When it comes to cooking, I am reminded of the early days of trying my hand at the stove. The earliest was probably when we were in our single digits and would have bon-bhojon, i.e. cooking in the front yard or backyard with a bit of help from the cook or an adult. The hardest was to keep the handmade earthen burner going. Desperately blowing through the pipe (the phukni) would always end up in producing more smoke rather than fire in the earthen stove. This would make our eyes water and usually our attempts to cook khichuri would almost halt at the intent. It never tasted the way we'd imagined when we set off.
Through the years I have learned that no matter how big a non-cooking person I am, I have to reconcile with the fact that “the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.” Why a man? Even the way to a woman's heart follows the same route.
Cooking, gardening and rearing pets, I believe are learned behaviours. So I would say is the habit of listening to music or watching TV or reading books. My mother was not the cooking kind. Although I must say, she would turn out the best halwa a Shab-e-Baraat. As an everyday chore, cooking was not her domain. I saw her mainly as a teacher in my childhood.
If Amma had any interest in the culinary arts, she would have given it a try on the weekends, at least. There is an explanation to this. My mother lost her own mother when she was a toddler. When she was 16, she was married off. My Phupus were great cooks, so was my Dadi and even my Dada. I have to say the daily daal and beef curry cooked at my Phupu's was the best in the world. I still savour the taste. After Amma went to her shoshur baari, she learned to sit before the mud stove and do the cooking. I understand she burnt many a saree in the process. In Quetta, Abba could not tolerate the idea of fish heads being thrown away as garbage. He would bring them home, buying them at a minimum price. I shudder at the thought of Amma handling the cooking of fish heads! In those days there were no cookbooks even.
Just as her time at her in-laws could not increase my mother's interest in cooking, my interest in the culinary arts was even harder to instil. My mother-in-law had passed away (a culinary legend in family memory) by the time I got married. She was indeed a great cook and made the likes of pineapple pudding, caramel custard (jula putin as hired cooks of those days would call it), Bombay pudding, and special beef biriyani. These are only a few items in the list of Shashuri Amma's list of specialties. My sister-in-law knew all these recipes and more, such as beef vindaloo, lau diye moong daal, etc. However much I tried to grasp the methods, Jhunu Apa, my sister-in-law teasingly kept them to herself. At the time, I would get upset. She would say I will give the recipes to my brother's daughter (meaning my daughter) as a family secret. Sriya, my daughter, did not see her mother cook, nor her Nani, but maybe my Shashuri Amma, after who Sriya was named Razia Begum at her akika, blessed her from above with a unique culinary talent. Now when I give Sriya a surprise visit on weekends, I see her making Chinese-style chicken with sesame and Thai papaya salad. And the dip she prepares to have with tortillas and potato chips is out of this world. Dips without any high-fat mayonnaise or cream cheese, with yogurt and minced tuna fish as thickener instead—totally healthy!
Coming back to what we learned. Amma was into Scrabble and reading books and is still into crosswords. So letters haunt me, maybe not the way they haunt Amma, but they have become my mainstay instead of the spices that fill up the kitchen cabinet and the fish that fill up the fridge.
By the way, I did not cook up “Cookups”. It's actually a very dependable online catering service set up by a brilliant person, Namira Hussain. Cookups enlists people who want to cater to people who wish to have homemade food. The Cookups team first does a hygiene check of the kitchen of the aspirant caterer; after this, the team tastes their food—all to qualify a particular home kitchen to be enlisted online. Apparently, thousands are in the waitlist of Cookups.
Recently we have been hearing about the downside of the digital world. And talk of the Blue Whale Challenge has been making the rounds. I tend to count the blessings of the world we live in, instead of moping over the ills that affect us. The other good news about the digital world vis-à-vis Cookups is that it has become a big business—one of the most successful startups of recent years.
While I was just reminiscing about Razia Taher (my mother-in-law) and Professor Kazemuddin Ahmed (my Dada), I wondered how they would feel about the virtual reality of Cookups—inspiring people to make money from privately-owned chula. The only reason they would be offended, I presume, is that “doing business” itself did not sit well them.
“That's something only the Marwaris do, not 'bhodrolok' like a professor or the wife of a bureaucrat,” they might've said. In those days, entrepreneurship as an influential force was not a part of the genteel world.
Sara Zaker is a theatre activist, media personality and Group Managing Director, Asiatic 360.