Cooking is an art – whoever said this, uttered the truth. When you sketch, you need to feel the paper, use the correct pencil, every stroke makes a difference. When you make jewelry, you need to pick the correct beads, string them in the right sequence to make something beautiful. When you paint, your canvas, paints, brushes, strokes all of them matter. Its the same with cooking. You need the right utensils, spices, oil, vegetables/meat, sequence of events and above all, the P word – Patience.
Like all art forms, cooking needs an enormous amount of patience. If the onion is a tad bit undercooked or overcooked, it makes a difference to the end product taste which is probably another ten steps away. There are people who cook in a hurry and yet get it right most of the time. Yet, the speed is not in the cooking, its the speed in multitasking or tricks to get to the end product sooner.
My oldest memory of cooking goes back to that tiny 100 to 150 sq ft of space lines with built in shelves of cement on the right side, a sink again made of cement on the other, with stands on either side to keep the washed utensils, on the left side. There was a tap that opened into the sink, unfortunately, water never flowed through the tap. There was a plastic basin or bucket on the side, from which we fished out water to wash the utensils. This basin and back up plastic drums was religiously refilled everyday morning by my father who carried the water up two floors before he went to office. The two sides was connected with a wooden plank of about 10 feet by 3 feet on which we kept the stove. This was the third side of the kitchen. Initially this was a single electric coil, till we became modern and got a gas stove that had an automatic lighter. My father uses this stove even today!
The right side of shelves was lined with red circular plastic containers with off-white lids. These were remains of some washing powder we bought in those days. Then there were a couple of huge aluminum canisters to store rice, atta. There was a green basket to store onions and potatoes – this again still lingers on in my father’s kitchen today. There were Red Label Tea plastic bottles to store the smaller volume items like dal etc.
It was sweaty during summer. There was a small window which she opened to let some air inside, but quickly shut off because the gas flames would go any which way. The kitchen was always crowded except for the center area where we sat down to cut the vegetables or knead the flour or roll out the chapathis. There was a waste basket in one corner, which was cleared out everyday at the bell of the worker who cleared out trash from households. As soon as the bell rang, we would carry that bag of trash and run down two floors to hand over the valuables. Later, we got modern and played catch by throwing it from the second floor at the direction of the worker.
My mother cooked here three times a day for us for almost thirty years! I know now, that I would have hated it. I am sure my mother was not a fan of the kitchen she had to succumb to. I wouldn’t have been if I had to cook in there for thirty years. But she made sure there was food on our plates.
It was a very humble dwelling compared to what I cook in today. Yet the lesson I learnt about cooking has not changed. The single most important one being – whatever you cook, you need to cook it with love. You can add the best spices, give it all the time you have, yet when you cook with love, the end product tastes the best. Is it the love for food? No. It is love for the fact that you are going to feed someone. In the Malayalam movie Usthad Hotel, Anjali Menon wrote for Thilakan – when you feed someone you should fill their heart.
Whatever my mother felt in that kitchen one element for sure was love, coz she filled our hearts every time we ate.
Love you Ma!