C for Cooking
Pineapple upside down cake: The result of one successful baking experiment in 2012
It is interesting how the latest blogging experience has for me become a ticket to travel to my own past to secure material for the daily entries. It’s great to recognize at times how one’s past shapes a person’s present state. In the sweet and salty waters of the past we ceaselessly float with childlike abandon, savoring its taste and regaling in the changes the waters has brought in our system., and I feel absolutely fabulous when I go back in time and see how I have over the years become the person I am now. Today I wish to talk about my own past, my journey along the thoroughfare of life through the medium of food preparation.
Before I write my entry I head to my kitchen. Its elongated interior, its blue tiles, its shelves stacked with colorful Indian spices, and the little chalkboard abaft the oven wherein I write my random thoughts, my occasional love notes to my husband and menus from to time, have so many stories to tell. Indeed, I feel that the kitchens I have had at my disposal since the time I stepped into one (for indulging in the serious business of cooking) will effortlessly narrate the story of a struggling cook, an amateur chef, an inchoate person getting to know her skills in the cooking department, which can also be seen as a metaphor for the struggles in my life I faced and endured.
In the stark reality of a modern city evening, I now see myself delving into the pool of the days gone by. My first memory of cooking is the dish of fish curry I prepared at home under the supervision of my mother, who was not too pleased to realize that her daughter, whom she seldom allowed to enter the oily kitchen in our Kolkata home, would after her marriage find herself in the household of a graduate student in USA where she would have to cook her daily dishes, if she wished to eat modest Bengali meals that is, and my mother wanted me to eat them. Indeed, she was unequivocal about it, since she had and still has a nasty way of regarding anything that has not been cooked at home. I can still see her standing before me goggle-eyed with beads of perspiration on her forehead trying to teach me how to fry a fish correctly. After my first few attempts when I dropped the fish pieces marinated in turmeric and salt in a pool of mustard oil that still hadn’t reached the correct temperature, my mother found herself on the brink of tears. “What will you do,” she said helplessly, “if you cannot prepare a simple fish curry!” She was sure that I would die of starvation, but was later assured by my then fiancé and now husband that you seldom get fish like the ones you buy in Kolkata in the small university town we would be calling home, so perfection in cooking that dish wasn't required. My husband's words didn’t reassure my mother for she insisted that I learned a few Bengali dishes before I head for the altar and announce my vows. For days she literally pushed me into our kitchen at home and made me cook. Aloo posto (potatoes cooked in poppy-seed sauce), sorse mach (fish in mustard sauce, daal (lentil soup) were the first few recipes I learned to cook. I tell you that even now despite the wistful winds of time howling pensively in the tenebrous corners of an ever-moving life, I can clearly see that little kitchen at home and my perspiring teacher, my mother, armed with a stainless steel spatula ready to drop a blow on my head in case I made any mistake in wielding the skillet.
The second kitchen I went into was the one at my in-laws place. My mom-in-law was evidently anxious when she discovered before our wedding that her would-be daughter-in-law was “interested” in cooking but has had no experience in that department so far. Here, I must tell you, people in Bengal are great foodies. They love to have a good meal three times a day complete with fish and vegetables; and cooking in the eastern part of India is considered an art, a skill to be assiduously mastered. As a devout lover bent on marrying the person I now come home to, I was thoroughly bent at the time on securing an affirmative nod from his mother. Make a good impression was what I had in my mind. I am sure despite my incessant effort, my mom-in-law was convinced when I tried cooking for them that I wasn't a star in that department. She was patient and taught me and my sister-in-law on one of our visits to her place before our respective weddings, how to cook Muri Ghonto (a special Bengali dish made with fried fish head and rice). Now, after six years of my marriage when I step into that kitchen on my occasional visits to my in-laws’ suburban home, I cannot but smile at my naiveté at the time I first encountered that cooking-room. Now I am a confident cook, years of practice have taught me how to browse and sluice, but the memory of my appreciative glance as I beheld the crushed fried fish heads being dropped into the bed of half-cooked rice and cashew and raisins by my mother-in-law still makes me smile.
