‘Mom, did you cook the butter chicken differently today?’, asked my son who was addicted to my cooking like a coach is to a hopeless player in his fervour to tap into the potential of an under-achiever. My son wrinkled his nose, ‘ Ma, there is something missing!’
I wondered where I had gone wrong. I had diligently followed instructions from a recipe book, perfectly timed each spice in sequence, roasted the chicken for the correct duration, added a few spoons of water so that onions wouldn’t stick to the pan, and then just before they did, I had taken the pan off the stove to let it simmer in its juices.
It’s not like when I had arrived in Canada a few decades ago. I cursed myself for coming, for many reasons, but mostly because I didn’t know how to cook!
At the time, I didn’t really want to risk asking for help from a few Canadian acquaintances because of my shame of revealing this major flaw in the process of becoming an adult.
But there was another, deeper reason, why I didn’t ask for help locally. How could I explain to these hard-working, self- reliant people, that in India, middle-class women didn’t really cook? They had full-time cooks, a fact that very few of my new countryfolk would appreciate, I suspected.
So, I made my weekly calls, (no, not to my mother, but) to my cook in India, much to my husband’s annoyance with the rising phone bill. After the usual six minutes of whining, my cook patronizingly indulged me with a few treasured recipes for the week. I diligently wrote them down, followed, and revered them like my spirituality.
Over the years, I had proudly churned some good dishes, some not-so-good, and many burnt, inedible ones. My poor children knew no difference since they were accustomed to my cooking.
My husband, not so much. He always ate in silence, keeping me on tenterhooks till the end of his meal. Then came my litmus test. How my dish-of-the-day had faired depended on whether he asked for seconds.
This, of course, was never the case when he cooked. For some strange reason, with no previous cooking experience either, he was as at home in the kitchen as a fish is in water. With him, we ordered our favourite recipes in advance and then waited fervently with watering mouths for his next scheduled kitchen date. Whether he had cooked those dishes previously, was inconsequential. Each time he whisked together another great dish, it got written onto his rising list of culinary accolades.
Oh…so was it just me then? In spite of the excuses, was I born to be a bad cook, just like a child without a musical ear who struggles to sing in tune?
No, that could not be. I was told never to accept defeat. And I was born to do great things, cooking included. All I had to do was strategically revisit my best efforts in the kitchen and identify where I went wrong.
And that was it. The answer was staring back at me. Why had I not seen it before?
My best efforts in the kitchen’ were not really for cooking. Instead, they were for giving me a space for release.
The kitchen had been my battleground. It had served well for my not-so-happy days. If I didn’t like the condescending tone of the children’s daycare manager for being five minutes late, then out came my razor-sharp fury on the neck of the innocent cucumbers, pumpkins, and squash. While at my under-employed, part-time job, if my dense boss blamed me to cover up a fault of his, then even god couldn’t help the lentils on the stove that night. They would be boiled and throttled until they could suffocate no more. If heaven forbid, my husband gave me the silent treatment at a time when I was bursting with inquisitiveness about his day, then out came the extra jalapenos.
In our first year in Canada, we bought things from a large Chinese underground market that we had discovered near our bus terminal.
One lazy Sunday afternoon, we were browsing through its crowded messy lanes, pickled in smells of fried fish and noodles. One shop instantly called out to me with a sign ‘Pressure Cookers for Sale’.
I tugged at my husband’s sleeve and stepped in. A silver gleam from a pile of steel pressure cookers that were stacked on the topmost shelf of a rickety unit blinded us. It seemed they were threatening to crush our skulls at the slightest provocation.
‘Let’s buy a five-liter pressure cooker instead of a two-liter one,’ I suggested, after inspecting the prices carefully.
My husband was very pleased that I had asked to purchase something for the kitchen. He bought me both the pressure cookers, gratified on his ability to fulfill more than what I needed. Little did he know that these cookers were to become key pawns in setting up my battlefield.
And that day, as I recalled now, was the start of this great journey of cooking badly.
As the steam from the pressure cookers ruptured my eardrums and ripped the kitchen air with a fury like no other, a fury that I had never seen in any non- pressure-cookered kitchen, I felt at peace. I didn’t care what I sliced, chopped, or burnt, as long as I slaughtered another dish. What therapy!
So then this became an addiction.
Oh, for all these years, how could I have been so ruthless, so blind to the needs of my family’s taste buds?
I knew what I had to do now.
It was easy.
I had to pay my penance by breaking this evil habit of dish- slaughtering and go the extra mile to add a secret yet common ingredient for all my dishes.
And this secret ingredient had to replace all previous wicked ingredients of fury that I had used over the years.
This newly discovered, immortal ingredient was – Love.
I had to cook with love.
And love had to be wedded to a special partner – Patience.
With these two ingredients in each dish, I would be the best cook in the world. No one could defeat me. And this victory was better than my previous victory of just personal therapy. This victory would entail the winning of hearts of my children and my husband with those dishes that I was going to cook.
This was my moment of revelation. And low and behold! It had come to me in the kitchen itself!
A strong smell caught my attention. A burnt smell. What was burning?
‘Mom! Is this all that you have for today’s lunch?’ screamed my impatient daughter from the dining room.
Oh, my God. I had chosen a wrong moment to contemplate. So what if I had had the greatest breakthrough of my life, it was still at the wrong moment.
The pan in front of me sizzled feverishly. Smoke started filling my lungs as I ran to open the kitchen windows and throw water on whatever was left of the cauliflower and potatoes. I lined the serving bowl and with the salvaged portion and a broad smile walked into the dining room. As soon as the bowl touched the table, both children dived to scoop large helpings on their plates.
‘Ah! This is so much better than your butter chicken mom,’ said my son.
What? How could that be?
My daughter could barely chew with such a large portion in her mouth. She gestured a thumbs up.
‘See! This is what was missing mom,’ she finally said polishing off the last charred morsel on her plate.
What had I done! My family liked burnt cooking! Surely we could now qualify for some sort of a magazine list of ‘weird families’?
But was this really as bad as it seemed? I knew that I may have cooked with impatience, but definitely not without love.
Then maybe, just maybe, I was not such a bad cook after all.
Just like the saying that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, was good cooking in the mouth of the taster?
Was cooking just love? My children loved my dishes unconditionally, just as they were. And I loved my children unconditionally, just as they were.
And was there scope for improvement?
In all three things: cooking, children, and myself.
That night my husband still ate in silence, but he asked for seconds.