‘How To Blend Spices’ And Other Life Lessons From My Mother


indian food

I stand in our shiny new kitchen in our little corner of suburbia, and chop the red peppers with a less-than-satisfying Ikea knife. It’s Sunday – cooking day. My daughter, who is almost 5, sits on the bar stool across from me and is concentrating hard on the “problems” at hand. Her father has given her some additions and subtractions to work through. One she gets into the double digits, she begins to fidget. I give her a bowl with small strips of red pepper and she is thrilled. She is one of those unexpected children who love raw fruits and vegetables.

Every Sunday, the moment I start extracting vegetables from the fridge, spices from the pantry, lentils from the shelves, etc; I wait for her to run over from the living room, climb on to the bar stool and say “How can I help, Amma?”. It’s the best part of Sunday, cooking with her. Until she came along it was just a hobby that relaxed me. Now it’s my most important connection to her; it’s our bond, our very own language.

She has been ‘helping’ us with chores around the house since she could walk. But to her cooking is not a chore. She loves putting things together, making something out of nothing. I taught her how to crack an egg when she was 3. By age 4 she could identify spices by smelling them. These days I can expect gentle reminders from her like “Amma you forgot the Haldi (turmeric)”!

On this particular Sunday, she wants Mint Pulao for lunch, so I ask her to separate the mint leaves from the stems. She breaks away each leaf with precision, drops it in the bowl, then smells her fingers and smiles. My heart breaks when I realize that like me, she finds the smell of mint comforting. She looks up from the bowl of leaves to ask “Did your mom teach you how to cook?”

For some reason, I find myself tearing up at that question. How do I answer that? Yes, she taught me the techniques and the formulae, but the things I make now taste nothing like the seemingly exotic dishes my mother could create. I cooked by her side until I left for college when I was 18. It was my main (sometimes my only) connection to her. But I don’t feel that connection now; I don’t feel like I have learnt anything.

In the early days, when I was 9 or 10, my mother would ask me to come into the kitchen and help her with simple things, like washing lentils or cleaning up. As the years went by my tasks became more complicated. With each passing year I protested with even more vigor. “This is not fair” I would yell “why does HE get to watch Star trek but I have to be slogging in the kitchen like a servant”? ‘He’ is my older brother.

I grew up in a fairly conservative Indian home, which means our roles and responsibilities in the household were very much based on gender. My brother helped with the chores outside the home (like lifting heavy boxes!), I helped my mother in the kitchen. I fought it with every fiber of my being. It was unfair, anti-feminist and outdated. My parents chalked it down to “teen angst” and dismissed my concerns, which made me even more furious. I would walk into that kitchen every day and finish every task as expected, but it was not a pleasant experience for anyone!

Through all the tears and frustrations and fights, I was absorbing lessons and unravelling mysteries.

  • I discovered that flavors don’t have to fight each other for space; they could coexist and even help each other. Sweet, sour, tangy, hot – sometimes all of it went in together and come out as one cohesive unit.
  • On a quiet Sunday afternoon, when she thought no one was watching, I saw my mother biting into a raw eggplant and realized it’s her favorite vegetable. I never admitted to anyone for many years after that that eggplants were my favorite too!
  • One day I found myself counting and realized that almost every dish my mother came up with had at least seven ingredients in it.
  • I learnt how to fry a Poori to golden perfection by gently pressing it down into the oil and allowing it to puff up before I set it free.
  • I became a snob about “fresh” spice blends. Unless it was blended and ground at home fairly recently, it just wasn’t worth it!
  • I found myself writing poetry in my head while I churned the cream till the butter separated into tiny little flecks (and THAT is where “buttermilk” comes from!). I do that even today. I write without a pen when I am doing something meditative, like cooking.

I knew she depended on me to make every meal perfect. She never said it. We were not that kind of family! She never said “good job” and I am pretty sure she never said “thank you”. But she needed me there by her side every day. My anger didn’t allow me to see it then, but every single day she and I worked our magic together. We disagreed about everything else, but we came together in the kitchen.

It’s the kind of magic I now get to experience with my daughter every Sunday.

Maybe I have learnt something after all.

20 thoughts on “‘How To Blend Spices’ And Other Life Lessons From My Mother

  1. This is such a beautiful post indeed! I felt like I was right there in the kitchen watching you and your daughter cook. Beautiful. I was my parents oldest child and always had a lot of chores growing up. I hated all of them. I told them so. Looking back now though (as I do quite often), I realize just how much I learned from my mom (especially). I still do things her way even to this day. She’s gone now, but she’s never far away from me. Everytime I do or say something like she used to, she’s right there beside me once again. :) There’s simply nothing more precious than our connections with family!

    • Thanks Marcia! I am so glad you are able to remember your mother this way. And you are right, nothing is more important than the connections you make with your family, its a lesson that has taken me many years to learn.

  2. Your writing is beautiful and so evocative. I could really feel the scenes and smell the spices. It sounds as if your daughter loves to be with you in the kitchen in a way you didn’t with your mother, which is lovely.
    Thanks for taking part in #1000Speak

  3. Sometimes when I look back on arguments I had with my own mother I feel the burn of shame. All the things that she tried to teach me how to do and all I could do was be scornful.

    • Vanessa, I know what you mean. I am sure about 99.9% of us have been “angry teenagers” at some point! It may seem terrible in retrospect, but parents, I think, have the ability to know its just teen angst and not real scorn.

    • Rena, Thanks for your comment. I was just reading your blog about caring for your mother. Your courage is breathtaking.

  4. I love this post. Such a beautiful way to honor your relationship with your mother and your own daughter. I have a son and he has been cooking with my husband and me since he was less than a year old. At first it was more watching or stirring. Now at 5, he comes up with his own recipes.
    I think Indian food is one of the best cuisines to use as a metaphor for connection, as it blends such differing spices, herbs and flavors into something exquisite. Maybe if everyone in the world learned to make one Indian dish we’d have world peace 😉

    • Thanks for your comment Ula! I cnat beleive your 5 year old can come up with recipes – that’s remarkable! Wishing your family manyhappy memories in the kitchen!

  5. Such a lasting way to connect the generations, by meeting our basic needs. No matter if it took years to realize it….or if we fought it whole heartedly, that time spent in the kitchen two or more generations together working to nourish the family…that is powerful stuff.

  6. I spent many nights in the kitchen with my mom. Like you and your daughter, it was a time of connection, and I like forward to it. In hoping to establish the same tradition with my daughter.

    • Amy, thanks for your comment. I hope you and your little one make many happy memories in the kitchen!

  7. Oh this is just so beautiful. I absolutely love your reflections of your cooking with your mother, and I especially love how you embrace it now with your own child.

    Powerful piece with such a significant message…

    I believe if we all look deep enough, we too will discover we learned much from our moms.

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