We had never been good friends . Cooking and I. While my sister and many of my cousins eagerly experimented with different versions of vegetables , chicken and eggs , i stayed aloof from the room-less word “kitchen” and the world of cooking. My successful asceticism from the world of culinary experiments could be partly ascribed to the stay in hostels,each with a furnished mess… for most part of my adult single life. Better to leave the more obvious reason unstated. So, the only cooking range available to the inmates of the hostel was the pre-historic coiled oven used for”cooking” the 2 minute Maggi or the caffeine rich warm beverages. During the vacations,mom would lovingly cook delectable meals for her famished daughter. I helped her with cutting and cleaning the vegetables, lentils etc but stayed away from the pots, pans and ladles.
The hide and seek continued well after my post-graduation.Precisely until the very first meeting with my future in-laws and husband some 2.5 months before my marriage. I was expecting questions about culinary skills in that very first rendezvous. To my sheer relief and delight, there were none. Soon enough ,destiny pronounced its verdict of a common future with the young man i had just met .Strange as it might sound , i was happy about the new life awaiting me. The hype around the “very important me” heightened the sense of jubilation. The only thing i was nervous about and that absolutely frightened me was the mere thought of “entry – cooking” into the daily routine of this soon-to-be devoted wife.“Way to a man’s heart’s is through his stomach” played non-stop in my mind and the predicament of my future husband’s taste buds saddened me and instilled an urgency to try my hands at cooking with the determination of a firefighter.A visit to the astrologer’s chamber at this point of time would have certainly confirmed of another new and interesting development shaping up in my life, as per my horoscope …. a new zeal and inclination towards spices, condiments, utensil, oven, the room where one prepares one’s food…You guessed it right. All the explicit clues leading to the unequivocal answer… cooking. I was initiated into the new adventures of the brand new culinary world by none other than my wonderful mom. I had always been a seasoned tea maker but that is beside the point, i guess.
In the beginning the very sight of sizzling hot oil and the gushing vapours from the pressure cooker would create a panic in me analogous to the child’s fear of the thunderstorm or dark. The spluttering of spices on tempering them in the hot hot oil would call for an immediate u-turn(for a few seconds). I never considered abandoning the newfound zeal, for the lack of options, i might add. I would observe my mom’s live cooking demonstrations with the focus of a keen student. The deftness with which she kneaded the dough, cut the vegetables and simultaneously cooked two curries set me into calculating the time at which i would have to set the alarm clock to pull a meal together,each morning, in the near future. What i gathered is that cooking couldn’t be mugged up like History. One had to muster the courage, patience and enthusiasm to practise, over and again, in order to learn the fundamentals…like a dedicated intern.
one fine evening , after many days of keen observation, i realised it was time for me to don the kitchen apron and … cook. The chapati dough was a puddle, the vegetables were triangles, trapeziums and rectangles of different sizes rather than one uniform shape and size . I was in a fit of frenzy trying to add flour to the dough puddle to balance it out , wrestling with the cut vegetable pieces to make them even, putting the pan on the oven and splashing it with cooking oil. Still in the middle of the insanely clumsy first moments, i heaved a sigh of relief on seeing my supermom land on the kitchen floor, to rescue me. I practised in the days that followed… .My consistent efforts helped me to master rolling out chapatis of various shapes… none of them a round circle. My parents were the enthusiastic tasters of the first bland curries , over-salted dal and chapatis of various shapes. Days turned into a month and i found myself standing on my wedding day.
In the ceremony called “bou bhaat” , its customary for the new bride to prepare a dish for the new family members. I was nervously waiting to be summoned to the kitchen for a decisive display of my valour and skills. As though instinctively sensing my nervousness, my kind mother-in-law just told me to put the fish into the hot oil and turn them once. Of course,she had no idea that this was to be my first ever encounter with item- fish. I had never practise-fried fish. so, i picked up one piece of marinated fish , put it onto the ladle and threw it into the oil (with the inevitable oil-wash all around) , carefully maintaining an arm’s length from the pan ,instantly jumping back on a reflex movement . My mother-in-law just smiled a friendly smile and asked the cook to take care of the rest. Soon , it would be time for me to start practising my culinary skills in my own kitchen, i thought to myself (in a sad way).
My husband and i made our way to Chennai , a few days later. The newness of the place intimidated me as i was aware that i would be alone in the house all day with no one to talk to . There was this huge linguistic barrier that prevented a smooth conversation even with the sweet domestic help. The huge range of utensils and crockeries in the kitchen intimidated me even more. It wasn’t difficult to guess that my husband was a foodie. Having arrived in Chennai around mid-week, i did not need to don the kitchen-gear for two days ,due to the paucity of groceries or cook-ables. On Saturday however, i spotted bagfuls of vegetables and fish waiting anxiously in the kitchen to be cooked. I was puzzled to see the large variety of leafy vegetables, seasonal vegetables and fish.” How will i ever do justice to them?”, i thought to myself. I was almost certain now that my husband was a firm believer in maximal shopping and a connoisseur of food…the vast array of utensils ,crockeries and superabundance of groceries made it an easy inference. My husband also announced that his best friend was in town and would come home home for dinner with his wife. I could hear my rapid heart beat and was at wit’s end on the how’s of fixing a decent dinner for the much awaited guests.
I nervously tiptoed to my husband (who was engrossed in a cricket telecast on the TV) and confessed “i have never cooked a meal independently. i am scared about the dinner tonight. I am afraid i am far from perfect in the cooking department” ” I was not sure of his reaction and was therefore a little anxious. He smiled and said “Don’t worry. I cook reasonably well. i will take care of it.” while i was still trying to arrange the mounds of vegetables and fruits in the refrigerator , he entered the kitchen and started with the preparations.. putting the raw ingredients and spices into the blender. I was an assistant, washing and cutting the stuffs to be cooked. Fresh coriander , tomatoes,ginger, green chillies , garam masala, poppy seeds and mustard seeds swirled in the blender, changing partners frequently. In no time, he whipped up magical concoctions in green, brown,white, orange and red. 6 elaborate delicacies in 2 hours time. I was astonished and totally in awe of my Masterchef husband.
On weekdays, i would hang out with my best friend Google, search for various Bengali recipes online and try them out, more in an attempt to see that happy smile on my husband’s face rather than perfecting my culinary skills. Grinding the poppy and mustard seeds was a challenge and so was the next part… cooking fish and vegetables in distinctly defined gravies. I would spend hours in the kitchen to concoct a mere 3 course dinner. My husband would be all praise for the herculean efforts. sometimes the proportion of salt would be more, sometimes less… sometimes the masala would be over-cooked (you know what that means) and sometimes undercooked . I realised, perfect proportion of salt plus spices and perfect timing was the secret recipe for a perfect curry. (Beside, love , of course.) Yet, that perfect balance seemed to be so elusive , so unattainable.
It became a ritual for the husband and wife to cook together over the weekend . Cooking together also strangely became their bonding time when the newly weds would sing, talk , have meaningful conversations about their dreams and aspirations. And there would be guests and lots of interesting dishes and addas (conversations) over the hostess’s famous cups of tea and singing sessions adding to the storehouse of many many beautiful memories.
I often look back on those beautiful days… my struggles with pots and pans, the weekend cooking episodes /lessons and the way my husband embraced it all… all my imperfections, without judgement or criticism. I am here in my kitchen , rolling out yet another chapati … And, this time a perfect circle.
Here’s to more balance and harmony!
Published here earlier: