I think I was turning 14, when I decided that I would never learn how to cook. Not deliberately at least. As a young girl stubborn in her intentions to thwart patriarchy in the only ways she knew how, I, with my limited understanding of feminism, was hell-bent on not becoming the supposedly-ideal Indian woman, prepped and primed through her teenage years to become a good wife, adept at cooking and housekeeping. Not that there was any cause for rebellion; my mother forced me to inherit neither her superior culinary skills nor her collection of recipes, painstakingly put together with handwritten notes, pictures, and snippets cut out of weekend magazines.
A soft-spoken woman, my mother was often mistaken for meek, but those close to her knew that she was a force to be reckoned with. The youngest of eight siblings, she had grown up in a humble household in Mumbai, learning that if one wanted to change one’s situation, one had to work very hard and put oneself out there, often in the face of uncertainty of the outcome. I like to think it was dogged determination that led her to graduate top of her class with an Arts degree and then after a decade, several jobs, and two children, go on to become the Head of Accounting of a small company in Dubai.
Her journey in the kitchen was equally inspiring, given that she had lost her own mother as an infant. Working to support her family since the age of 18, she had no time to spend in the kitchen, no one to learn from, and no legacy passed down through the generations in the form of family recipes or secret spice mixes. In fact, it was my father who first taught her to cook chicken curry and mutton kheema masala in their home in Dubai, this young woman in her early-20s who’d learned all she could in the few months before her wedding but had never cooked a non-vegetarian dish before.
The idea of serving a meal that brought smiles all around the table delighted her. She spent all of her free time in the kitchen, learning, experimenting, and perfecting the recipes she’d noted down in her little blue notebook from weekly radio and TV programs. Every evening when she returned from work, she’d settle down on the couch with a cup of tea, and exchange recipes and tips with my aunt, her sister, over the phone, all to try over the weekend. Later, sitting on the kitchen countertop, my sister and I would tell her about our day at school, as she’d finely chop pistachios, almonds, and cashews to prepare a sticky, sweet Indian version of nougat or whisk together egg yolks to make chocolate mousse for dessert that night.
It wasn’t that her culinary interests were limited to one cuisine; she could prepare Greek-style peppers stuffed with herbed minced chicken and fiery Thai curry as adeptly as she could cook dum biryani, filling the house with the aromas of succulent lamb meat and bay leaves.
She relished the preparation of meals just as much as we enjoyed polishing them off our plates and watched with satisfaction, shining in her eyes, as we heaped on the praises again, slumping back in our chairs in defeat, even as we reached out for that last bit of rich, cashew-flavored malai kofta, that last crispy mini samosa stuffed with spicy mutton mince and raisins (always mine), and that last bit of crumbly tandoori hamour fish.
Naturally, I was in awe of her, this all-around high achieving superwoman who was so great at her job that her boss downright refused to accept her resignation, and so good to her family that she’d never put a mediocre meal on the table. While as a teen, I’d decided I wanted to be nothing like my mother; when I turned 20, two years after she died, I realized I could never be like her.
Her shoes were too big to fill, and so I decided I wouldn’t even try. As I moved houses, her recipe books were packed away in cardboard boxes along with old photographs of what my family looked like when it was complete. It was only fitting that those recipes were lost, their existence retired to those of a time when she was around.
After a life of eating home cooked meals, I turned to take-out food, instant noodles, and fried eggs. Without her, mealtimes didn’t have the same significance. Food, once an important marker of memories now became a mere means of sustenance, with little thought of what went inside it, where it was cooked, or who I shared it with.
I’d often sit at the dinner table, twirling my fork through warm cup noodles, and picture her; the sunlight from the kitchen window behind her shimmering through her wet, shoulder-length curly hair, as she slightly tilted the saucepan and poured creamy orange butter chicken gravy into a large serving dish. Then, a garnish of chopped coriander and a teaspoon of butter, slowly melting on the orange surface until it turned golden. I could never wait until the dish made it to the table, I’d taste a spoonful right there as she’d chuckle at my impatience.
And so after her, it continued, this ignorance of what goes into every meal and the effect that food can have on one’s health and happiness. At 26, I married my long-time boyfriend who was accepting of my lack of desire to toil away for hours in the kitchen when we could afford to hire a cook. Doing that took away the stress of meal planning and preparation for both of us, before and after a long day at work.
Strangely, during our second week together at home, I found myself scouring the Internet for healthy recipes, for no particular reason.
The obsession began with breakfast recipes. “That’s how we begin our day together, it needs to be special,” I told my confused husband when he pointed out that the cook could also make us breakfast. I found recipes for a ‘fluffy’ French toast where the addition of cinnamon to the eggs seemed intriguing, religiously followed recipes to make the perfect Eggs Benedict (our favorite), and failed at making Hollandaise sauce at least half a dozen times.
For the first three months of our marriage, my husband was surprised to find a fancy breakfast waiting each morning; poached eggs on crumbled feta and avocado toast, blueberry pancakes, and oats and yogurt upma (a recipe from my friend). Each morning, he lovingly took photos and I beamed with pride. My mother would have been proud too.
But he didn’t understand it. Admittedly, neither did I.
I’m not sure what came over me, but I derived an inexplicable joy from the praise for my cooking, even when I knew better than to trust my husband. So I started experimenting at dinnertime, often with jazz playing in the background, and some nights with a glass of red wine. It didn’t take him long to join me in the kitchen, offering to chop onions or sauté mushrooms.
I learned how to cook Moroccan style couscous with dates and nuts, and patiently spent over an hour to make almond pesto to drizzle over steamed salmon.
When I perfected the herb grilled chicken recipe I’d found online, I impulsively decided one evening to slit the chicken breasts in the middle and stuff them with chopped spinach and ricotta before I grilled them. They were delicious and my husband bragged to his mother about what a great cook I was when I wanted to be, a hidden talent that even I wasn’t aware of. Whether or not that were true, it pleased me to think that he believed it.
Not long after, I discovered that like my mother, I quite enjoyed playing the hostess. We’d invite friends and cousins over and I’d find myself pouring over articles on how to make the perfect cheeseboard, obsessing over details such as colors and condiments, and things I’d never thought about before like rosemary twigs and edible flowers. My friends posted pictures of my handiwork on their Instagram feeds. I felt accomplished.
Perhaps it is the possibility to make your loved one’s day better in some real, tangible way that makes cooking for someone enjoyable. Isn’t the best way to show someone you love them by saying, “I made this for you,” rather than “I bought this for you”? Or maybe it’s the act of doing only what needs to be done next, and thinking only about the meal one is preparing that makes cooking so relaxing, it’s almost therapeutic.
I still don’t cook every meal in my home, for that would be too much pressure and take away the joy from something that I am at leisure to do and make it something that I have to do. I’m not sure that I can say I love to cook, because if I did, wouldn’t I enjoy doing it everyday, as selflessly as my mother did?
But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I often find myself drawn to my kitchen after a stressful or unproductive day, longing for the comfort of the sound of a large knife chopping down on a wooden board, or the creativity that surges through my mind when faced with a refrigerator shelf full of parsley, chives, olives, peppers, feta, and sundried tomatoes. What better way to deal with the cares of daily life than treat your family and yourself to something healthy and delicious?
In the kitchen where the possibilities are truly endless, it seems, I could be my mother’s daughter after all.
Natasha Amar is a writer and photographer based in Dubai. Her writing has appeared in International Traveller, Intercontinental Life, JetWings, Marriott Traveler, Go Overseas, Roads & Kingdoms, and other publications. She is currently working on a collection of travel-themed narratives. More of her work can be found on her blog TheBohoChica.com.