The first time I cooked something entirely on my own was around July 2001 when I was getting ready to leave for the University of Florida for pursuing graduate studies. I made aaloo-gobhi that day. My mom supervised everything. At the end of it, I was kind of exhausted. It didn’t taste particularly great. The potatoes weren’t cooked through. Also, I smelled as if I took a dip inside every silo at an MDH factory. But in spite of all the defects, I learnt a few things. Since then, I have developed a fairly strong passion for cooking. It has taught me a quite a bit and I continue to learn several things through it. I’d like to share them with you. And urge you to just enter the kitchen at least a couple of times in your life and cook something.
Chop a few onions. Especially the pungent red ones. You might never use the phrase “cries like a girl” again. Well, you’ll at least understand the plight of folks who do this day in and day out. And NO, one does NOT develop immunity towards this lachrymose ritual. Tears are shed every single time onions are cut. Thank you propanethial-S-oxide (the gas released from onions during cutting that causes tears) for your contribution towards equality of sexes. So even before starting to actually cook, you are a more open minded individual. Good virtue to possess.
Make a sabzi/dish. You don’t have to come up with your own recipe. Follow your mom’s recipe. You learn swimming with tube first no? Same logic. So now you have a time bound deliverable at your hand. See, no need for fancy corporate training to get better at it. Cooking is just as good. You’ll suddenly realize that you could substitute some of the stuff mentioned in the recipe (or even add something on your own), either due to unavailability or out of sheer curiosity, and come up with your own thing. Need based improvisation Not a bad skill to have. You might not be able to patent all the stuff you come up with but nobody can take away the joy that comes with some thinking on the feet.
Try making a dosa. It’s OK if the batter is store bought. You may realize that spreading it into a nice circle is not as easy as you envisioned during your imaginary air-dosa session prior to actually making it. You may realize that if you’re being too slow and careful to make a circle, the batter has already set on the kallu (tawa) like a gecko and forbids you from disturbing it from its set position of comfort. On the other hand, if you’re too fast trying to imitate a potti kadai (small shop) or a person at a darshini, you might observe that the white dosa batter with holes and discontinuities on a black kallu looks like Mr. Rorschach’s face.
Also, it might not come off the kallu as easily as you’d like, even if you empty a packet of nallennai (gingelly oil). It may look like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle after you’ve dealt it umpteen blows with your flat karandi (ladle) with the hope of removing the dosa as an entire unit. But you know what, it will taste decent. The sense of accomplishment will make it taste better. You will come up with things like “hey I don’t have to pichchufy (split it into smaller bits) this dosa to thottufy (smear) with chutney or milagai podi”. See, cooking teaches you self-deprecation. Extremely valuable virtue.
But once you’re done eating, out of nowhere your lips will camber and maybe even let your teeth peek through a gap between them. You will never forget that smile. Spontaneous. Like a child who is happy after playing in spite of being slathered with muck and getting a couple of bruises.
Try making rotis. Actually try 6. If you can’t roll the dough into circles, don’t bother correcting the shape. Just take a large spherical object like a ball or something and paste them on it. Tell your kid(s)/friends this is how continents look. Make some more. You will realize that you were an asshole to your mum when you said “this one is not round so it won’t taste good. I won’t eat”. They all taste the same. The shape doesn’t matter. Also, some of us used to pick out the ‘brown dots’ and eat just the white part, leaving a plate that looked like it suffered from chicken pox. You will realize that it is not possible to make one without those dots. Actually suddenly, your mind will tell you the very dots you loathed throughout your life lend certain aesthetic appeal to the roti.
And oh, I forgot to mention about the ‘puffing’ part. Good rotis are those which turn from two-dimensional circles into three-dimensional spheres upon placing them on the flame, right? Otherwise they suddenly become toxic and inedible no? At least that’s how many of us were to our moms growing up. Well, let’s see how you do. The idea is not to put you down but to realize that it is OK if they don’t swell. They’ll taste just fine. Your life is not in some disarray just because some air couldn’t escape from the treacherous layers of kneaded flour. Just understand that looks don’t matter beyond an extent. It’s the taste that counts. No pre-judging without experiencing something. Also, looking beyond appearances. Important life lessons.
But again, once you’re done eating them with sabzi, you’ll realize that there is a halo surrounding your head. It’s called peace/satisfaction. You are also striking the Captain Morgan pose in your mind. It’s OK. Go ahead. Savor the moment. You are your own boss. It might have been a mess but it is YOUR mess. And you fucking love it.
But one thing you will realize regardless of making rotis or dosas. The rate at which your mum churned them out of the stove, while you were busy in eating contests and boasting your Pacman-esque rate of consumption to your sibling or cousins, deserves a Nobel prize in physics. Remember, she was there before Intel. But do go easy on her if you have to wait for an extra fraction of a second next time when she’s making rotis/dosas, OK? Patience. Another virtue.
Also, you will realize that as you make more of rotis/dosas, they’ll start to look better eventually. The odd cul-de-sacs and dreadful looking edges will merge into contiguous boundaries resembling a more circular form. Perseverance. Key virtue.
Also, joy derived from hard work and perseverance feels way more fulfilling than sitting on your derriere and ordering folks to do things for you. Good to know! Keeps you grounded.
The list of things you could learn by fixing a simple meal is pretty long but I hope you get the picture. It’s not just flavor profiles, cutting, measuring things (highly overrated, by the way), frying, braising and all the technical stuff pertinent to cooking. It’s these other lessons that cooking imparts that could stay with you forever.
In fact, I am not sure if there is anything else out there that could teach you so many things in a span of a couple of hours. And provide you with the opportunity to work on it every single day whenever you feel like. My wife and I have learnt a great deal about each other by hanging out together in the kitchen. In fact, if there is one thing that invariably cheers us up no matter how forlorn other things seem, it is cooking a meal together.
Also, “cooking is a girl thing” is baloney. The dirty shirt/baniyan blotched with stains from turmeric, splashed gravy, red chilli powder, verdant green from anything spinach and so on and so forth, along with the various pungent and earthy aromas of spices is the ultimate Axe effect. Not the “entire ladies hostel chasing a dude” or “ladies going bow-chika-wow-wowww” tripe they show on television. Trust me. Spoken from experience…