Demure, dutiful and dignified or dynamic, dramatic and determined? Who sets rules and who decides if one is woman enough in the kitchen?
Words by Monty Majeed; Art by Jemma Jose
Clank. Chink. Clatter. A pot was thrown into the sink urgently and a drawer pulled open and shut angrily. Spoons rubbed against each other making noises and meat sizzled with spices in a pan as if trying to match up to the bustle around. These noises were what woke me on most weekdays when I was younger. It was a sign that my mother was in the kitchen. The noise level was a direct indication of how angry or frustrated she was that morning.
My mother was never a morning person. Even today, she can sit late into the night and watch her favourite shows or movies, but frowns when her alarm rings the next morning. She was not in her best spirits in the mornings. She had to get to work early and had made it an unsaid ritual to cook both breakfast and lunch every morning. Even to this day, she tries to do this, irrespective of the fact that none of us–my father, my sister or I–were particular about having a hearty breakfast. It was only my mother who wanted to have a proper breakfast everyday. Although she is a doctor, I don’t think it was the health aspect of never skipping breakfast that drove her to this madness. She was just a slave of habit. She didn’t like oatmeal, cornflakes or toast. She preferred the real deal–the elaborate Malayali breakfast, which most often needed preparation from the night before. She had to do it for herself, which is why she had no one to blame for her bad temper.
The image of my mother in a colourful, yet soiled cotton nightie bunched up at her hips to keep it at knee-length, rummaging around angrily around the kitchen, is what comes to me whenever I think of her cooking. A winnower sat on the kitchen counter filled with onions, garlic, curry leaves and all kinds of vegetables and their peels. Boxes filled with green chillies and ginger lay beside it. The circular tin of ground masalas sat majestically right in the centre and grinder jars of all sizes carrying pastes and powders of different colours lined the counter. Right next to the stove, cooked rice was set to drain, the pot closed off with a wooden board and balanced at an angle on an aluminium cheruvam (pot) that collected the water with the help of yet another tiny steel pot that sealed the gap tightly.
The outcome of this painful cooking ritual did turn out well most of the time. There were times when her food tasted so good that it was impossible to replicate, even by her, the next time over. Sometimes, it was a bit bland or burnt, which she would announce to us right before serving so as to shut out all the unwanted comments that would follow the first bite. But, if you were to ask me to pick out one dish that my mother made really well, it would take me a while. That’s because, on some days she made great biriyani, and on others delicious, thick sambar. Sometimes her crispy fried anchovies, mackerels or sardines topped with fried curry leaves would be to die for and at others she would make the creamiest fish and raw mango curry. She was a largely successful and resourceful cook and had figured out the quickest way to cook anything, without compromising on its taste. She was all about no-nonsense, quick cooking.
When this drama unfolded in the kitchen every morning, my father, who didn’t know how to cook and who was the yin to my mom’s yang with his calm demeanour, would escape into his own bathing and dressing ritual. This, would extend well into an hour or two. For my sister and me, the noisier the kitchen, the greater the conviction not to enter it. In case we did, my mom would never ask us to help with what we considered the ‘actual cooking’ process. Instead, she would ask us to peel vegetables, chop onions or wash dishes–all of which she hated doing on her own. We, too, hated doing these ‘less-glamorous’ jobs, which is why we stayed away from her battle arena.
As we grew older, my sister bloomed into a fabulous cook, experimenting everything from satays to creme brulee in her kitchen. She picked up the basics from my mom and my aunts. But I hadn’t expressed interest in cooking even well into my late teens, which is why my mom never took the effort to teach me anything. Once, when I asked her to teach me to make chicken curry, she gave me a raw, uncut whole chicken and asked me to learn how to cut and clean it before I could learn to cook it. I abandoned the effort there and even now, I find it difficult to cut up a whole chicken. At other times, when I attempted to watch and learn, she would be irritated that I blocked her way by standing ‘uselessly’ in the kitchen aisles. She was too quick with her hands so I could never follow what she was doing either.
Later when I started living in hostels and realised that cooking was as much a life skill as was driving or swimming, I went for a brief cooking course, in a nun-run institute. The course instructor was a lady who looked and spoke like she went halfway trying to become a nun, but gave up and had to be satisfied being a frustrated, frowning semi-nun. During the course, she once asked me to help her stir a dish. Confidently, I went on to give it a nice, deep stir, finishing off by cleaning the spatula on the edge of the pot and tapping it repeatedly to remove the excess gravy stuck onto it. I turned triumphantly, with a wide smile, confident that I had taken my first steps to becoming a master chef, only to find our teacher flushing.
She walked up to me, with clenched teeth, and told me that I needed to learn to cook like a lady. Excuse me? She gathered the rest of the four students–all women in their early 20s–to explain how no one in the house should be disturbed by the noises from the kitchen. It wasn’t ladylike to make a big fuss, she said, shaking her head in disbelief and hopelessness, with a twinge of contempt for the women of our generation. So henceforth, no tapping, no rubbing your dirty palms on your clothes, no cooking without apron and absolutely no scraping burnt remains off the base of a pan. We frowned at her and later huddled together to discuss how we had never seen our mothers ‘cook like ladies’. At the end of the course, in her ‘graduation speech’ (to our tiny class of five), she announced proudly, “Make your husbands happy, my girls. Every man loves a woman who cooks. Give him tasty food to keep him from straying. And, remember, my dear ones, learn to cook like a lady.” We all cringed in disgust.
Today, I can cook a three-course meal for five to seven people all on my own. I have been making at least 12 to 15 dishes of the Onam sadya (the traditional Malayali feast) every year for the last few years and can cook up a quick, improvised meal out of minimum ingredients at any point. But I didn’t learn to cook from my mom, grandmothers, aunts, sister, cookbooks, cooking courses or any of the usual suspects.
Like a true blue millennial, I turned to the internet when I felt the urge to cook a meal. I followed food blogs, watched online cooking channels, read food magazines and picked up the skill to feed myself and my family. Even now, when I decide to make something, I google the dish, read a few recipes and combine whatever looks appealing to me from all of them to make my version of the dish. But it is still the memories of the taste of a certain dish that I use as a yardstick for measuring my culinary excellence. While cooking, I try to recreate the look, smell and taste of the dish that lives in my head. And, yes, there is that occasional phone call to my mom, sister or aunt if I tried really hard and am still unable to match the taste of my memories. But most of the time, it is a learning process of trial and error.
With time, I am, however, seeing a change in my demeanour while cooking. I hate mornings much like my mother, but I am not as vocal as she was about my thoughts. Instead, I take my frustration, on every convention being skewed in favour of morning people, out on the pots and pans in my kitchen. On days I hear my husband still in bed and snoring, I make some noise to disturb him, and on some other days, I simply refuse to wake up to make coffee and breakfast. If we have had a fight, then my first instinct is to go to the kitchen and either toss some plates around in the sink in the name of cleaning up or to stir and tap furiously at a pot or wok to make my anger and protest known. As I grow older, I can see that I don’t need to go too far to reminisce about my mother’s cooking, as day after day I am turning into my own version of her. So, to my teacher who urged us to ‘cook like a lady’, here I am, finally cooking like the lady whose food made up my first memories. Tapping, scraping, rubbing, tossing, clanking, clattering, cursing, and what not!