I made myself a food icon, because well, I seem to spend a lot of time thinking about it, and I really, really like looking at spices.
Recently, I baked a loaf of white bread, which has turned out to be almost impossibly soft and white and fluffy -- it's like eating bread meringues! I think I'm going to save it for sandwiches, it's too unnerving for anything else.
I also made one of my favourite comfort foods -- matar aloo.
It's basically potatoes and peas, in this case in a tomato-y sauce, rather than dry, with the usual indian spices, and it's ridiculously easy to make. Eating it on a cold day takes me straight back to winter days in Delhi, with the smell of smoke and fog in the air, and a perpetual air of tea-time hanging over the dim afternoons. For once, I managed to make it taste like my mother's cooking -- usually I don't have the patience to cook like she does, always over a very low flame, until the tomatoes absorb all the spices and oil and then start leaking it out again, and the potatoes are so tender and moist that the skins slip off when you touch them with a spoon. My grandmother's cooking couldn't be more different. Her style is slapdash, all hastily chopped vegetables, and oil slopped in, and not heated enough, with enormous chunks of ginger floating together among the potatoes. I think we all use roughly the same amount of spices, (it's hard to tell, when none of us ever measure it out), but my food always seems to be a shock to the tongue; the spices never resolving into quite as smooth a blend, and the sauce a separate entity from the vegetables.
I don't have the patience or the serenity to cook like my mother always. If I'm quite honest, I wonder sometimes, if I even want to eat such smooth perfection all the time! It makes me think about my mother as an enigma: what sort of person must she be to cook like that? To evolve a style of cooking that's so meticulously careful and aware of each ingredient, at each step of the process but at the same time ends up focusing on blending everything together so completely? I can fill in some of the blanks, of course. There's the fact that she minces all the chillis and ginger very finely, because when she was very young, my sister wouldn't eat if she could see that there were spicy things in the dishes. I can picture her laying out her ingredients with the precision and order of a scientist planning an experiment: the ginger and green chillies cross-hatched, in their own heaps in a single square plate of stainless steel; the diced tomatoes loosely heaped on the chopping board; the potatoes cut into long curving eighths, floating in a bowl of water; the peas in a steel dish with high sides, and the kadhai of hot oil on the stove. She never formally taught me to cook, but everything I know about it -- at least about indian cooking -- comes from watching her. And yet, I find myself thinking of her fundamentally as a stranger when I actually think about why she approaches cooking like this.
I like cooking best when I have someone to talk to, and it shows in the absent-minded way I work; more often than not, I will be listening to and looking at my friend while throwing in the spices, or speaking and gesturing with the ladle as I wait for the oil to warm up. I have the habit of talking from my mother; she would call me to talk to her about school and gardening and what I was reading, as she peeled and chopped vegetables, and I would wind up sifting through the rice or the daals for insects and stones, or shelling the peas and surreptitiously eating the smallest, sweetest ones. But when it came to the important part of any indian dish, the chhaunk, when you roast the spices and tomatoes together, she'd be single-minded in her concentration, ignoring my chatter, or telling me to go away from the fire. I'd look at her carefully watching the bubbles of oil in the kadhai for the exact moment to start putting in spices. They would be on the counter next to her left hand, ranged in their jam bottles, the lids already off and out of the way. Everything would happen very quickly -- the cumin seeds would go in first, and start sizzling, a sound that counterpointed the dangerous red of the chilli powder and bright yellow of the turmeric that were put in next. When I cook, I tend to wait too long and have to rush to get all the spices into the pan before they start burning and sticking to the bottom, but she never hurries and never pauses. Grey-green coriander powder, beige mango powder, dark brown garam masala, they all get scattered in evenly, never sticking or charring, and the sound calms, becomes quieter, and more purposeful. By the time the tomatoes finally go in, it's like the expected crescendo of a song, and the whoosh and steam of the wet juices doesn't seem out of place -- or scatter droplets of hot oil over every surface.
After that, it's just a question of patience: waiting for the tomatoes to cook down, and then adding the potatoes, and after a bit, the peas, and water to all simmer together till done. And finally, the salt, something that both she and I always leave until the last, no matter what we're cooking. Neither of us likes to hover over the food while it's cooking, apart from to stir it occassionally. She says that the best way to keep a working kitchen is to clean up as you go along, so this time is for capping the spice bottles, and putting them away, rinsing out the bowls and knifes, (all the peelings have already been thrown away), and preparing for the next thing -- the second vegetable for the meal, the raita, laying the table, wiping the counter tops... All of these were things I could help with, when I was young, like I could help with cleaning the rice. The all-important alchemy was in the spices and oil and that part was my mother's domain; her lab bench, her boardroom, her proving ground. I never actually cooked anything until I moved away for college. She aims to reconcile everything together, and does it beautifully, with the effortlessness of long practice. I don't quite know what I am aiming for, as I follow the same steps, but it's not homogeneity.