The kitchen is not my zen space, in fact I don’t enjoy being in the kitchen at all. I procrastinate entering the kitchen as much as I can and once inside I hurry through the cooking process so I can get out as quickly as I can.
I dislike my kitchen, it feels unproductive to spend so much time making something that is polished off in 15 minutes!
Why then do you cook, you ask, if you don’t like it so much don’t do it. And you would be right! I didn’t, until this dang pandemic sent us all into that part of our homes we’d kept well away from. So of course when I started, like most things we don’t enjoy, cooking didn’t come easily to me. For months the family would quietly eat salty sambhar, excessively spicy beans curry, watery mashed rice (yup I even managed to ruin rice). On most days even I couldn’t eat what I had made.
The saving grace of this entire time was that it was hot food. When food is hot you can typically forgive a few ‘taste’ errors. Warm rice and dal without garlic and tempering was still palatable so that’s how I fed my family for 6 months. The thing with cooking is – a measure like ‘a heaped tablespoon of coriander powder’ can still go wrong for someone with no idea of measure, exactly how heaped should the spoon be?! What kind of measure is that!
Well like most things if you apply yourself do it everyday there’s only one way to go, UP!
Shockingly, for me and those at home, my cooking actually got better. The salt balanced out, I found the right spice tolerance that suited my family, that my children actually preferred their karela fry to be extra fried than the regular golden brown. Little things that brought joy to the table.
This morning as I was restocking my tamarind box it occurred to me that cooking is like magic! I was just holding that bit of tamarind in my hand and thinking how uncanny that thousands of years ago someone had stumbled on the fruit of the tamarind tree tried to eat it as is for a few hundred years before someone else realized the juice of the tamarind is even more Yummy.
Over years of use, women and maybe some men cajoled the pulp into a thick juice that mixed with sweet (jaggery or sugar) and spice (chillis, masalas) to create a tangy sweetness or a tangy sourness that would leave the tongue wanting more.
How someone threw in a piece of the humble ginger, cardamom, or cinnamon into a pot of snobbish tea and it became masala tea. Tea is the one thing I don’t mind getting into the kitchen for, its also the first thing I ensured the husband learned for the days I do not feel like making it.
Since then, I’ve thought of my kitchen as this little cave space where magical ingredients are hidden in little nooks. Some whose smell seeks you out, others whose taste linger on your fingers, yet others that you look at suspiciously never wanting to succumb but knowing that you will when the day is right.
Over time it seems one, thousand-year-old secret, at a time the mysteries of cooking have unraveled themselves to me. I no longer use the measuring spoons yet with a flick of my hand ‘a pinch of salt’ turns out right. My fingers seem to know the right amounts of mustard, fenugreek or dhania powder I need for each dish. My rasam is the right amount of golden brown with reds and greens. My rajma reminds me of a day long gone when a dhabba meal in the middle of nowhere was an adventure I needed. The aromas that fill my kitchen when I grind coconut, fennel, chillis together is one that I’ve known from childhood.
Dishes passed on from woman to woman over generations as they sat huddled in kitchens cooking up the magic that we call food. These goddesses that breathed in joy, nostalgia and love into simple ingredients from their kitchen to create art that engulfs our lives and memories. I feel them around me, generations of women, as I squeeze lemon into my pulao, as I temper hing into the sambhar or add a dollop of ghee to the laddoos.
I detect a sense of pride as I type this, something I never imagined feeling for my skills in the kitchen and yet it’s the sustenance of food above all that we remember from the past year.