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My mother’s and my mother in law’s kitchens could be a study in contrasts. If the former housed the bare necessities, the latter was a storehouse of opulence. My mother-in-law’s life revolves around cooking and feeding and with that comes the aspiration to not only constantly polish her skills but also to impart words of wisdom to her only daughter-in-law.
So much so that when her son introduced me to her, the first question she asked was, “Can you cook?”
Keeping my annoyance in check for being interviewed like an arranged marriage candidate, I replied, “Cooking is a survival skill. Of course, I know the basic stuff like rice, dal, and curry. Just like your son does.”
The last part of the sentence was to underline my abhorrence for gender roles.
Oblivious to the sarcasm that seemed to slide off her mind like water from a duck’s back, her next question was: “Do you know what spices go to make shukto?”
Looking at my clueless, open-mouthed stare, she thought of giving me another chance.
“What about luchi?” I shook my head as if it occurred to me the first time that those sinfully deep fried bread that I loved to eat also required cooking!
I have grown up seeing my single mother’s Spartan kitchen. So, when I started living alone in Delhi and my culinary repertoire included just Maggi and omelette, I decided to learn the basics to get me by, like my childhood days. After all, there’s only so much hotel food one could eat.
My Google search history those days were full of questions like, “Easy recipes with potatoes” “Beginner’s guide to making dal”. Along the way, I stumbled upon a website run by a bachelor guy and I promptly considered him my cooking Guru. He explained that any Indian curry can be made with the combination of four spices. Armed with that knowledge, I considered my learning complete. Of course, there were restaurants to serve food outside the ‘magic formula’ I’d mastered.
When I was a child, I’d be dazzled by the glory of my classmates’ lunch boxes. Pasta in white sauce, chicken sandwiches, egg rolls, mixed chowmein–to my childhood mind those were royalties that made my humble bread toast look like a mere peasant. My friends were generous with sharing their lunch. Maybe since then I’d always thought of cooking as a means to just satiate hunger, while good food was always a finished product available outside the kitchen. This does not imply that I didn’t appreciate good cooking. I just didn’t aspire to be one of those good cooks.
Anyway, let’s leave my school compound and get back to the tastefully decorated drawing room and more specifically the beige sofa set where my mother-in-law was conducting the interview.
My husband spoke out of turn. “I don’t even eat the bland vegetable curry you call shukto or those oil dripping luchis, so why does she need to know all that?”
“Cooking such items is a matter of pride for every Bengali girl!” Pat came her reply from what seemed like a nineteenth century movie.
Maybe the kitchen dug the first trench in our subsequently potholed relationship.
However, at the risk of sounding clichéd, in our case too time did a decent job of ‘healing’ and after she had given up trying to teach me how to make intricate Bengali dishes, she focused on feeding me with the same.
So, every time we visit her place, our meals look like wedding feasts complete with fries, fritters, salad, and main course dripped in rich gravy, rounded off with a generous dollop of payesh or mishti doi. Though it’s a potent recipe for gastritis, still those are made with love and I truly appreciate the delectable cuisine.
Hence, my childhood trait of being an appreciator of good food continues, while my own cooking is still confined to those ‘four spiced magic curries’.