As a teenager living in England in the 1970s, most of my friends in the London satellite town of Slough (home of the fictitious Wernham Hogg Paper Company in hit television show The Office) were from working-class families. Their diet was limited and poor: processed white bread, chip butties (sandwiches filled with fries), potato chips, processed cheese slices, sausages and tinned food. An aubergine, for example, was unheard of and even if one had been presented, its purpleness would have been something to be feared.
I had assumed that the working classes elsewhere in Europe ate just as badly until I travelled to Strasbourg, in France, to stay with a friend's parents. Brigitte's father was a retired miner and her mother a housewife. I expected indifferent food.
Instead, the ratatouille was a profusion of bright flavours, the baguettes were bought fresh every day, snacks were not cheese and onion crisps but artichokes on toast and, most staggeringly of all, they often had a crispy endive salad before the dessert or cheese to cleanse the palate - a phrase rarely heard over the rustling of a TV dinner being opened in Slough homes. The meals of this French working-class family were nutritious, balanced and refined.
Diet, I realised, should not be universally linked to class. Nor, as I have discovered in India over the past few years, should it be linked unquestioningly to economic status.
Poor Indians obviously have few resources and have to keep things simple. Dire poverty can mean a sad meal of a chapati (unleavened bread) with a raw onion and a green chilli. Droughts in areas such as Bundelkhand, in central India, are forcing some farmers to have just chapati and salt for dinner. But away from the extremes, Indians with little money can prepare meals that are as satisfying as they are simple, especially so in Dharavi, in Mumbai, described as "the biggest slum in Asia", or "an informal settlement", as the politically correct prefer to call it.
The Indecisive Chicken is a collection of recipes from eight women who live in Dharavi and came together for cooking workshops presided over by Prajna Desai, an art historian who writes about contemporary art. Desai wanted to collect their recipes, along with information and anecdotes about their lives, and publish them - something the women themselves found bewildering.
"Most were initially sceptical of someone featuring them in a book," says Desai, when we meet in Dharavi. "Some were baffled that someone would find their recipes interesting enough to include in a publication."
Desai's Dharavi Food Project formed part of a series of neighbourhood events organised by the charity Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action. To feature in the book, the women, having been whittled down from a larger group of hopefuls, had to find time for 13 full-day cooking sessions.
This required making sure their absence didn't ruffle any feathers at home, with their husbands or mothers-in-law. One of the women, Kavita Kawalkar, is self-employed; the others are housewives who do not venture far from the lanes they live in. Going out for anything other than groceries or to accompany children to and from school is unusual and frowned upon for most of the women.
"Apart from going home to my village in Azamgarh, in Uttar Pradesh, I have never been outside Dharavi, not even to [neighbouring] Wadala, where my son goes to college," says Sarita Rai, a tall, handsome woman whose spicy green pea stew is one of the recipes featured in the book.
The dishes found in The Indecisive Chicken are testimony to the ethnic and regional diversity of food in India. The estimated 700,000 people in Dharavi are a microcosm of the country; all of its languages, dialects, foods and faiths are concentrated here.
Guided by Desai, the group of women met regularly over a period of 12 weeks for the workshop, chatting and learning about the cuisines that each of the others cooked.
"Some of the women were surprised that a particular ingredient which they thought was used only by their community was used by another. This wasn't anything competitive, more a case of a sense of ownership of an ingredient and how to use it well," says Desai.
For the historian, who has been cooking since she was 12, there were few surprises in the methods and techniques that emerged during the workshop. However, for the participants, the programme was an eye-opener.
Take Kawalkar's fish masala, for which she roasts an onion on an open flame. Doing so releases the onion's sweetness and, as it chars, it gives off a smoky, barbecued aroma. Perhaps the most educated of the group, Kawalkar, who is from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh but was raised in Dharavi, tutors children in her home language: Telugu. Her charred onion, which features on the cover of the book, looks like a work of art.
Bharti Majewadia, who was born in Dharavi to a family from Gujarat, belongs to a potter's family. Potters live in the western part of Dharavi, in a large area called Kumbharwada. Here thick, black plumes of toxic smoke billow from the kilns, enveloping the pot-strewn lanes and causing respiratory ailments, cancer and tuberculosis.
