personal essay

How My Mom Is Helping Me Survive the Pandemic from Thousands of Miles Away

published May 9, 2020
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When I moved from Mumbai to New York five years ago I carried my mother’s recipes with me, neatly jotted down in a red linen covered recipe journal. It sits on a shelf in my kitchen, and I occasionally leaf through the pages looking for ideas, eventually placing it back, and relying instead on takeout or whatever-is-easiest-to-throw-together kind of meals. The thing is, my mother’s recipes aren’t particularly easy or quick. They’re demanding with strict methodical instructions, requiring an army of spices, aromatics, and prep bowls. I have neither the patience, aptitude, nor pantry to take on this kind of cooking. So instead, I thumb through the pages for comfort while tucking into a bowl of two-minute noodles.

But lately I have been nursing a severe case of homesickness, yearning to be transported back to my childhood home where I never had to worry about putting food on the table or stocking my cabinets with essentials. With stay-at-home orders issued in both countries, jumping on a 15-hour flight is out of the question. So instead, I seek solace in the kitchen by recreating meals I grew up with. I started by scouring the internet in an attempt to find easy Indian recipes, often piecing together a couple in hopes of nailing that familiar flavor. But as delicious as Archana’s Kitchen’s dal is or the minced mutton and peas by Sanjeev Kapoor, I have discovered there’s a void only my mother’s meals can fill.

By the seventh day of self-quarantining, I finally mustered the courage to take a stab at one of her classic recipes: a four-layered garlic rice baked dish. Growing up, the baked dish — layers of rice, garlicky red sauce, roasted vegetables, fresh herbs, creamy béchamel, and lots of cheese — was a weeknight staple at my family dinner table, and a welcome respite from the unexciting vegetables, lentils, and roti. I would sneak into the kitchen just as the bubbling dish was coming out of the oven and watch my mother generously grate an extra dash of fresh Parmesan. “For good luck,” she’d say. The golden brown, craggy edges were always reserved for me.

Credit: Sholeen Damarwala

After my béchamel transformed into one solid lump on the stove for the second time I finally decided to call my mother. It was early morning in Mumbai, but she answered on the second ring. Like a doctor examining her patient, she gave me the diagnosis: “Critical. But it can pull through.” She instructed me to slowly add in milk while continuing to stir the sauce, urging the lump to ease up with a whisk. Once the sauce was restored to its shimmering glory, she walked me through the rest of the steps for the recipe and only hung up after the dish was baked and cooling on my countertop. That evening I sat on the couch, eating forkful by forkful directly from the ceramic dish, and with each bite, I could feel my anxiety and fear slowly dissipate.

Since then, I have taken to calling my mother almost every single day for cooking instructions. She patiently supervises every step and once we’re done, we discuss the process at length, eventually deciding on a dish for the next day before hanging up. In the five weeks since our new routine has been established, we have graduated to recipes outside of the book, conjuring up old and forgotten favorites. There was the curried black chickpea stew in a tamarind gravy served with broken rice halwa soaked in rich ghee usually reserved for birthdays; my grandmother’s famous chicken biryani with that one secret ingredient she refuses to part with even now; and a chicken mayo sandwich that still evokes nostalgic memories of countless meals shared with school friends.

Credit: Sholeen Damarwala

My lean pantry and cabinets have bulked up. Usually stuffed with snacks, pasta, and two-minute noodles, they’re now brimming with fresh spices like cardamom, cloves, and star anise. There’s also lentils of all colors and sizes, and a 10-pound bag of whole wheat flour because I am finally learning to make rotis from scratch. After one too many panicked calls from the grocery store, my mother has also started curating an extensive list of things to add to my shopping cart, and occasionally even edits my Amazon prime cart swapping spices and condiments with her preferred brands.

My mother has been a constant presence in my life, but over the past five years there’s been a growing emotional disconnect that moving to a new country in a completely opposite time zone can do to any relationship. But these days there’s a strange new joy to our video calls. Without pressing errands to run or a train to catch, our conversations now last for hours. While chopping onions, sautéing garlic, and cubing bell peppers, we catch up on neighborhood gossip, exchange notes on TV shows to watch, and daydream about our next holiday together.

Growing up, I thought delicious meals magically appeared at our dinner table out of thin air. I now realize the effort and patience it took to prepare a meal that suited every single fussy tastebud in my family. I am also gradually learning that just like my mother I too have some mean skills in the kitchen. And although my rotis may never be perfectly round in this lifetime, there’s a certain gratification to finally mastering the tricky art of striking the right blend of masalas.

I don’t know when I will get to see my mother this year but until then we’ll be in the kitchen spending quality time together while being millions of miles apart.