By Nirmitee Mehta from Recipes for Resistance, 2021.
For the first 23 years of my life, the kitchen was a no man’s land as far as I was concerned. Ask me to fetch anything from there that wasn’t a finished product or put anything together and you’d be met with a blank stare. A little odd, you’d say, considering I’d always been a chubby kid – courtesy a general sense of contentment derived from putting food in my mouth and childhood spent relishing fine Italian food from my family’s chain of restaurants. Even an undergraduate education in hospitality wasn’t able to change this, and I have no memory of anything I learnt in the mandatory culinary modules in college. My thorough detachment during that time has ensured that to this day I don’t have any recollection of anything learned in those sessions outside of cutting vegetables. Though I’d always loved food, it was the taste of the end product, the feeling of it on my tongue and the filling of the empty space in my stomach that called out to me. Nuances of taste, like knowing the names of spices and recognizing herbs, seemed to come easily to other food lovers but were strangers to me.
As a young girl, whenever my grandparents visited, I’d be called to help in the kitchen. I’d often overhear reproachful remarks that went “oh she still can’t cook? Who will marry her?” or “She doesn’t even make tea? What will her in-laws think?” I bristled at these remarks, stung by the assumption that there was only one expectation of me. I would retort back “I’ll hire a cook” or “why would I learn how to make tea if I don’t drink it?” It was cute when I was little but became decidedly less so as I grew older. Still, I stubbornly maintained my distance from the kitchen, associating it with everything about being a woman in a patriarchal society that made my insides ache. I shied away from anything that would connect me to cooking.
I was forced to make a change when I got accepted into grad school in the US and my mother finally put her foot down. Now, she mandated, I was to start learning how to cook from her every morning and evening until I left. Needless to say, after a lifetime of cultivating an identity where I was far removed from domesticity, I wasn’t excited in the least. However, I saw her point since I’d only recently painstakingly lost my excess weight after a long struggle and didn’t want to bring it all back by eating out constantly in a foreign country known for obesity.
We started with simple dishes– basics that I felt embarrassed not knowing but my mother taught me now step by step and patiently, so I’d remember. Right from the start I learned how to make the healthier alternative and cook with minimal oil. Eggs – fried, scrambled, boiled, omelettes. I learnt how to separate whites from yolks so I could stick to a low fat diet. Hummus with yogurt instead of tahini. Mushroom and spinach ‘risotto’ using pearl barley instead of rice. I learned that I could toast bread on the stove if I didn’t have a toaster. I started paying attention to the sound of crackling of cumin seeds on the stove indicating that it was time to add the next ingredient. I learned to always sprinkle salt after adding chopped onions to the stove and wait for them to change colour and texture before proceeding. Every burnt ingredient or cooking fail was something I’d be careful about the next time and with every dish I mastered, I felt more accomplished and more prepared for a new adventure.
I arrived in America to a house which had a kitchen fully stocked with all the utensils and cookware I would need. Still, I put off going to the grocery store until about a month after I arrived because I was still overwhelmed and not yet confident that I’d be able to do it. Along with basic kitchen skills, my mother had also armed me with a large stock of prepackaged food in individual sized portions. I only had to add boiling water and a vegetable of my choice to the curry packet and about 20 minutes later I had a ready meal. These packets proved to be a great building block to my fledgling kitchen skills, teaching me to observe the size and speed of the bubbles, and the way the water changed colour and started thickening to understand when a preparation would be complete. My early grocery runs had me buying only the things that I knew for sure how to work with and then slowly but surely I started building up my pantry. As my confidence in my abilities grew, I started buying new ingredients and trying my hand at making things I enjoyed eating. I bought avocados to make my own guac like the basic millennial I am. I bought pumpkin to make pasta sauce out of. Persuaded by a Buzzfeed article, I became an avid proponent of the non-carby wonders of spaghetti squash. As my experiments grew more elaborate, so did my new reputation among my peers as a talented chef. I’d now turned into the kind of person who always brings something homemade to friends’ parties and cookouts. I was also increasingly harbouring fantasies that veered into domestic territory: dreaming about baking a cake together with a boy I liked, or bringing him some of the hummus I’d made. These fantasies always came with a twinge of guilt, feeling betrayed by myself at having given in to traditionalism and domesticity after having run away all my life from being a woman only valued for her time in the kitchen. At the time, I pushed these feelings down for the most part, moving on with only trace amounts of internal conflict.
A few months after graduation I moved to a new country once again. This time I was moving to Singapore and here I was faced with the challenge I’d side-stepped during my previous move: an unstocked apartment. A few near faux pas (almost buying a baking dish without checking if my house had an oven – it didn’t, almost not buying a saucepan for boiling things) and an IKEA trip later I was set up with a basic but functional kitchen. This move also marked a new beginning in the sense that I didn’t have any of my pre-cooked crutches. For the first time in my life I was doing everything myself: work, managing expenses from my earnings and looking after myself in a city where I had a few acquaintances but was largely starting afresh. Eating out in this city, known for its hawker centres was cheap and convenient most days of the week but on my free days, I started building up my repertoire of things I could make from scratch. Shakshouka – a Middle Eastern preparation of eggs in tomato sauce that was healthy and easy, became a favourite on weekends after working out. I started exploring more locally available products, buying a jar of black bean sauce and experimenting with various types of stir fries.
After the pandemic hit, stay at home orders had me start to eat both meals at home. Now, in an effort to have an activity that did not require staring at a screen and to have something to look forward to in the long days of isolation, I started bookmarking recipes from photos of meals that called out to me. Inspired by an Instagram recipe I made my own granola. One long weekend had me spending a full five hours making my own ravioli from scratch. With all this too, came missteps and greater awareness of where these lie. My vegetable cuts remain rough, I still can’t manage to cook asparagus and I’ve messed up egg fried rice more times than I care to remember. But with every new trial that goes well, I feel a sense of accomplishment over being able to not just feed myself to stay alive but also satiate my rather demanding palate. Now, with every step that I take in the direction of what I’d lazily compartmentalized as domesticity – making my own curd and paneer, soaking sprouts days in advance, on the surface level I am coming a few steps closer to the person my traditional family wanted me to be from the get go. But I don’t shy away from those associations entirely anymore.
At some point, in between restaurants being shut and remembering that I hadn’t been home in close to a year, my cravings for the food from my childhood had me decide to try my hand at them. I made dal, the Indian meal staple, from scratch for the first time despite always having classified it as too boring for me. The day I made dhokla – a Gujarati steamed snack made from chickpea dough, I made sure my grandmother saw a picture and I beamed with pride when I got her approval. I’ve now rid myself of a lot of the negative connotations I’d ascribed to cooking and the perception of it. Now when I go into the kitchen after hours spent in front of a laptop and in the space of a few minutes, I’m able to concoct something delicious, it serves the dual purpose of clearing my head and nourishing me. Knowing that me getting here was largely my own doing with skills I worked on myself for myself – not to satisfy the whims of a hypothetical future husband, is what has made a difference. I now know that I don’t need to run away from certain areas of life anymore just because I don’t like what they conventionally stood for. I can still forge my own path, be my own person and not bow down to dogmatic ideas and traditional gender roles if I don’t agree with them. I don’t need to feel guilty of cooking for people in my life, be it my friends, family or a boy. I’ve now realized that the time and effort I spend in the kitchen is a way of showing that I care by creating something that will bring joy to them. Now when I go into the kitchen, feeling a sense of liberation that comes from doing something because I want to – not because it’s expected of me, I know that actively spending time here is not a backward step. The kitchen can be a feminist space if I allow myself to make it one.