Namaskar Y'all - 2018

Cooking Conundrum

By Shyama Parui

“Learn to cook or you will never find a husband," my mother warned. “The way to a man's heart is through his stomach," advised my sisters. Undaunted by these clichés and empty threats, I stuck to my favorite argument against the pressure to cook, “if you don't expect my brother to learn how to cook, I refuse to be dragged into the kitchen." As a teenager, that was my minor crusade to attain gender equality, partially because I was averse to cooking. While my older sisters managed to impress everyone with their skills in the kitchen, I preferred to read and hang out with my friends, much to my mother's disappointment. Ironically, it was father's practical advice that allowed me to have an open mind. According to him, we all needed to have important life skills, namely education, driving, swimming, and cooking. He didn't want me to worry about a future husband, but suggested cooking for survival.

Cooking has never been an inherently rewarding experience for me, although our relationship over the years has improved greatly. Nevertheless, the path is not without obstacles. The right dish created with the right recipe, prepared with love, ready at the right time, no, the perfect time can still fail to please the palates of my family of picky eaters. It amazes me how three of my favorite people mercilessly present me with a cooking conundrum every day. It would be less of a challenge if they were simply unadventurous about food. To make things complicated, my husband is vegetarian, my oldest child is the exact opposite – a meat lover, my youngest can live on fruits, and I crave spicy dishes. Guess what does not make it to the top of the list, macher jhal (spicy fish curry) or lau chingri (shrimp with bottle gourd). This is not because my family is unsupportive of my favorite dishes, it is I who is too exhausted by the day's meal planning to cook an additional item. So, one of us is always unhappy at the dinner table.

My mother speaks of what seems like a bygone era. She cooked hot meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner, skillfully whipping up scrumptious meals for the extended family. From a young age, I marveled at the speed at which the food would arrive from the kitchen, especially since my mother was averse to pressure cookers, food processors or other modern gadgets. She loved the traditional tools typically found in Bengali households, as much as I found them intimidating.

The large stone grinder called shil-noda resembled a prehistoric artifact and one needed the strength of a wrestler to grind poppy seeds into a paste. The sharp boti (chopping blade) made me wary even though it was efficient. I often watched Maa sit on the floor and slice bitter melons or pumpkins effortlessly, worrying that the unforgiving boti would punish the user with a deep cut, if they dared to blink.

One advantage that favored my mother was that we as children were not exposed to a wide variety of cuisines. We rarely dined out and neighborhood moms were not known to swap recipes. So, she did not have to deal with demands or sweet persuasions for French crepes or Kashmiri mutton. Bengali meals prevailed, created with seasonal vegetables and freshwater fish, not to be mistaken for seafood. Devoid of overpowering spices or onion and garlic, the simplicity of the preparations brought out the best flavors.

Perhaps it is my desire to live up to the previous generation's standards that compels me to meet my self-imposed expectations. Quick, delicious, and mostly healthy food – a tall order! Today, merely determining the criteria for “healthy" is confusing. The definition of healthy has gone through several iterations. A decade ago, fat was the “bad guy" but now it is sugar in all its forms. I wish the nutrition label would list the sugar from unnamed or unpronounceable sources as well.

Another specification to consider is whether fresh vegetables and fruits are conventionally or organically grown. I shudder at the thought of how much pesticide I may have unknowingly consumed in my lifetime. At first, I was skeptical about the benefits of switching to organically grown foods. One summer, we had grown cherry tomatoes and just as they were ready to be harvested, Japanese beetles swarmed on the tiny crop. In an attempt to get rid of the bugs, we sprayed “safe" pesticides and succeeded. Close inspection of the contents left us horrified. Consuming the tomatoes laced with the chemicals we had sprayed on them, even after ten rinses, was simply unacceptable. After that experience I was a convert, aiming to go organic whenever possible, even if it means cutting out pedicures and pricey shoes. It's a matter of priorities as well as acknowledging the risks that may not be either near or obvious. I wish I had been more tolerant of the worms that squirmed out of the cauliflowers in India. It probably meant that the vegetables hadn't been doused with bug spray.

A gourmet kitchen today looks a lot different than it did 20 years ago. It is probably as dynamic as a tech lover's desk with new tools and gadgets that replace the uncool ones. Walking into a store specializing in culinary tools can leave you bewildered. Drawn to an object that looked like a colorful Aladdin lamp, I discovered that it was a tagine. My ignorance prompted me to set it down gently, as if it was an exotic fruit that I was too afraid to taste. I've been guilty of collecting plethora of cookware and tools over the years. Some have been genuine life savers, like the juicer, others have been either forgotten or lost favor such as non-stick pans. Meanwhile, the electric can opener has been untouched in recent months, sitting next to the idle slow cooker on the countertop, gathering dust. With so many options, figuring out the compatible match between soup and blending gizmo, for example, can be a task.

What was once hate, is now closer to love partly because of these daily hurdles. As someone who enjoys a good challenge, I have come to appreciate cooking. Perfection could potentially turn the gastronomic art into a robotic function, so I am going to enjoy the journey of crafting satisfying family meals without worrying about the destination.