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‘How to blend spices’ and other life lessons from my mother

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I stand in our shiny new kitchen in our little corner of suburbia, and chop the red peppers with a less-than-satisfying Ikea knife. It’s Sunday – cooking day. My daughter, who is almost 5, sits on the bar stool across from me and is concentrating hard on the “problems” at hand. Her father has given her some additions and subtractions to work through. One she gets into the double digits, she begins to fidget. I give her a bowl with small strips of red peppers and she is thrilled. She is one of those unexpected children who love raw fruits and vegetables.

Every Sunday, the moment I start extracting vegetables from the fridge, spices from the pantry, lentils from the shelves, etc; I wait for her to run over from the living room, climb on to the bar stool and say “How can I help, Amma?”. It’s the best part of Sunday, cooking with her. Until she came along it was just a hobby that relaxed me. Now it’s my most important connection to her; it’s our bond, our very own language.

She has been ‘helping’ us with chores around the house since she could walk. But to her cooking is not a chore. She loves putting things together, making something out of nothing. I taught her how to crack an egg when she was 3. By age 4 she could identify spices by smelling them. These days I can expect gentle reminders from her like “Amma you forgot the Haldi (turmeric)”!

On this particular Sunday, she wants Mint Pulao (Pilaf) for lunch, so I ask her to separate the mint leaves from the stems. She breaks away each leaf with precision, drops it in the bowl, then smells her fingers and smiles. My heart breaks into a thousand little pieces when I realize that like me, she finds the smell of mint comforting. She looks up from the bowl of leaves to ask “Did your mom teach you how to cook?”

For inexplicable reasons I find myself tearing up at that question. How do I answer that? Yes, she taught me the techniques and the formulae, but the things I make now taste nothing like the seemingly exotic dishes my mother could create. I cooked by her side until I left for college when I was 18. It was my main (sometimes my only) connection to her. But I don’t feel that connection now; I don’t feel like I have learnt anything.

In the early days, when I was 9 or 10, my mother would ask me to come into the kitchen and help her with simple things, like washing lentils or cleaning up. As the years went by my tasks became more complicated. With each passing year I protested with even more vigor. “This is not fair” I would yell “why does HE get to watch Star trek but I have to be slogging in the kitchen like a servant”? ‘He’ was my older brother.

I grew up in a fairly conservative Indian home, which means our roles and responsibilities in the household were very much based on gender. My brother helped with the chores outside the home (like lifting heavy boxes!), I helped my mother in the kitchen. I fought it with every fiber of my being. It was unfair, anti-feminist and outdated. My parents chalked it down to “teen angst” and dismissed my concerns, which made me even more furious. I would walk into that kitchen every day and finish every task as expected, but it was not a pleasant experience for anyone!

Through all the tears and frustrations and fights, I was absorbing the lessons and unravelling mysteries.

  • I discovered that flavors don’t have to fight each other for space; they could coexist and even help each other. Sweet, sour, tangy, hot – sometimes all of it went in together and come out as one cohesive unit.
  • On a quiet Sunday afternoon, when she thought no one was watching, I saw my mother biting into a raw eggplant and realized it’s her favorite vegetable. I never admitted to anyone for many years after that that eggplants were my favorite too!
  • One day I found myself counting and realized that almost every dish my mother came up with had at least seven ingredients in it.
  • I learnt how to fry a Poori to golden perfection by gently pressing it down into the oil and allowing it to puff up before I set it free.
  • I became a snob about “fresh” spice blends. Unless it was blended and ground at home fairly recently, it just wasn’t worth it!
  • I found myself writing poetry in my head while I churned the cream till the butter separated into tiny little flecks (and THAT is where “buttermilk” comes from!). I do that even today. I write without a pen when I am doing something meditative, like cooking.

I knew she depended on me to make every meal perfect. She never said it. We were not that kind of family! She never said “good job” and I am pretty sure she never said “thank you”. But she needed me there by her side every day. My anger didn’t allow me to see it then, but every single day she and I worked our magic together. We disagreed about everything else, but we came together in the kitchen.

It’s the kind of magic I now get to experience with my daughter every Sunday.

Maybe I have learnt something after all.

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