Kitchens are schools in which one learns multiple things throughout life.
My kitchen taught me that if I unknowingly drop my hand into a hot and oily puliyogari mix that is waiting to cool down under the fan (so that it can later reluctantly mix with white rice)– it will leave a brown scar on my left hand that can’t be shooed away by the magic of olive oil even if you apply it every night before going to bed for 18 years.
It taught me that small onions are the most interesting things, that chillies don’t taste as slim as they look, that milk is a magic liquid that overflows like snakes, that salt and sugar are deceptive, and that lizards on the walls are not statues, they can poison you if they attempt suicide in your sambhar. It didn’t take me more than 5 years to learn them all.
My Ammachi’s kitchen was secretive. It was a black triangle with just a glimpse of yellow that came from the moongil stool by its entrance. Plastic bottles (actually containers, but ammachi calls them bottles) that stored all the masala jaaman, a gigantic ceramic jar waiting for the salt in it to jump out, and old copper and earthen pots that looked like the remains of Harappa civilization were the interior decorations of this place.
While Ammachi cooked in the kitchen, tucking the left side of the saree to show her knees, thatha and I used to sit in the dining hall and cut vegetables. It was thatha’s hobby to cut vegetables symmetrically. And if in case one of the vegetables looked deformed after cutting, he’d either put it in his mouth or throw it in mine. One could easily mistake this hobby of his for a 9 to 6 job because he did it so sincerely. He cooked too but only after Ammachi came out of the kitchen to read newspapers.
The neighbourhood envied Ammachi and her kitchen because of the dishes that came out of it. She made chutneys out of all the vegetables that the pure non-vegetarians of our house disliked. She added drumsticks to the mutton curry, dry fish to the kathirika kootu (Brinjal fry) and served fish curry along with a green leafy vegetable puree. Her iddiyappams and murukkus were far more perfect in their circles than the Pongal Kolams.
None of our family members know more than four or five vegetables because of two reasons: One is that we didn’t like them. And two is because Ammachi managed to sneak in the vegetables along with whatever meat we were blindly eating so we never found or acknowledged its presence or taste in the food.
She owned the kitchen and was proud of it despite its odd appearance. And we all- thatha, amma, mama and I envied her because we didn’t have rooms of our own in which we could arrange things the way we wanted, gossip with the next street aunties through the window, and let lizards stick to the wall and just be.
I realized how splendid the sweets she made for us were, only after we moved out. Her Vivikam (sweet idlis topped with roasted cashew and badam) made idlis more bearable to a primary school kid who is expected to hog it early in the morning and run miles to catch her noisy auto that would come till the end of the street but not in front of the house.
The rava attained such perfect consistency and texture in her kesari that you would ignore the payasam and pay attention only to it. Gulab Jamuns weren’t a great deal in my childhood so I’ve never tasted her version of it but I am sure it will be better than the Brigade Road, Savera Café’s Gulab Jamun.
On the day we moved in to Masilamani Nagar, all the neighbourhood aunties invited themselves to the housewarming ceremony that we didn’t know about. They went through all our vessels and cutlery – which were all old with either dancing handles or no handles at all. Our copper vessels excited them, our earthen wares shocked them as they didn’t know what had to be cooked in them, and the fact that we didn’t have a milk cooker was their major concern. To them, it was hard labor to stand still in front of the milk until it came to boil. I wondered how they cooked.
Cooking became a social activity. The smell of our kitchen spices spread far and wide. We were expected to share our food with them like they shared theirs with us. It obviously didn’t end there. Recipes and the brands of ingredients used had to be shared too, and you were also expected to review when somebody had cooked your recipe on the very next day.
Amma’s kitchen was very inclusive of me but the fact that it wasn’t mine was bothersome. The kitchen counter let me take a corner, and allowed me to do my homework there. The stove let me to put it on simmer and turn it off. Amma said I was too young to turn on a gas stove when I was in third standard, so I never turned it on. The tape recorder also let me change a song if I was annoyed by it but I could never switch it off. Also, all the ingredients in the kitchen were picked from the grocery shop by me but selected by Amma. I was the egg buyer too. God had endowed me with enough skills to carry them while running without breaking them.
Within a few weeks of our stay there, our breakfast was transformed from idli, pongal, puttu, to cornflakes, oats, bread and jam, cheesy omelettes and other English- sounding food items. It was in this kitchen that we experimented with weird looking sea food like crabs and prawns. While she struggled with cleaning them in the kitchen, I would stand behind her and think how cruel she should be to handle those monsters.
She looked like a confused cat whenever she got a new ingredient to cook. We also cooked squid once. It was like chew-able rubber. We yelled at the vendor who suggested that we should take it home. But when Gita aunty made it, it wasn’t rubbery at all. “Apparently, you should boil it before cooking. How are we supposed to know?” Amma said and we laughed.
I have no memory of what we ate when I lived in Madurai for a year in my fourth standard. Perhaps because I didn’t know the cooks too well. That kitchen was so big that I couldn’t take it seriously. We had a bucket in a corner that filled the house with a rotten smell. We threw all our kitchen waste there and gave it to the cows in the evening.
I remember two things: My grandma and grandpa were diet conscious and used less sugar and salt. We had more millets than rice.
They also had a dining table which I was initially very excited about because until then I’d never had dinner or breakfast sitting at a dining table. Later, I just didn’t like the table. Nobody spoke. No games. Everybody felt empowered to comment on how much water you drank while eating. And everyone in this world wants you to eat more if you sit at the dining table. But there are also few things that I liked about it: the glass jar with bitter honey at the center of the table, fresh seasonal fruits that never disappeared from the table’s corner and not having to run to the kitchen for water to quench your hiccups.
Perhaps, a kitchen with a countertop taller than you, will fail to interest you.
I started to cook when I was in eighth standard and Amma’s transfer to a faraway place was the reason behind it. She would write a note explaining the recipe and leave it on the kitchen counter before leaving at 7:00 am. Sometimes she would mutter instructions to me over the phone.
Cooking was exciting but also scary, especially when the cooker went usshhhhh when I was day dreaming near it. Rosy, our dog, was also scared of cooker whistles. Moving around with my hands and body around hot vessels made me feel like I was using my hands and body for the first time. The vessels left me with burns and boils, teaching me how to move around them.
In Indian cooking, it’s always hard to get the knack of using the three major ingredients: coriander powder, chilli powder and turmeric powder. But once you understand that it is 3:2:1, it gets easier. Salt plays tricks and checks your memory. Add more and die or add less and be confused or add nothing and face-palm yourself- this is what the salt makes you do.
I understood that cooking which looks easy when your mother does it, is actually a hard skill that demands interest, love and practice. I also realized that one will never be interested to eat the food that one cooks even if it’s great. This is probably why men always want to be served while women cooked.
My cooking is partly my Amma’s and partly my Ammachi’s. I’ve seen them working in their kitchen and I’ve also worked in their kitchen- this is unavoidable if you want to cook in your own kitchen someday. Stealing cut vegetables, tasting half cooked dishes, learning to taste salt that’s been just added and having knife cuts on your middle finger is all part of this voyage.
Kitchens are always accused of curbing women’s freedoms but I learnt how to own things here – words, thoughts, my body, and my mistakes. In that sense, kitchens are liberating to me.
This essay was submitted for the Prof Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize, 2019.
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