While in India, the most common refrain I’d hear about myself, apart from inquiries as to why I always carried my camera and backpack everywhere or comments concerning my declining weight, was about my cooking. I come from a family where life centers on food; the kitchen is the main hub of activity and the axis on which the day turns. And so it is no surprise that cooking, despite all of the difficulties and complications, became a comfort to me and thankfully a service to others in India. I remember the words of one competitor on the American show, Top Chef: After 9/11 happened, I didn’t know what to do… so I went into the kitchen and I cooked. I suppose, for me, cooking ties me back to the fundamental activities of sustenance that nourish me in more ways than one.
Of course, cooking in different environments comes with its certain challenges. Following the training of my mother, I mostly baked, which can be a challenge in a place where baking isn’t a priority or a common practice, where water and electricity shortages and cuts are frequent, where ingredients are hard to come by, where you have to be more mindful of insects and hungry animals [note to self to write more about that story later]. The recipes I followed were refined methods from my mother and were adapted to what was locally available or feasible, so whenever I made a carrot cake or apple pie or Christmas fruit cake, my mother was right there with me.
Never before have I ever baked as much as I did in India. This could because I also received the nicest, warmest remarks concerning the quality of the dishes produced. Many questioned my career choice as an academic and suggested opening a shop of my own or pursuing a career as a chef. I, too, pose the same questions to myself. While I would certainly not claim to be a great cook, I do take great joy in being able to apply practical skills I have learned over the years to serve others. Some of my fond memories come from dinner gatherings where the following conversations would occur:
Someone’s grandmother (SG): Now let me taste your pie. I’m very good at making pies, so I must have a taste of yours!
Me: Oh, I hope you’ll like it!
SG: [Tastes pie] It’s so delicious!
Me: [Smiles] I’m so glad!
Or grandiose statements, like This is the best cake I’ve tasted in all my 30 years! and He cooks food like in a 5-star hotel! It can be a challenge to introduce new flavours to people’s palettes; not all dishes work, even though they are sourced from mostly local produce, but I think the right combinations and paying attention to the range of tastes of your audience is a very useful refining process that can lead to appreciated, wholesome meals. Some of my most satisfying moments would come from one of the helpers simply accepting my piece of cake or savoury dishes and finishing it all; I found their taste to be the most discerning, and so pleasing them was always an ambition of mine.
Soon after making a few dishes for myself and the family, I started receiving orders for various social gatherings, including birthdays, dinner parties, meetings, church functions, and so forth. I also began baking for a coffee shop. I was busiest around Christmas, when I think I made thirty cakes in a week or two. In the new year I decided to cut down on the cooking to refocus on my work and allow more time for my writing, but I still managed to answer a few requests here and there, including conducting a little cooking class for apple pie and chicken pot pie 101. I asked friends to send a few food items through the mail. I’m so thankful for the little food items that came, like instant tom yum mama noodles, kimchi mix, miso paste, and various Japanese snacks. Unfortunately some packages sent from North America never made it (lost/stolen/opened and consumed?), but my mom’s box arrived after much inquiry and after 1-two months delay. In that box were dried, packaged blueberries, which meant I could make orange-blueberry scones in my last two months in the field. These small joys I will cherish.
Nina Simone – Falling in Love Again