By Revati Upadhya Feb. 28, 2017
I began to cook when I moved out of my house because I simply had to. I don’t know when I embraced the kitchen, but cooking gave me a sense of self.
remember being an eternal observer to the drama of food and life that played out in my house. I remember watching my grandmother deftly work the large grinding stone in her kitchen, breaking down fresh spices with a mesmerisingly giddying turning of the stone. I remember the excitement stirring every time my grandfather stepped into the kitchen to make his six-hour slow-cooked mutton stew.
I remember always being a mere observer, a taster. I had no interest in the cooking, a process that everyone in my family took such pride in. The one time I succumbed to being taught how to cook, I was coerced into it. I was 13, and holed up in stuffy classroom with girls. It was the home science laboratory, and we were in groups of four, poring over our single-burner stoves, atop which were pots of bubbling pongal. While every other girl in the room lovingly stirred her pongal to buttery, smooth goodness, I was looking at a solid mass, fast transforming into a something that resembled industrial strength adhesive.
Right then I had decided, this domestic business (okay, home science) was not for me. Years of tender convincing on my mother’s part turned to goading and silent worry. How would I feed myself when I moved out? How would I provide meals for my future family? Given that I couldn’t boil a pot of water without a minor casualty, her concerns were valid. But all that gentle persuasion was only met with my staunch rebellion.
I was convinced cooking was a completely unnecessary skill and played no part in my womanhood.
Over a decade after that ill-fated pongal incident, on a blistering day in March, I found myself setting up a new home, miles away from my own. Nothing shatters a self-satisfied, smug existence like a reality check. Mine had arrived less than 24 hours after I had landed in sunny Goa, in the form of six large cartons of kitchen equipment that I didn’t know what to do with.
I realised very soon that two-minute noodles and quick-cooking oats simply weren’t going to cut it and that there are only so many ways to cook eggs. Before long, I was deeply regretful for not watching Amma make phulkas. For wishing I knew what to make from the three different kinds of dal in the supermarket. Was there some way to thinly slice onions, without gouging my eyes out?
Resisting slipping into the identity of a homemaker that this situation demanded of me, I chanted repeatedly: Cooking isn’t for me. But, I had to eat my words. Along with the badly made meals of dal, rice and sabzi.
I began to cook in my new house because I simply had to. I was overwhelmed by homesickness and hunger. I had been wrenched out of a job I loved, uprooted from the only city I have ever called home, and was starting life over in a dusty home that didn’t feel like mine. I had no choice but to make sense of the demands of this new space I was in. This kitchen, this home, and this life in general. I had to recreate an identity and purpose in these new circumstances.
In finding myself, I somehow found my way back home too. Through simple, hearty meals to satisfy hunger at first, and more complex challenging ones, to satisfy my mind and find my feet again.
I began first with taking solace in recreating the comfort of rasam and rice. When I needed a challenge, I attempted to deconstruct a biryani from the memory of taste. When I felt lost and weightless, I grounded myself in the mundanely tedious rhythm of peeling garlic, making a massive batch of tamarind extract, rearranging my kitchen, or cleaning the fridge out. When I simply needed to occupy my mind that would race toward unwanted and sometimes destructive thoughts, I went into the kitchen and cooked a meal. When the emptiness felt like it was consuming me inside out, cooking filled the void. All of it to bring some semblance of sanity back in my life.
Memory is a wonderful thing. Almost every single day, my mind would float back to the humble homely meals, festive celebratory meals, skimming over the traces of taste, texture, and aroma that lingered at the back of my mind, thoughts of customs and habits related to food. I recalled things I didn’t know I had stashed away at the back of my mind – the way my mother stored her coriander and curry leaves in the refrigerator, the exact dishes she made when she was strapped for time, the way her pressure cooker was the centre of all kinds of magic. All of this simmered together slowly, and gave me a sense of self again.
Before long, my days began with praying the dosa batter had risen, picking out the weekly vegetable and fruit supply, and haggling over best prices of grains and pulses. I don’t know when I embraced the kitchen, even less when I began to find contentment and joy in cooking.
In finding myself, I somehow found my way back home too. Through simple, hearty meals to satisfy hunger at first, and more complex challenging ones, to satisfy my mind and find my feet again. When every other aspect of my life, and strong facets of my identity felt like they were slipping away from me, cooking helped put it all back together again.
I was not only teaching myself to cook, but was also recreating my own sense of home. Donning the identity and roles I’d observed all the strong women in my life play so very well, being in the kitchen was no longer an aversion. It was my sanctuary, and cooking, my raison d’être.
In the process, I rekindled relationships of a new kind with my mother, grandmother, and aunts. They gifted me cookbooks, emailed me recipes, and sent me tips and tricks I could use. I forged new ties with friends when we gathered around my dining table. Eventually, though, and possibly the happiest consequence of all, I found a career in writing about food. In an odd roundabout way, stepping into the kitchen, into the very role I believed was a trap, had liberated me.
Thirteen-year old me would most likely be disappointed to see how contempt has been replaced by a deep affection for the kitchen. But if only I knew back then, that it would eventually be food, that would teach me to love my life again, and that learning to cook had little to do with being a woman but everything to do with identity, I’d probably have tried to just keep calm and stir that pongal to perfection.