Cooking has been my style of making friends. Hey, who doesn’t like to have a good meal! Throughout my journey, I have met different kinds of people and their attitude towards cooking bespeaks a good deal about them.
I have met those who love sharing their recipes, those who only vouch for their traditional food, those who aren’t good at cooking but are curious to watch you cook, those who help you by staying by your side to cut vegetables, those who want to teach you something new like how to brew differently, those who always want to try some new recipe and off-course those who love to eat a meal you cooked. This is my story of cooking, making friends along the way and my search for home.
I was by the window on a sunny afternoon in Chennai, with nothing on my to-do list. I had completed my undergraduate degree and I had a job waiting for me in Bangalore three months from then. My mom, in her usual yelling voice, called for me to bring the rice cooker and pots of gravy to the hall, where my family has lunch. She had made her oily Chettinad prawn fry, rice, sambar, and butter milk for lunch.
When I was 20 I had decided I will live independently, not work in Tamilnadu and probably move out to India to work in a different country. After severe contemplation, I decided to come to terms with the fact that I can never eat ‘homemade food’ again the same way I did that summer. A part of me never wanted that to happen so, there I told my mom, “Amma, teach me how to cook the same way you do”. My mom brought the spice box that day, called ‘Anchara petti’. It is a cylindrical box which has 6 small boxes inside it with lots of spices.
She taught me the names of different spices typically used in Chettinad /Tamil cuisine like jeera, pepper, turmeric, urad dal and anise and the order of using them. With great difficulty, I learned and experimented certain recipes my parents consumed with utmost patience and gave constructive feedback on. By the end of summer, I learned how to make rasam, sambhar, chicken gravy, Mutton chukka – all essentials needed to survive.
I lived with my besties in Bangalore, one from Bihar and another from Gujarat (vegetarian ). I felt lucky when my roomies agreed to not have a cook and to cook ourselves. I was worried how we could adjust; we all ate different types of food. I feared I would have to give up what I had been eating back at home. But quickly, we learned to share our recipes with each other and experiment with counsel from our mothers. I taught them how to make rasam and sambhar which my roomies loved. They taught me how to make parathas and I had new utensils in my kitchen- Chimta, belen, kadai and also learnt to the name of food items in Hindi –Pass the namak, one chamach cheeni in chai! We have had our share of kitchen mishaps- Mixie explosions, milk overboiling, Rock hard rotis, oversalted food, utensil slips and spills. But all that doesn’t deter you from cooking more if you really wanted to. Cooking is Gestalt -The organized meal is much more than the sum of its parts.
I remember making Gatte ki Sabzi by rolling besan(gram flour) and boiling spinach and grinding it to make Palak paneer. I had to buy another spice box this time. I started using Elachi for tea, Cloves, cardamom and bay leaves for the gravies I made. It was food I had never made back at home, but whenever I cooked with my roomies it felt like home. I discovered two new spices to use, nutmeg and nutmace which made biriyani even more delicious. When I went home that month, I made a new style of biryani for my parents and sister with all the new spices and they loved it!
I arrived at Amsterdam all by myself, with my spice box of course. I thought to myself, hey let’s make friends here and cook together with them. It was tough getting Indian food in Amsterdam at a reasonable price (Turkish and Surinamese were prominent), which made me cook more food at home. I tried out tougher recipes like ‘Pani-Puri (making and frying the puris), Pav bhajis, Aloo bondas, paneer parathas’. The best part was there were friends who were there with me to cook and we all ate, laughed and talked together. I had grown more used to eating North Indian food. Friends from different countries, Italian, Dutch and French came home for potlucks. I proudly displayed my spice box (It has become three in number), explained the different spices we use in India. I had made chole and we all made pasta and mushroom fry which we relished that day.
When I get severely nostalgic, on a weekend, I made idly and spicy mutton gravy and ate it to my heart’s content by myself. Those little moments to remind me of home back home.
I came to the UK and was surprised by the medley of spices available in the supermarkets. Colonial effects I guess. At Cambridge, I developed a strange liking towards british food, which I never thought would happen. I loved the hash browns, bacon, sausages and steaks. My friends and I made a British brunch one day in the oven. Spices like rosemary and thyme became a part of my spice box. I curiously used to watch my Chinese roommate prepare a deliciously smelling meal, he told me he used oyster sauce and chicken paste in rice which gives it a flavor. I had quite an international community in Cambridge and once my Cypriot friend made me ‘Fakes’, a dish of rice parboiled with lentils.
I cooked with my friends who stayed at my college who were mostly Bengalis. They taught me to add sugar to all the gravies including dal. Voila, I had learned to cook Bengali, Chinese, British food that year. I had a few Tamil friends here. I made beans usili, rasam, dosa, and podi when I felt nostalgic. I got my spices easily in supermarkets nearby, it gave me a solace that home is close by and I can use the spices generously when I cooked. I used my indigenous spices but I was more comfortable cooking and eating other foods as well by then. I was no longer that bigoted foodie I used to be five years back.
My food from back home is stupendous, but others are also great in a different way. All along the way I realised the food in itself doesn’t give you a feeling of home, sharing it with people does. It’s the ritual of cooking that made me feel connected with those around me and gave me the belief I can make any place my home.
When I started my journey of cooking, I had a fear-Will I find some food better than that at home. Will I ever stop eating my once favourite meal. But its when I changed my attitude towards cooking, my attitude towards life changed.
My love for biriyani, parota , chukas, kola urundais will remain untouched where ever I travel to. They were an important part of my childhood and they will always be an important part of my future as well. Adding new recipes to my kitchen will not change my love for them.
I met different kinds of people along the way, those who come to eat your food, compliment and leave, those who stay back to do the dreaded part of cooking -cleaning utensils, those who cook to they can spend time with you, those who cook for their fiery passion for the art.
Each place I lived, I felt a little sad when I left, but I took with me a recipe atleast learnt from the friends I had made. Every recipe, every food is unique in its taste. No food is good or bad. Everything is different and distinctive. Just like different kinds of people. Someday when I have my own home, I am going to cook everything I had learnt from my friends from different places. I am leaving to Brazil next week. Can’t wait to learn how to make Arepas from the Brazilians. Am I forgetting something important? Let me get my spice box and I am good to go!
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