"We cook on clay, inside clay and with clay," Majewadia told the other women, as recounted in the book. When she has roasted a brinjal (aubergine) on an open flame and puréed it to the consistency of baba ghanoush, the Levantine dip, Majewadia does something novel. She heats a shard of unglazed pottery on the open flame, then takes the burned shard and turns it around inside the aubergine, using it "like a concentrated flavour pellet … to return the brinjal flesh to its original smokiness", as Desai writes in The Indecisive Chicken.
The ingredients some women used came as a surprise to the others - damsons and their leaves in wheat dumplings; sugar cane juice rather than water used to boil rice, as Rai does, to impart a light sweetness that offsets the pungency of the fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds, fennel and black mustard seeds she uses in her puris (deep-fried bread) stuffed with potato.
"I have never eaten in a restaurant or roadside eatery. Never," says Kawalkar. "It's too expensive." Nor have the women eaten any other cuisine but Indian. Yet their skill in putting together a delicious meal is based on a subtle appreciation of the interplay of spices and a sophisticated palate.
All of them except Kawalkar knew how to cook when they got married. Most Indian mothers make sure their daughters can prepare food before they leave for their marital home.
"Who else will do it?" Rai asks me.
The first year of marriage for Kawalkar "was disastrous. My food had too much salt or too much chilli. Or both. Luckily my husband was patient. It improved and now it is very good."
Food in the homes of these women is based on whatever is seasonally available and they play to the inherent taste and texture of the ingredients instead of modifying them too much. The lack of money dictates that meals are made from scratch and, here again, there is an interesting contrast to be drawn between the residents of Dharavi and the British working class.
TV chef Jamie Oliver has wept at the British working class' inability to eat more cheaply by cooking a meal from scratch.
"Some of the most inspirational food in the world comes from areas where people are financially challenged," he told the Radio Times magazine a couple of years ago. "The flavour comes from a cheap cut of meat, or something that's slow-cooked, or an amazing texture's been made out of leftover stale bread."
The women of Dharavi cook with fresh ingredients twice a day, once in the morning, to provide breakfast and the "tiffin" that the husband and children will take to work and school, and once in the evening. None of them has a fridge. Nothing is stored or kept, nothing is bought ready-made, no sauces or tins are to be found in their kitchens, nothing is pre-cooked and nothing frozen. Much-loved Maggi noodles are the only exception to this fresh-is-best rule.
Kawalkar's food budget is about 5,000 rupees (HK$580) per month for a family of five. If she has visitors, it shoots up, as honour demands that guests be fed mutton, chicken or fish. Packaged spices are out of the question, but not just because of the cost. The aroma that is released by coriander seeds or cumin being ground by a pestle is like an explosion compared with the whimper produced by opening a packet that's been sitting on a shop shelf for six months.
Her dosas (paper-thin crepes) are made from rice and black lentils that have been left to ferment overnight: "I know you get the dosa mix ready-made but one, it's expensive, and two, it doesn't taste as good as home-made."
If the women and their families eat well, it's because their food is freshly made and wholesome. Their one extravagance may come during festivals, with a garnish of pistachios or almonds on their desserts.
DESAI WON'T MAKE GRAND pronouncements about the impact of the workshops on the women. She refuses to say that the cooks have emerged "empowered" or anything so glib. But she does offer the following: "After being in a room full of other really, really good cooks, they emerged with a sense that what they do every day is hard labour and real work. This introduced a different framework within which they might think about their cooking."
It was probably the first time that the women had ever thought consciously about something they have to do every day out of necessity and custom.
Usha Singh, who came to Dharavi 10 years ago from a village in Uttar Pradesh and contributes a recipe for stuffed bitter gourd to the book, demonstrated this lack of awareness during the process of archiving another of her recipes, when she struggled to reveal all the ingredients and steps.
"She admitted that it wasn't something she ever thinks about actively so it was hard for her to frame it as a structure. A lot of housewives so internalise daily household labour that thinking about it as real work doesn't occur to them," says Desai. "They admit they do it probably because they are female."
And the title of the book?
That came from a conversation that took place on the orientation day, before the workshops began. Desai, trying to warm things up, asked an attendee who would not go on to be among the final eight what she cooked at home.
The woman said she didn't cook chicken because her husband refused to eat it. Why? Because, judging by the way they run around madly when they are set free, chickens were stupid and indecisive, he thought.