It didn’t occur to me until I was excitedly narrating the story of how I ended up making puris with the cooks at my office Diwali get-together, dressed in a full-sleeved shirt and trousers. Amused and laughing, my mentor asked me, “How is it that you always find your way to the kitchen in any situation?”. She had ample reason to ask, based on two other past instances. Yet, I was suddenly caught unaware, at a loss for words to decode the seemingly simple question.
It all began many years ago with the quintessential Maggi (boiled or stir-fried), fried eggs, omelette, and unnecessarily over-stuffed sandwiches. Curiosity is the mother of all invention, and my mother lacked curiosity in the kitchen.
The truth is, my sister and I started cooking because we got fed up with our mother’s food. We had to do something about the daily humdrum of daal (legume soup), bhaat (boiled rice), shukto, chochchori and jhol (fish broth/curry). Ordering frequently wasn’t an option. So we took matters into our own hands. Don’t get me wrong, we love our mighty mother and (a few) of her dishes. But for a couple of years, the dogma of “ma ke haath ka khana” (food cooked by mother) weighed upon all of us.
Heaviest on my mother of course, for not being able to live up to her role. Not being able to cook like my grandmother. I saw her pushing hard (amidst doing other household chores) to try out new recipes she picked up from the television, newspapers, and magazines. Faintly on me for making her feel that way. It had me feeling guilty for a while.
In retrospect, I wasn’t the nicest in my feedback, critique rather, of the food she made for us. You see, ma is a non-fussy eater. Exactly on the other end of the spectrum from my father, elder sibling, and I. We are irritatingly particular about whatever they put in their mouth. It took time for me to show and for her to realise, that she isn’t any less of a mother to us. Just because we didn’t like her cooking. She’s our mother just the way she is. These days we both find ourselves calling each other for recipes, more often than at least I ever imagined.
Cooking and eating go hand in hand.
Cooking and community go hand in glove.
I often get asked how I cook so well, and the answer is simple: I love to eat and to feed people.
Thus began my tryst with cooking. Graduating from quick snacks to scintillating appetizers, robust meals, and occasional baking. Along the way, unbeknownst to myself, my relationship with cooking grew effortlessly instinctual. I realized this a couple of years ago when my parents, in reply to my psychiatrist’s questions, mentioned that they knew I was unhappy. Because I hadn’t been cooking.
But good food isn’t in the measured grams of ingredients (unless, of course, you’re baking). It’s in the ingredients and a little bit of intuition. Many enthusiasts, encouraged by cookbooks and YouTube videos, have found themselves lost when facing family recipes dished out by home cooks. Ask your grandparent for a recipe, and you’ll know what I mean. I haven’t watched Love, Shove Tey Chicken Khurana. But there is no secret ingredient to the most revered dishes of yore. Or any hard and fast recipes to diligently abide by. Everything is measured by the ever-mysterious yet exact, andaaz (guess).
Aur andaaz apna apna.
I have my parents to thank for baptizing me into the habit, nay ritual, of buying fresh seasonal produce from the local bazaar every other morning. I think I started going to the bazaar much before I started cooking. Knowing the names of every kind of fish that comes from the river and how to tell if it is stale. How to pick brinjals without worms in them, when to buy cauliflower and methi. And when not to. How to differentiate between seasonal and chemically grown tomatoes, which potatoes are grown in which region. My interest in cooking grew hand in hand with my eagerness to go to the bazaar. Once in a while, I would chance upon quaint new ingredients brought by the farmer-vendors—wild berries, leafy vegetables. That inevitably became subjects of experimentation in the kitchen.
It was important for my parents that I not only knew about the produce but also the people who brought them to us. They knew the names and family updates of the vendors. Every purchase began with pleasantries or friendly taunts about the ever-inflating price of vegetables. Certain vegetables were always bought from specific people only. Some of them, especially the older ladies, didn’t know how to calculate the price of what they sold or count the money they received.
My father would often speak about how early these people woke up (3 am) to travel to the city for business, and yet how little they profited from their labor. Only a few owned land; most aggregated from their village and sold in the city. Baba used to tell me that he didn’t need to go to the bazaar so often. But it was the conversations with those people that drew him to the bazaar.
In retrospect, these were probably my first meaningful interactions with a community outside the gated apartment complex I grew up in. It reduced and fixed the distance between me and the food I ate. I knew what I was eating. What it looked like before it entered the kitchen, why it was eaten during that season, where it was bought, and from whom. I’m not saying it closed the gap between me and what I ate, but it brought me a little closer. Over the years, as I moved out of home, this distance has varied depending on where I’ve lived. But there has been a decent benchmark to compare to and learn from.
My earliest memories of communal eating were the annual langars that my residential complex used to host on Guru Nanak Jayanti. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of countless such gatherings across cultural contexts. And each one of them has been significant in its own way.
There is an inexplicable joy in cooking for others, seeing them relish every bite. And sharing the gastronomic pleasure conspired on the stove. It is a labor of love for me that goes beyond personal gratification to the assurance and acceptance of forging a relationship with the person or people involved. I had a really tough time getting along at college. It had been a bitter experience until the end. But among the memories that have stayed with me is the time I made dinner for 28 people along with my batchmates! I’m unreasonably proud of that feat that I put it on my resume as well. That was the largest number of people I have cooked for to date.
Then there’s the time the initially skeptical kids of the village licked plates of methi ke parathe with dhaniye ki chutney in a solely rice-eating village in Lower Assam, where I had briefly stayed. This brought me closer to the people of the village. Bowls of sabzi and daal used to be exchanged, and invitations for sumptuous mutton lunches followed.
Or the time I volunteered at a bhoj at a Baul ashram for 250 people, where all the raw material for food was gathered through begging. Or when I cooked in exchange for a place to stay in Kerala.
Here in Kutch, not knowing any better, my way of getting to know my colleagues has been through food. Daraab (my co-fellow) and I made a humungous batch of sheer khurma and distributed it in our neighborhood and respective offices. Or making my Gujarati colleagues taste khejurer gur (date palm jaggery/brown sugar) from Bengal. Thousands of kilometers away from home on the opposite side of the country, some things don’t change, like an innate cultural sweet tooth.
It is all this, I guess, that makes me jump at every opportunity to cook for people. There is a lot I have always learned about cultures whenever I have cooked or sat down to eat with people. The bonds made on these occasions have stayed on in my life to this day. Or, as one of my heroes put it simply, what I’ve taken an entire blog to say,
“You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.”