3. (coming soon...)
On January 28, 2023, I attended a lunch held by a group of women from my mom's meditation group, they ranged in age from 65-85. Initially formed as a group of three during the pandemic, it has grown into a group of 10+ women who meet twice a week over zoom to meditate and say prayers in Sanskrit together—and this would be the first time most had met in person. A menu was planned, and each chose a dish to bring. I came to eat and ask them about the dishes they had cooked, but I had no idea the afternoon would be about so much more---self reliance, tenacity, kindness, and supportive harmony. Here's some photos of the day while I work on the words.
2. It’s 1984 and I’m running home from the bus stop in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. I throw my backpack inside the front door, run to the kitchen, and there’s Mom, mastering 3 boiling pots and a noisy pressure cooker. I feel the dread in my stomach as my plan to grab a bag of chips and park myself in front of MTV before homework and violin lessons vanishes. “Stir the potatoes.” my mom says in her signature stress-laced, hurried voice, she often sounded irritable when she cooked. I sulk my way to the pan with the sizzling potato slices, turmeric-stained and dotted with popped mustard seed. A colander of untrimmed beans and a plastic-wrapped roll of roti dough appear on the counter, surely next on the agenda. I look forlorn at the cabinet of snacks and wonder if I should lie and tell her I have too much homework.
Unlike many who learned to cook at their mothers’ sides, I hold no nostalgia for the experience. My memories hold feelings of dissonance—loud commands over whistling pressure cookers, reprimands over wasted ends of trimmed beans, and dismissive waves of the hand when I would ask “HOW MUCH salt?” As my mom cooked her standard 5-6 vegetarian dishes from scratch every night, she’d call my sisters and I into the kitchen—not to teach, but to help. In fact, she never seemed interested in whether we became good cooks, yet if we failed, she’d undoubtedly wonder what went wrong. Cooking seemed to me a demanding and life-limiting chore. I held onto that belief for years, designing my meals around convenience or fun. Well into my 20s, my fridge was largely empty and the oven stayed coId. Silently, unconsciously, I had made the decision to “NOT be like Mom.”
A shift happened when I formed a group of friends who were also daughters of Indian immigrants. They planned a potluck and I decided to make lemon rice, a dish my mom made regularly. The tangy rice flavored with cashews, crunchy fried lentils, and fresh cilantro was kind of fun to make and was the biggest hit at the event. I marveled at the admiration for what I thought was such a simple dish—was it possible that I could, in fact, enjoy cooking? I asked my mom for recipes, an arduous and maddening task for us both. I followed these notes, which were riddled with question marks, approximations, and diagrams in place of precise measurements, and I stunned myself with unexpectedly tasty results. It became apparent that during those miserable afternoons when I was made to stand close and do what I was told, I had learned something.
Today, I am still not a fan of being in the kitchen for long. No less than 5 nights per week however, I end my work day as a scientific illustrator and move to the kitchen to begin what I call my second shift—cooking dinner for my husband and two teenage sons. As I cook the way my mom cooked, (intuitively, thorough, rushed) I realize in addition to skill, she may have also passed on her compulsive dedication. I strive to adhere to my 1-hour prep + cook time (not a minute longer!), while I delusionally tell myself for the hundredth time, “I should just order takeout.” As I prepare dishes that don't resemble mom’s—hearty and meat-heavy, influenced by our global palates—I nonetheless feel my mom’s hands working through mine. I see how cooking for my family connects me to her, a woman who herself loves to tell friends she has nothing in common with me, her middle daughter. My mom, who loves jewelry, dinner parties, small talk, and making impressions. My mom, who can’t stand picky eaters, messy houses, or excuses, who was forced to cook in my grandma’s kitchen from childhood—a little girl in braids, squatting on a concrete floor next to an open flame, with no running water, both before and after school. She learned to cook by default and met the silent expectation of those many women who cooked before her.
