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Kitchen Lessons

In my house, we always inform each other when we’re about to start using the kitchen. It’s an act of concern— for each other since each of us likes to relish in the kitchen alone, without the added stress of other people observing us cooking or baking, and for the kitchen itself, since we as a family tend to overhaul it quite a bit, if we ever do end up cooking at the same time. Our kitchen is L shaped, with a rectangular slab of yellow marble lining its peach-coloured walls. The sink is positioned on one end, along with the stove and other appliances like mixers, grinders and juicers, all essential to Indian cooking. My favourite portion of the kitchen has always been the window, where we hang up our ceramic mugs and maintain a row of money plants in old peanut butter jars on its sill. Through this window, at around 6 pm on most days, I gaze reverentially at the outside world; flickering lights in neighbourhood buildings, a group of kids playing cricket on the streets, and vehicles sluggishly passing each other. But most importantly, I think of other kitchens in action, at that very moment. I think of hundreds of pans frying, cookers sizzling and knives chopping. Hundreds of different kinds of people, all united by existing within one common space, the kitchen. I’m filled with some sort of hope— as Rega Jha said, a lived-out admission of truth at the heart of most of our internal drama: that however much we try to, we just cannot, will not do this life thing alone. We can’t do the big things alone and we don’t much like doing the small things unwitnessed either. Especially in the kitchen.

I was 9 years old when I first started baking and it was never anything fancy. Deformed vanilla cupcakes, overly sweet buttercream frosting and crumbly brownies swallowed many years of my childhood and for that, I’m thoroughly thankful to my kitchen, which tolerated the scent of burnt batter and vanilla essence for years to come. Interestingly enough, my mum deeply disapproved of my baking adventures, mostly because it consisted of me making a mess of her beloved, sacred kitchen but also since it included ingredients, methods and processes that she didn’t recognise. She’d completely remove herself from the vicinity of our kitchen every time I set foot in it because of her inability to watch me bake without stressing herself out by my mishaps. Baking was a ‘modern’ culinary concept, and one that she felt was unhealthy and alien. “Learning to cook your own culture’s food is the only way you’ll get to know yourself”, she would say, as a matter of fact. There were two conditions presented to me if I wanted to use the kitchen for baking: Firstly, I couldn’t rearrange the order of anything— pots, pans, spice boxes, whatnot. Secondly, I had to clean up and wash the dishes at the end. Most were simple, polished in just a few scrubs and swipes. But the big ones, the pans that the batter was assembled in, usually posed a problem. Dried-up bits of cocoa powder and sugar would cling to them, and it took a day’s worth of pent-up aggression to scrape them off. That is until my mom finally decided to intervene and offered a simple solution. As it turns out, it’s best to fill up the laborious vessels with water before starting on the other dishes and leaving them until the end, when everything else is washed. Wait for them to soak a little. When you come back and drain them, all the clingy bits loosen up and the vessels emerge clean and glistening. Even the dirtiest, most hopeless pieces of cutlery can re-emerge freshly washed. Another important and early kitchen lesson is believing that the tears will stop. The anxiety will go away. The breathing will get easier. If nothing else, I will come out of it all freshly washed. I just need to soak for a little bit.

My mum always seemed angrier when she cooked, just like she kept her distance from me as I baked, my father and I would always conveniently find other things to do when she was in the kitchen. I’ve never really asked her why being in the kitchen frustrated her so much— all I know is that it has little to do with her affinity for cooking because she’s told me so herself. The sweat-inducing stuffiness of our kitchen, especially in the midst of sizzling Indian spices, boiling hot curries and humid Chennai afternoons makes it cumbersome for anyone to be in a particularly ‘good mood’ whilst cooking, so of course, I don’t blame her for her kitchen specific moodiness. Every time I’d see her in there, I’d understand why she didn’t want me potentially messing up its careful arrangement and organization. I also can’t talk about my mother and our kitchen without acknowledging grief and guilt over the fact that my freedoms and privileges exist as a result of my mother’s sacrifices. Maybe that’s what this anger of hers and many mothers amounts to; a love-hate relationship with the kitchen: a blackhole disguised as a place of refuge. She would often ask me to help with chopping vegetables, a task that I’d be itching to finish off as quickly as possible. Onions had to be grated into small squares, tomatoes into thin circles and green chillies chopped finely. There was an imaginary clock at play; the vegetables had to be prepped and ready to be fried on the pan as Ma gathered other ingredients and brought the gas to a slow simmer. The oil sputtered and crackled as my imperfectly diced up vegetables touched its surface. Patience is key to cutting well-proportioned vegetables, she says to me. Lessons in chopping vegetables slowly became good practices for restraint and tolerance.

A few years later, my kitchen misadventures began to come to fruition in the sense that I found a routine that I felt in and out of comfortably. I’d pop in now and then, cook up the occasional pot of tomato rice or put together a salad recipe I came across on Instagram Reels. Baking and cooking became a shared activity; spending time together in the kitchen transformed into an act so tender that it became a friendship ritual. Saucepans full of masala Maggi during finals week, gooey brownies posing as birthday cakes and imperfect ghee dosas. By cooking together and examining each other's tastes in food and recipes, I opened up a little sliver of my heart specially reserved just for food and by extension, my thoughts, feelings and love. Shared cooking subconsciously changed the way I communicate as well; as I began to think of existing inside a kitchen as collective rather than solitary, my relationship with food improved. When emotions and words fail to be enough, we resort to food, as if to say, “This is an overwhelm so great and so beyond my comprehension that I don’t know what to say. But here’s a bowl of warmth. It’ll be okay.” When my neighbour’s husband passed away, I went over and conveyed my condolences with a box of payasam. Two friends, years after fighting over boy drama, re-built their relationship from scratch, all because one of them decided to bring the other a home-cooked meal of sambhar rice. My father hands me an apology camouflaged as a cup of sugary coffee. We deal with big heartbreaks and happinesses by cooking for each other.

During a childhood monsoon, I lived with my grandmom, whose kitchen is greatly different from ours. It’s mostly done up in shades of white, black and grey, in contrast to ours, which is yellow and sunny. I’d spend hours sitting on the black granite counters, quietly watching my grandmother make oily dosas for breakfast; as she patiently explained how dosa making was an art that took years of careful mastering and practice. She’d pull out the chilled batter from the fridge, take a big metal spoon and spread it elegantly on a hot pan. She’d make it all look so easy as if she was tricking me. But that’s not the only thing she was tricking. Like any artist, she had tricked us all into believing that this was effortless and easy. But when I began to make my own dosas, there was nothing the process didn’t ask of me. I had to get the ingredients right, manipulate the boil, to befriend the clock. To achieve this, I had to love the person I was serving and forget myself in the process. Then, I had to make peace with the fact that nobody would recognize the lengths I had gone to in keeping everything fresh and instead treat their warm, full bellies as my prize. Nobody except the kitchen itself, which always witnesses to everyone’s efforts and endeavours. I enjoy tending food and feeding others, so dosa making is well suited to my temperament. It also tempts my lifelong struggle with perfectionism, since there are a million ways to make it better at all times, but that’s another story for another time.

About the Author:

Neeraja Srinivasan is currently studying English Literature and Creative Writing at Ashoka University. Her work has been published by the Museum of Material Memory, The Remnant Archive, and Madras Inherited, amongst others. To Neeraja, writing is an instrument that she uses to quietly sit and examine the hearts and minds of those around her; a love language of sorts. You can find her musings on Instagram at @neeruslists.

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