I am a born-and-bred foodie, fortunate to have grown up in a household where meals are treated with a fervour that borders on the fanatic. We were never raised with any religious rituals while growing up, except when it came to the right blend of spices for the tamarind rice, or the proper way to serve puran polis (with a bowl of melted ghee on the side, of course). Rather than a temple, our weekly pilgrimage was to the fish market.
If you, like me, are from a family where you have never managed to finish one meal without having a lively discussion on what the next one should be, you know what it is to live to eat. So desperate was I for good food when I was away from home, that I was forced to learn how to cook – the recourse of many food lovers who have to go it alone. I became a connoisseur of all kinds of dishes and cuisines, hosting dinner parties and making solitary suppers with equal aplomb. But to this day, I have no idea how to make my great-grandmother’s mutton pulao, my mom’s stuffed pomfrets, my aunt’s roast chicken dressed with pâté, or any of the other delectable dishes that grace the family table.
I was never put in the position of so many of my cousins and friends, thrust into the kitchen with the rigorous goal of becoming domestic doyens who can churn out round rotis and six different variations on toor dal. My fate instead has been that, left to myself in a family incapable of serving up anything but delicious food, I have inherited the love for cooking – I just don’t have any recipes to follow.
But I am not alone here. I have known Indian home cooks bake flawless triple-tier cakes crowned with frosting, and mix perfect ratios of ghee and sugar for fussy, sticky halwas, all without even glancing at a measuring cup. The secret ingredient in their killer prawn curry is not an ingredient at all, but an entirely different masala mix that they have lovingly pre-ground, whose proportions are based on the mysterious confluence of colour, smell, and the fruitfulness of this year’s chilli harvest. Never mind the kitchen scales when atta is carelessly scooped from bags with random katoris, leading to flakier parathas and more tender modaks than anything you’d find in a fancy restaurant.
I am coming into my own magic as a cook, one that is impossible to replicate.
My mother has written and published a cookbook; my aunt, bless her heart, has made meticulous recipe cards with the fond intention of passing them down to the next generation. And yet, an appeal to either one for how to make a favourite dish turns into an hour spent deciphering how much “about a handful” is, or when a dish “smells of dum”. Recipes from them are little more than shopping lists, while instructions are equally vague, relying less on a reliable method and more on some arcane knowledge of cooking.
On the other hand, watching and trying to take down your own step-by-step recipes is a fool’s errand at best, and a stroll into the lion’s den at worst. Even if you do manage to make sense of every pinch of this and dash of that, every “special” kadhai and obscure spoon, you risk being hit over the head with a belan if you ask questions and get in the way. As descendants of all the great cooks know, when you go to recreate the magic of their hands, you will fall short, as if the universe itself is laughing at your hubris.
Clearly, I speak from a depth of experience, and of failure as I have so often despaired of nailing down the flavours of my childhood home. But then, this is the real lesson of the unforgiving kitchen: the alchemy between measurements and cooking times; the need for a cauldron and spellbook over a saucepan and recipe card. To really cook, we must pay these dues and reach a realm of intuition, where our ancestors are guiding us towards culinary genius.
Just as no two tomatoes are the same, no two cooks can use them to produce the same chutney. Now, I hear my mother’s rebuke when my eye drifts towards the off-brand biryani masala instead of Shan, and my grandfather’s insistence that I will need more onions than I think for a good stew. When I wield the jar of hing – a fickle friend – I feel the pull of generations stopping me at a pinch, saving my tadka from irrevocable bitterness.
Funnily enough, it is all these voices that assure me: I am coming into my own magic as a cook, one that is impossible to replicate. That, and the fact that people have started asking me how to make things. Like trauma, the inability to craft an actual recipe appears to be inherited, and I find myself speaking in sprinkles and spoonfuls. It’s exasperating, but it’s also the only language I know. Maybe I ended up learning some recipes after all.