And then there was my third kitchen where I was the master-chief and decision maker as to menus. It was a great independence to find myself in my husband’s graduate-student abode with a kitchen solely at my own disposal. In the sleepy town of Carbondale, IL, USA, I found myself experimenting with spices and cuisines. Kitchen wisdom generously provided by acquaintances, homemakers who have been making delicious Bengali meals from scratch in their kitchens in their homes in the USA, came as a great help at the time. I learned from one of my lovely acquaintances how to make mishti doi (sweet yogurt) using condensed and evaporated milk. Alone at home in quiet afternoons with ample time at hand, I would head over to the kitchen and try to execute my newly acquired cooking skill. The experiments often bore ghastly results when I had to rush to the internet to find out how to sweeten an overtly salted dish, or how to deal with a curry with too much spice in it. The kitchen burn marks I still bear in my arms will testify to my ceaseless struggles to learn how to cook. My husband, a chemist, was already a master in the cooking department by the time I had arrived in his kitchen. Five of six initial disastrous meals and a few minor kitchen burns convinced him that matters need to be taken at hand and so, on weekends, he used to have me by his side while he cooked a delicious chicken curry or a tasty veggie dish. It was he who passed on me the trick that when you fry turmeric before you cook any Indian dish that has the spice in it, the taste and appearance of the dish gets a positive boost.
My fourth kitchen was a joint-establishment I shared with three other inmates of a house we lived in for a few months in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA It was a three-storied house where we had our rooms in the third floor. Our Taiwanese flat-mate was a woman I instantly bonded with soon after my arrival; I often shared our Indian meals with her while she in return would introduce us to some of the delicious dishes from her distant homeland. I remember her telling me once about something called a thousand year old egg, which was apparently hot-stuff. The description of the egg's black exterior and green yolk make me avoid its homely substitute for a few days. Still egg-curry was the thing I once cooked for her, and she, I remember, was lo less happy to find out that our humble one-day-old egg was equally delicious as its thousand-year-old rival.
My fifth kitchen in Nashville, TN, USA was the address to my major cooking-related-disaster. While making a delicate salmon curry for my husband’s birthday meal, I found myself mistaking the little finger in my left hand for the fish. I applied the knife on my finger with vim and found myself dripping with blood and was subsequently rushed to the nearest Walgreens. Upon seeing the medical practitioner and relating the story of how-I nearly-chopped-off-my finger, I mentioned to her in unequivocal terms my fear about injections. A few moments later a needle was punched into my forearm; still, in the end, after the bloody-drama was over, I managed to cook that half-done fish under the glaring eyes of my eyes, piqued to the core by my display of defiance when he said I should rest and not cook anymore.
It was in the papered walls of my Nashville kitchen that I find myself returning now with a sigh one breathes when one remembers good ole days. That kitchen in our two-bedroom apartment in Nashville was my cooking-abode for nearly three years and therein I saw myself mature as a cook. It was it that kitchen that I upped from an apprentice to a descent cook. It was in that kitchen that I cooked my first Thanksgiving meal complete with turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy.In there, I regularly reproduced the meals I watched Paula Deen, Ina Garten and Rachel Ray make in their respective cooking shows on television. I am sure I may have had several failures when I re-did the recipes I learnt at the time from varied sources, but right now all I see are the good things I cooked: a delicious looking jambalaya, a juicy chicken-roast, mashed potatoes with cream and cheese in it, cakes perfectly baked, etc.
And now, finally after six years of marriage and staying by myself with a husband for company, I see myself heading to my kitchen in Gurgaon, India, my sixth kitchen, on days I don’t have to attend classes at my university or on weekends. A happy academician keen on literature, I now find myself waxing lyrical about cooking. It doesn’t seem to me a rocket-science anymore; it’s a humble chore that needs to be performed at certain times in a week. I am no more intimidated by recipes with weird French names of ingredients that I thought were only begotten in some other world. My view of cooking has changed with my experience with that art. Like writing, which liberates me and makes me happy every time I try it, cooking too gives me ample joys when I am wielding the skillet. Writing the menu before embarking on the project is most fun for me. I am yet to learn how to make a perfectly round roti (Indian bread) though, and I have avoided the task so far. May be someday I will learn it, but right now cooking isn’t a priority anymore like it used to be at one time in my life. I am at peace with my skill and don’t have to impress anyone with my cooking; I now do it for love and with love and sometimes when exhausted from work with extreme dislike too. I guess we all face a certain lull in our activities after the tempestuous initial stage of new-beginnings is over. All that is now left with me about cooking is a reticent liking for the art but no more; nevertheless, my experiences as I learned how to cook,will always remain little gems illuminating in my album of collected occurrences from my life and will bring me ample joy whenever I shall recall them.