You need turmeric for this recipe. Not the powder, but fresh root. Maybe you can use the powder. I want fresh root though, and I believe it makes a difference. But I couldn’t buy fresh root in the vegetable shops I usually go to. On a boring Sunday after Pongal though, I suddenly found fresh turmeric roots in the shop. Leftovers from the Pongal paanai decorations. The shop owner warned me that they are not ginger. I smiled and took it.
You need the usual ginger, onion and garlic now. A lot of garlic. And Coconut milk, we will be making a creamy coconut milk curry poached egg. Once upon a time, I would have insisted on freshly made coconut milk, for which I would have messed up half of my kitchen safe. But the last time I made it; some pocketed coconut milk powder was enough for me. End of the day, it is supposed to be a comfort dish. Comfort in kitchen, when you cook, is a complicated story. So, let’s talk about some other story…
In the movie, Like Water for Chocolate, the old maid Nacha tells Tita, who was then heartbroken to “Eat, as it will make it hurt less.” Later, Tita, who had stopped speaking and was considered to have gone crazy, starts speaking again after eating her sister’s bowl of beef broth. For broths are the cure to all physical and mental illnesses. The novel, on which the movie is based, begins every chapter with a recipe.
Some recipes don’t mention salt or water. Most of them don’t even mention the tools you need. Or a stove. For you need a kitchen to cook. But how many of us build our own kitchens? What is handed down and what is bought without thought? How much of this is related to the other intricacies of the larger society?
If kitchen means a kitchen, as mentioning a nondescript one among the many many that exist in this world, I never had voyaged into one. But I built one from scratch. Inexperienced, clueless, with just two hungry stomachs equally less demanding. Though not unique, mine is a different kind of voyage than one imagines when the sentence is spoken out loud.
I learned to cook with the internet. I read recipes; I saw how to videos. How to cut onions. How to clean clam. Some of which were life changing and some I have stored in memory, hopefully to use one day. It’d be more romantic to believe kitchen is making your mind remember a perfect hard-boiled egg that stays in hot boiling water for ten minutes and plunges into an ice bath. But kitchen is the vessels, stove, a place to stand and a knife to wield.
My dad just never entered the kitchen or even moved his dishes from where he sat down to eat. I helped my mother with all kind of things. She never told me kitchen is not for boys. She couldn’t afford to – with a single child and the feeble income of my father, she had to toil on her tailoring machine and do all this.
I was often washing the dishes, peeling onion garlic, shredding coconut or crushing the chutney in our stone ammi. But I don’t have any memorable instances, nor recipes passed down. Dysphoria, and other memories, I just wanted to not remember most of them once. But it is a different story, and now it just is life, hidden in a blur.
Of the four small rented houses in which my childhood was spent, there were no boundaries. Kitchen was everywhere and nowhere. I can still remember the ammi and its placement on all the four houses – closer to the drainage outlet, so that washing it was easy. Garlic chutney was probably my favourite, the red of chilli on the wet black of Ammi were the earliest memories of colours in the kitchen for me. But I never was interested in cooking, maybe I never thought about it for long.
Then I read Like water for chocolate. It was a time of confusions in my life. Even my self wasn’t clear. The magical world shown by Laura Esquivel was enthralling, and the doors to it opened from kitchens. But it wasn’t a place or many places. Kitchen meant memories, passed down generations through women, strict and jolly, terrible and angelic. It gave ideas. I had no place to test them.
But I kept them safe. The secret doors to womanhood were in kitchen, in all the things talked there, in all the recipes that were never written down, in all the tools that were never shared until one’s death. Little did I know, these ideas would be shattered before I could put them to use. Then I met women who hated Kitchens, men who cooked a wonderful meal full of love for friends, and like the opposite of biblical gods, would rest for the next six days basking in glory of their creation. I met people who made me learn and unlearn. Long story short, I started loving cooking and I had to cook.
When Kitchen become more cooking than food, I believed it’d be a matter of erotic sensualities. It indeed was love; nothing could make me happier than someone loving what I cooked. I dumped more food on people. I cooked always with an extra hand of rice. But more and more, it became a space of anxiety, and eating out became a matter of guilt. Kitchen became responsibility without any external pressure. Despite assurances from my partner that cooking is not my responsibility, it became one. Making something inedible while some waited for it was a great cause of anxiety.
Then I watched all videos available online of Becky Selengut. Becky is a great chef and a lesbian woman. To think back about how that anecdote helped me connect, more than often, the home chefs had families, all chefs had families. Becky helped me break food making from a heterosexual family structure. Everything she did, just because she did, became an act of intimacy to me. And she was good too, extremely good, see her onion cutting video and see Gordon Ramsay’s you’ll feel the difference. She showed me how to kill and cook crabs with love.
Only when I had to cook for myself, did I experiment and learn the science of cooking. The anxiety of putting a little more salt was lost. I who learned cooking through online recipes and books, finally felt on my fingers the intuition that my mother and grandmother always talked about. Kitchen was performance, pleasure, life and just food without added meanings.
If by any chance you are still thinking about the recipe I mentioned in the beginning – we are living in the age of internet, and all good recipes are…
Featured Image – Photography-S! garlic via Flickr
This piece was submitted for the Prof Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize, 2019. It was later published on the writer’s blog, and republished here with permission.