How many meals can one cook in around 60-plus years? I don’t need to do the math to know that it’s a lot. That’s about how long my mother has been cooking. It’s a culinary repertoire that began in India but, upon coming to America, expanded to include Italian-American foods, Tex-Mex, and all sorts of typical American meals families ate in the last 40 years.
My childhood was fairly Normal Rockwell, albeit with Indian-American immigrant touches. My mom made us fresh meals every day; we ate dinner as a family pretty much every night of the week. We mostly ate food from Gujarat, the state where my family is from, a cuisine that is heavily composed of vegetables, lentils and rice. My parents tended gardens during my school years and many of the vegetables we ate — squash, okra, tomatoes — came from that garden.
I didn’t know it then, but those meals set up my own views toward eating and nutrition. I don’t drink sodas and eat very little junk food (ahem, apart from Goldfish and the occasional Whataburger on a road trip.) Healthy eating is important to me.
Of course I didn’t truly appreciate all of that until my 20s, when I was establishing my own homes and living on my own. I didn’t really learn to cook all of our Indian foods when I was younger mostly because I just wasn’t that interested in the domestic arts. (And also, partly because my mom’s sense of perfection didn’t allow for the sort of lopsided and warped-looking rotlis and other breads a novice like me would produce.)
But, for a while now — for likely too long — I’ve been wanting to set about to more formally learn about my mom’s recipes and, more importantly, connect with the family history and culture that these foods represent.
She doesn’t do measurements. She just *knows* how much spice or water or oil to add to vegetables or to a flour mixture to make bread, or how high the stove’s flame should be. She works so fast I can’t try to approximate measurements. So now I’m working to get her to slow down and take measurements — or at least allow me enough time to guess the amounts so that I can take down recipes on paper. I’m sure I’ll annoy her with all of my questions.
This is not about being able to cook like her. I won’t be able to; she is truly a master in the kitchen. (One metric that I cite about my mother’s gifts? She can make delicious dishes, even ones that she’s never even tasted. A strict vegetarian, my mom doesn’t eat meat or meat products and eggs are considered meat. But her omelettes, something that she’s never tasted herself, are amazing.) She made chili and hamburgers for my brother and me when we were kids, though she doesn’t like to cook meat anymore.
But one of my goals for this year is to record this part of my family’s heritage. For many of us, our childhood memories are twinned with meals and I’m no different. The spaghetti lunches after playing tennis on Sundays when an uncle and aunt lived with us in Texas City. The delight I would have upon finding out mom was making one of my favorite foods for dinner or realizing she made chocolate chip cookies.
I didn’t always like everything that was on my plate; I still dislike Indian squash and don’t really like daal. But, even now, no chicken soup is really as satisfying as mom’s kichardee (a rice and lentil dish) when I’m sick. The foods we ate reflect the lives we lived: our mainstay of Gujarati food, the masala-influenced cheese enchiladas my mom added to the repertoire, the homemade pizza that she makes. They show our journey as an immigrant family with two Indian-American kids as the four of us navigated experiences very different from the ones my parents had in India. That’s worth holding on to.