I did not get my love of food from my mom. In a culinary world where moms are cited as the inspiration for almost everything, this statement probably sounds strange, and dare I say it, ungrateful? Perhaps it does.
What my mom has offered me, however, has defined my journey in a way that transcends food and cultural boundaries.
My mom has been — and still is — a very skilled and technical cook. She just never had the time to enjoy it the way I do. Our lives have moved in very different directions, and I find it extremely interesting that, feminism, for me, has meant having the freedom to do anything I choose to do.
I also have to admit that my life today is a lot easier than my mom's when she was my age. My mother was from a generation of women in India who truly worked the 'double shift.' Mom was one of the first women in her family to work outside the house, but that did not mean that her responsibilities at home were any diminished.
I often heard her up and about at 5am every morning, getting together a hot breakfast for the extended family, lunches for those who were at home, packing food for us to take as school lunches, all before 8:30am, at which point she would rush off to school, where she worked as an elementary school teacher. She would be back at 5, after which it was constantly go-go-go, with homework, dinner, dishes, laying out clothes for the next day, wrestling recalcitrant kids into bed. She would fall into bed, exhausted, only to wake up the next morning and start the cycle all over again. All this, interspersed with looking after elderly relatives and family.
It's one of the reasons I do not blame her for not being passionate about food the way I am, or for that matter, make cooking with us a priority. The last thing she needed was us tramping around the kitchen, messing up her system, and making a mess. Everything I learned about food, I absorbed through just being in the vicinity of the women in the kitchen. My sister and I ate what we got (albeit with enough complaining and whining) and while it was not the fanciest of food, it was always fresh, local, delicious and nourishing.
I only started cooking for myself when I was lonely and homesick in England, and the food of homeland and childhood made me feel closer to my family, despite the distance between us.
My mom is visiting me right now, here in Canada. She easily admits that I know a lot more about food than she ever did. It is, however, hard for her to lose her habit of looking after us all. So I wake up in the morning, and there is already coffee steaming and ready, my daughter has been fed her breakfast, my sandwiches have been packed for lunch. She asks me what I want for dinner — I tell her to make something that reminds me of my childhood. I come back home from work, and dinner is made. There are hot rotis in the oven, a green vegetable has been sautéed, and a main course has been cooked. An easy life, indeed.
Mom and I have very different styles of cooking. I have a huge collection of cookbooks, from all over the world, and I love cooking from them, and learning all about food that is unfamiliar to me. Mom's cooking and her recipes were all down from her parents, a continuation of oral traditions and culture. I catch my mom browsing through my cookbook collection with wonder. She skims through some of them, when I am not looking, and I see her eyes widen with appreciation and understanding.
Mom learned how to cook from her mother, my grandmother. My grandfather was an amazing natural chef. He was the principal wedding chef for the village — an archaic traditional role — and whenever there was a wedding in the community, he was ceremoniously invited to be the head chef. He cooked for thousands of people at a time — directing his gaggle of helpers in precisely the right way, tasting, seasoning, chopping, constantly moving around the venue — he would be up almost the entire night, and only came home once the wedding feast was served. Grandmother cooked at home.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, and one of my biggest regrets in life is how little attention I paid to their cooking at the time. I took good food as a right, not as the privilege it was.
My mom likes to tell me that I am like my grandfather — a natural chef — but a pain to work with. Er, sorry mom. I freely admit I am a temperamental cook. I like to develop a recipe, and if it isn't right the first time, I'll beat the living daylights out of it, until it's perfect. My samosa recipe, for example, is testament to it. Mom never liked making samosas, she thought they were a waste of time when we could just as easily go and buy decent ones. I was obsessed with making the perfect ones, and almost blew up Skype in my frantic phone calls to her — a lot of them in the middle of the night — until I knew I had the right recipe and quantities.
When we cook together, I am constantly pestering her for quantities — she looks at me with amusement, as I am pulling my hair in frustration — whose handful is that small handful referring to, mother? What does measure out a 'pav' mean? A cup? A quart? Aaargh! But my mom serenely smiles through my tantrums, as she blithely adds a pinch of this and a teaspoon of that. She tells me that I am lucky to be able to enjoy cooking, and if I get obsessed with quantities, am I still enjoying myself? There's a lesson in here somewhere.
My mom has taught me a lot about life and food, just not in the kitchen. She has taught me how to respect food and never waste anything. She grumbles if she sees me throwing away anything that she considers still edible. She tells me that food wastage makes her feel ill, especially considering her hard background, growing up in a small village in India.
At the same time, she enjoys the finer things in life. Mom loves it when I make 'exotic' food at home. She raves over my Thai curries, gets unduly excited over homemade pasta and pesters me to make my 'famous' coffee and walnut cake. She looks on, wide eyed, as I work on a recipe for gnocchi. She was thrilled when I made her Chicken 65, a spicy Indian fried chicken dish, as she's never attempted to make it herself. She has started appreciating good wines, and can often be found sharing a chilled rosé or gewurztraminer with me in the evenings.
She's not always complimentary, though, for all her mild mannered nature. I made pineapple muffins recently. She tasted one and her eyes lit up. And then she says, "Well, these are good — almost as good as your mom-in-law's. You should try a little harder." Sigh, thanks mother. Thank goodness for my number one super fan, my daughter, who thinks I make the best of everything (... way better than grandma's muffins, mom, way better.) It's all about balance with my mother. I can't be getting a swelled head now, can I?
To my mom, we were a nuisance in the kitchen, and really, who had the time to supervise a bunch of kids who only wanted to make desserts? It's very different to how I work with my own daughter. She's six, and we cook together all the time. I see my mom watching us, itching to step in and clean up the terrible mess we inevitably make, but wisely holding off, letting me be a mom in my own way. She has no idea how much I appreciate that. She knows I have to make my own parenting mistakes, and lets me do it on my own. She offers advice, but doesn't interfere. It gives me confidence in myself and allows me to be open and honest with her.
Cooking with Mom, as an adult and mom myself, has been a revelation. I know a lot about food, she knows a lot about life. We work as a team in the kitchen. It drives me batty that she won't use a chef's knife, she gives me a hard time for not being neat enough in my chopping. I pay attention to presentation; she only cares about how good the food tastes (and doesn't hesitate to let me know when it's not up to scratch). She loves it when I make food that's not Indian, while I love it when she makes the comfort food of my childhood. She teases and laughs at me when I obsess about taking a picture of my finished dish (and now she's even started offering advice as to how I style and photograph food... Mom, seriously, I do know what I am doing!)
Best of all, she sees me as an equal. We are friends now, and I treasure my relationship with this truly remarkable woman. I can only hope that my daughter will feel the same way about me when she grows up.