When I was growing up, my mother, like so many of ours in the 1980s, decided she wanted to work again. In India, she was a college professor and taught students not that much younger than she biology and zoology. She was the only female professor in the male-dominated faculty of the time (and maybe still today.) My dad says that if she hadn’t agreed to marry him and come to America, she would’ve been running that place. As one of her children, I will attest to this. She’s only five-feet tall but she has a commanding authority and a steel will.
Once I was born, and two years later, my brother, she traded the classroom – happily by all accounts – for our home. One of my enduring childhood memories is family dinners through the years. Dad was insistent that we eat together every night, save the occasional high school activity that would get us out of the house in the evenings. Every day around 3, the kitchen activity would commence: vegetable dishes, dahl, rice, rotis, bakris, puris, your usual Gujrati fare. As I practiced piano in the afternoons, the smells of oil and spices would waft over.
There was always a hot meal for dinner, at least that I can remember. Even when she went back to school – administrators in US universities didn’t take her Indian degrees seriously – she managed to cook. Instead of ordering delivery pizza, she preferred to make her own from scratch. She learned how to make scrumptious omelettes and chili for her meat-eating kids. I’m still not sure how she did it all. But I knew I was thankful. We hated the occasional evenings that it was Dad’s turn to “cook,” which consisted of him foraging the fridge for whatever resided and then cobbling that together into a “meal.” Blech! (Dad, to his credit, has learned to cook quite a number of things in the 20 years since.)
Given all that, you’d think I’d be a fantastic cook. I certainly love good food. But Mom was as commanding in the kitchen as she was in the classroom. Nothing less than perfection was allowed. My every-other-shape except circular rotis were put in the reject pile. And there were no recipes. Just a general dictum of watch what I do. I love that Mom learned from her mother, who had learned from hers before, in this great maternal legacy. I can see the history of her family in the way she makes a Wal-Mart knife cut like it was a Henckel; in the rising of the perfect puff of a puri.
I suck. I need the recipe guidepost and the coaching of the seasoned cook, at least at first. It helps me generate the feel for how much water is required for this particular consistency of the dough, the right color of the onions sauteeing in the pan. It helps assuage my fear that I’m about to ruin some perfectly good food. My teenage attempts at cooking never measured up. So I just focused on the eating.
In the last decade or so, I’ve been playing at cooking. I’ve been successful at cobbling together a few meals for dinner parties. On visits home, Mom will measure out the water and oil as she’s cooking to help me see how to do it. I’ve made a variety of dishes under her supervision. (I am an excellent sous chef.) I’ve even begun a “video cookbook” with Mom making some of my favorites: samosas, bindhi veggie, mummara, paw bhaji. (Hmmm … lot of chaat in that list.)
And Mom’s Kitchen is a little less of a serious place now. The amoeba-shaped rotis rolled out by my 4-year-old nephew are prized, as they should be. (Actually, he might be better at it than I was.) If the bakhri doesn’t have the perfect spots for the up side or the down side, it really doesn’t matter that much. (Did you know that they have distinct sides? I still can’t tell the difference.)
One of the things I’ve been wanting to do is expand my cooking repertoire. But a busy life, too many friends who are great cooks, and others who like to go to good restaurants – not to mention my fear of screwing it all up – has meant too little cooking occurred in my Turtle Creek kitchen.
Here in Dubai, our apartment has a great kitchen. And of course J is a fantastic cook. He has his own, ahem, exacting ways but he’s taught me a lot. We’ve had half a dozen dinner parties and I’ve been a capable sous chef. I’ve learned how to make homemade marinara and a tasty mushroom risotto. Both of them are vegetarian and I want to make them for my parents when I visit in December. I’m looking forward to joining Mom in the kitchen and learning some Guju and North Indian dishes that I can make in Dubai when I return. (Maybe I’ll put Mom on the Skype just to be sure.)
But I’ll warn any future dinner guests: It still won’t be as good as Mom’s.