Monday, October 22, 2007

trial by fire

When she was first teaching me to prepare Indian food (read: making me stand near her but not allowing me to touch anything), my mother would often say it was imperative that I figure out this cooking thing or else my mother-in-law would ask why mom didn't teach me anything and throw me out into the street (in oldschool India, when a girl got married she went to live with the inlaws and often did all the housework). I quickly got bored of standing around and laughed it off. I told her I was only going to marry someone from America who would share in the household duties and who definitely would not still live with his mom, then went back downstairs to watch tv.

Later, in the race against expiration, I got more of a wing-it-and-be-critiqued culinary education (it's much easier to cook when she's not physically in the kitchen telling you to "move your hands and feet faster"). After I'd mostly finished the dish du jour, she'd look into the pot and throw a pinch of this and a shake of that into the mix to fix it. When I'd ask what I'd done wrong, she'd quote her own mother with "all you have to do is look at uskii shakal (its face) to know if you did it right." Mrs. Leuken certainly did not make Baked Alaskas and Peach Cobbler this way in seventh grade Home Economics class; she gave out written recipes. On the other hand, my mother's idea of a recipe is to tell you to put a "fistful" of this and and a "little bit" of that and "don't forget to throw in some" of whatever else. Repeating it too many times or writing it down is too taxing, and she'd remind me that if I had stood around and watched when I was a kid, this wouldn't have been a problem. Then, for good measure, she'd tell me that my youngest aunt could cook ten-course meals around the time she was learning long division.

At some point I realized I can't keep running to mommy, and I'd need to at least learn how to prepare the things I enjoy the most--simple dishes that you can't really get at an Indian restaurant without gross bells and whistles. Things like kadhi, dal, parathas, rotis, egg curry, chicken curry, meat curry, bhindi, aloo bhaji, methi, gawar phali, tindoora, rass malai, kulfi, etc. I also realized that I inherited my mother's discerning taste for North Indian food--when it's comes to our house specialties, neither of us find anything comparable to her own mother's cooking, including her own. (Dishes we don't usually make, however, are pretty well received.) I admit, this is snobby. But a lot of people ask my mom to cook for them or for her recipes, and my nani was known as Mummy to their entire town and often had drop-in guests for dinner. There's gotta be something to that.

All of this is pretty hilarious when you consider that my mother has four other sisters and was considered inept at cooking by my nani when she was a kid. Mom preferred reading about chemistry to watching the cooking process, and was often to blame if something burned even if she was in another room. So she was in quite a pickle when she found herself on the other side of the world, married and trying desperately to remember what snippets she did recall from passing through my nani's kitchen. She's often told me that she didn't really learn to cook until she got to the U.S., but she must have picked up something back then: All five sisters' cooking is remarkably similar to my nani's. Which means she did her job. And biases aside, my mom is a great cook, especially considering the late start.

So when I agreed to cook for H's family, my mother helped me distribute the haldi, garam masala, mirchi, dhaniya, jeera, adrak, laung and other assorted goodies into separate plastic baggies. She gave me some of the rice we use, (knowing it's my weak point) and explained the trick to this specific brand several times. She gave me a hug and said to call if I ran into any problems, because this was likely some sort of potential-daughter-in-law test.

H and I went to the local Indian grocery store and bought the rest of the ingredients. I wasn't about to handmake rotis without my trusty tawa, so we used frozen naan and parathas from the store and I made chicken curry, spinach with potato, dal, raita (yogurt with tomato, cucumber and spices), and my nemesis--rice. But of course, I couldn't just have it plain, but threw in some vegetables to make it a little more fancy.

The potatoes were a little overdone and the shakal of the dal didn't exactly look like my mom's (somehow it's always the simple dishes that prove the hardest for me to master), but it tasted all right. I was pleasantly surprised at the chicken, but more ecstatic that the rice was neither under nor overcooked (luckily, I'd transferred it to a ginormous stock pot when I realized that the one I had originally chosen would be too small). It probably didn't hurt that I got to cook in a dream kitchen with pretty much any and every cool gadget and pretty pot in the catalog.

When I panicked and called my mom, it was mostly for reassurance. She asked if I had remembered to turn on the stove, laughed and said I'd be just fine. I needed to hear that nod of approval, because whether or not it was actually true, I did see this dinner as a test. However, to me it wasn't a test of being worthy of H, but more to prove that I am fit to be called my mom's daughter and my nani's granddaughter.

There's plenty of room for improvement, but I think I passed.


Lia said...

sounds pretty good. i wish i could cook.

omar said...

There's a strong Indian influence in Guyana, so some of that food sounds familiar from my youth.

So what did H's parents have to say?

Becky said...

cutest post ever.

naechstehaltestelle said...

I'm sure you did great! Not too long from now, it'll be you yelling at your daughter to pay attention.

Jon said...

I think the best indication is how much food was left after everyone stopped eating? More or less than you thought there would be?

ML said...

Your family sounds like mine. Both my Mom and Grandmother cooked the same way - a lil bit of dis, a dash a'dat, etc.

I bet you did great. Your food sounds so delicious that I was drooling reading your post.

Beenzzz said...

Yes, my Mom and from what I read, other Indian women, cook the same way. No measuring devices, just a less than precise amount of seasoning into the food. You know what? That method makes it taste better. Not to say that you can make cookies this way, but it seems to work for Indian food.
Sounds like you did well! Now I need to get my butt in the kitchen and make a nice big Indian meal. :)

cc said...

Cadiz, I hate to out you on your blog, but you're a phenomenal cook who is not at all in the shadow of her mom's toque. I have sampled plenty of Cadiz's Indian and non-Indian dishes, and you are like Martha Stewart. Only cooler, better and without the rap sheet.

cadiz12 said...

H said that it went really well.

there was a lot less food left over than i thought, but there was one very tired but hungry Marine present, who was enthusiastic and even helped chop onions, so that was excellent for my morale.

cc, you are so unbelievably biased.

Sphincter said...

Hey, I always said that if I severed my arm, first I would call my mom. To see if SHE thinks I should call 911. There is just something about a mom telling you that you're doing the right thing that makes it OK.

jinius said...

the meal sounds fantastic. im sure it came out great. and im sure you proved your mother proud!

Guyana-Gyal said...

What cracked me up was that your mum was considered inept at cooking by your nani when she was a kid. Then your mum told you something similar...our mothers do pass on everything from generation to generation, don't they?

Apart from the rice I figured you would do well.

What a great post!

willowtree said...

I too knew you would pull it off, congratulations! I want to suggest something to you. I too come from a long line of women who "know" their recipe by sight, could get through the whole thing without touching a measuring cup. Please, write something down. Even if it is not exact measurements- write down something close.
Your children will be so grateful for it. They won't spend hours trying to get the flavors they grew up with 'just right', if they are not able to have a quick conference with you. You could even include this post with the recipes you ended up making. Just a suggestion from a kid who wishes her mom wrote something down!