforementioned early days of entertaining, I would make every item myself. I don’t know to whom I was trying to prove my domestic goddess abilities, but to be frank, it really wasn’t worth the effort. Nowadays Chennai is flush with home cooks who make every conceivable kind of dish, and at reasonable rates compared to hotels and professional caterers. So if you want to focus your efforts on the main course, order the snacks! Or just make one or two things in each category and order the rest to round out the menu. Sometimes we start with high enthusiasm, but on the day of the event we get overwhelmed with so many items. It is always a relief to know that some things are coming from outside, especially if you have a kitchen mishap, which again provides a nice transition to my next lesson…
Avoid Untested Ingredients and Recipes
I once attempted a lasagna for a small, ladies-only dinner party. I took tips from friends back home, read a few different recipes, and had enough confidence at that point to think I could pull it off. Unfortunately the edges of the lasagna dried up to the point of being inedible, and I had to portion out meagre servings from the center. Some people still got some dry edges, and for them I used tomato sauce to draw an arrow on the plate that showed them from which side to eat the slice! I later read somewhere that this is why you should never experiment with anything new when hosting people. Make the dish for your family first, and if it turns out well, follow the same exact process for the event. You might have found a special ingredient at one of the imported grocery stores and feel tempted to toss it in, but this isn’t a good idea either. Cooking is a fun game of chemistry, and we can’t always predict what reactions will take place. Imagining spoiling an entire dish with one element that made it bitter, or altered the texture. Go with what is tried and tested, and you will have nothing to worry about.
Don’t Be a Perfectionist, aka The Invisible Hostess In my overly ambitious days, I would have people over only to spend most of my time scurrying back into the kitchen. It got to the point where friends would sternly tell me to order in or make it a potluck because they wanted me to enjoy myself as well. Remember that your guests are not there for a five star experience, but for your company! Put in the kitchen time earlier, then hand things over to a helper. Pour yourself a drink, and resign yourself to not sweat the small stuff. They brought something out on the wrong serving dish? So what, it won’t affect the taste! The wine glasses have water spots on them? Hey, at least you know they’ve been washed! Your energy sets the tone for the evening, so if you are harried and not able to settle into conversation, the guests will feel uncomfortable and like they are burdening you. Some of the best gatherings my husband and I had were impromptu, where all we did was open up a bag of chips and let the night take its course. So don’t get so caught up in the details that you forget to enjoy the moment. Happy hosting, Provoke readers!