Not too long ago, I found a neglected bag of potatoes in the pantry with pitiful, nubby eyes. I thought back to those crispy yellow rectangles, staining my fingers oily yellow when I ate them out of the frying pan. Using a paring knife, I trimmed off the pearly rudiments and began to chop the way my mom instructed–in half lengthwise, then stacked planks, quarter inch widths, and finally 1-inch lengths—a girthy julienne. I heat oil in a large frying pan and throw in some mustard seeds. My two sons come home from school, smell what’s cooking and by choice, detour in to peer at the pan. They ask if they can eat some of ”Grandma’s potatoes.” I say sure. Not raised as I was to eat with their hands, they grab plates and forks and serve themselves at the stove. I don’t ask them to give them a stir, or turn their attention to a colander of untrimmed beans. I keep on working, in a hurried rhythm so I can finish the second shift in time to start my third, as a freelance food illustrator. Silently, unconsciously, I have made the decision to become JUST like Mom.
1. I remember when I was a child I asked my mom if my grandma was a good cook. She rolled her eyes and said, “My mother is a terrible cook.” Many years later, I asked her how Grandma could be such a bad cook when she herself was such a good one. She replied, “What are you talking about? My mother was a terrific cook.” I didn’t know my family in India well and information about them seemed to change all the time, so I began to choose the better story: I believe Grandma was a wonderful cook. I remember her squatting on the concrete floor, cooking in little stainless steel pots over open flames with no running water. Her dishes were simple and followed strict Hindu caste guidelines. She wasn’t hugely imaginative, but her cooking was tasty, and the things I remember the most vividly about my trips to India as a child are the special foods she would make from scratch, especially for us. My favorite was murukku, a deep fried snack made from blended lentils that she kept in large, stainless steel, drum-shaped tins. I devoured it compulsively. No doubt when her granddaughters from America (her only grandchildren) came to visit every 10 years, Grandma threw down.
My mother, like most Indian women of her generation, began cooking at a young age. She learned the basics by doing what she was told and not asking questions. She was an excellent student, graduating early and getting a teaching degree. She taught Hindi to students who were most often older than her, and she thrived on overachievement. She funneled that spirit into wifedom after her marriage was arranged in 1967 with my dad, a young physician completing his residency in the US. They lived as newlyweds in Warren, Ohio and Mom was determined to cook more imaginatively than her strict Brahmin mother. My dad, who grew up in boarding school, was non-vegetarian and had tastes that spanned the different cuisines of the subcontinent. She adjusted her cooking to accommodate his preferences. There were few Indian grocers back then and basic staples were hard to find so she adjusted her recipes and created 1960s American versions of Indian dishes: pan-fried potato patties with frozen peas, dhal made from canned beans, rotis made with Gold Medal flour. As my parents moved from state to state, they began to settle closer to major metropolitan areas. My mother, along with the many aunties she knew, would make infrequent pilgrimages to Chicago or Queens to load up on dhal, rice, and spices. They’d come home, stock their freezers, and stretch the provisions until their next trip. If someone was traveling back home for a wedding, birth, or death, space was saved in their enormous suitcases (wrapped with rope for extra security) for homemade spice masalas and other delicacies to distribute for homesick friends back in the US. Over decades, moms like mine faced changes—growing families, shifts in jobs, cross country moves when once again they had to search for new friends and new grocery stores. They cooked daily for their husbands and children, oblivious to shortcuts, with almost formidable purpose and respect for tradition.
Stories like these are shared by immigrant mothers across the globe, resourceful cooks preparing food from a place of love and duty. They cook well because they often didn’t have the chance to nurture other talents or explore outlets of expression. They moved across oceans and continents, changing up recipes based on what was available, and began new traditions that lasted and evolved for generations. They shaped and influenced the palates of countless men and women, many who went on to forge careers in food, crediting their mom, aunt, grandma, or nanny for sparking their interest in cooking. They nourished themselves and others with food they liked, food that tasted good to THEM—more onion in this dish, less chili in that one. It's my mother’s tongue that designed the flavors I like best, the food that transports me in time and brings tears of nostalgia to my eyes. My mother’s tongue was what commanded me to chop the ginger smaller (“Why are you making it so fat-fat?”) and be intentional with food combinations for better digestion. My mother’s tongue runs through my cooking, rooted in the open gas flame on the floor of my great grandmother’s home to the modern gas range in my Northern California kitchen. This collection of essays celebrates this silent and civilization-shaping practices that spans across oceans and centuries. They are the stories of taste and tradition, began and sustained by our mothers’ tongues.