After plating my freshly cooked pasta, I take a picture and send it on the family group, “Quarantine cooking, by yours truly!” Subsequent to receiving a bunch of compliments from my relatives, I rush to Maa. There she is, in the kitchen, in her element, cooking four dishes simultaneously for each one of us in the family. She finishes this in no time, effortlessly makes the food presentation look simple yet delightful and waits for us to compliment her.
Maa likes to call kitchen her place of worship. It has scriptures in the form of old recipe books, rich aroma and a very positive aura. It is almost beautiful, how so many different people can cook in so many different ways in the same kitchen, yet we always choose ‘maa ke haath ka khaana’ over anything else. When I am in the kitchen, I would first keep all the ingredients together, perfectly measure and scale them and finally start cooking. On the other hand, my mother would just directly start cooking and add the ingredients just when their time comes. “My hands are my measuring cups” she says. For her, two teaspoons of garam masala is the same as taking four pinches of it. The recipes I need are always one click away, but her recipes are special. They are between the pages of my father’s office diary, dating back to Early 2000’s, when she would’ve collected them from our neighbour. After shifting to South India during the year 2000, she learnt that one dish could also be made in several ways. She has three to four recipes in her diary, for even the simplest vegetable like ladyfinger or bhindi.
The recipe diaries do not replay, pause, or rewind but she has some remarkable memories attached to them. The recipes are named as “Meera Aunty’s sambaar” and “Aam chutney by Madhura”. Besides the name of the recipes, she also writes who likes them the most from our family. She recalls how cooking helped her to connect and form so many bonds which she will cherish for life; be it spending evenings with neighbours talking about the different ways to make chai or the whole family waiting every Sunday to watch ‘Khaana Khazana’ on television. As a kid, I remember telling my mother once, how my best friend’s mother made custard that tasted better than hers. She contacted my best friend’s mother the next day and took down the recipe just the same. She surprised me with the custard after I came back from school and it has been my favourite dessert since then! She didn’t want to hear that she beat my best friend’s mother, my happiness was just all that mattered to her. Just like this, recipes kept on adding to the diary and we kept on having a feast! From Kashmiri dishes to Marathi cuisines, she has experimented with almost everything.
Her secret tips aren’t hidden anymore because she believes that the art of cooking must be shared, since the greatest happiness comes from good food. “I have learnt this from my mother and she learnt it from her mother” she says. Some tips include, adding fennel powder while cooking something spicy to allow easy digestion or adding oil to the water while boiling eggs which helps in easy peeling of the eggshell. She has many more tips like these and is eager to know more each day. Most importantly, she enjoys cooking. She believes it is therapeutic and calming. “If you don’t enjoy cooking, the end result will never be satisfactory. Make every dish with the same zeal as you would when you made it first” she adds on. We all cook for a purpose – some cook for a living, some cook for their ailing parents, some cook for their families, some cook for their own joy and some cook for impressing their loved ones. One thing that must remain common in all is to cook with love and compassion.
During this whole period of lockdown, I decided to take the weight off my feet and finally understand the mechanisms behind this working model called ‘kitchen.’ I understood why the general spices are kept in the near-most shelf and why the pulses sit in the corner-most shelf of the kitchen. I understood the difference between Kashmiri red chillies and normal red chillies and when each of them is used. I understood how grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle is different from grinding them in a mixer. I realised, even the smallest of things in the kitchen might just be articles of daily usage for me but for Maa, they are the most precious things. Henceforth, whenever I cook something, I will do it with all my love and one teaspoon of Maa’s kitchen wisdom.