This essay won a special mention at The Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay 2019.
The theme was Voyaging the Kitchen.
The judge, editor and writer Tejas Harad, had this to say about the essay:
“ The author gives us a tour of their dad’s cooking and the relationship he shared with his two children; milk diluted with water as well as milk licked off the floor; microwave and burnt food; and acrid Nutella and broken relationships. The underlying humour in the essay keeps us hooked till the end. ”
In my house, it is normal to find a fish bone in chicken curry. Why, you ask? Papa doesn’t believe in recipes, never has, never will. Well, if you ask me I think that is the only thing that makes him different from Julie Powell in Julie and Julia. Papa loves food. If he ever had to choose between mummy and food, he’d choose food.
When I was growing up, Mummy was often away at work, so Papa was our go to for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He left for his work after seeing us off to the bus stop, always returned before lunchtime, and left for his evening shift after making sure we gulped our cups of milk down. He would then return around 8 pm; just enough time to whip up dinner.
Every morning, he’d get up, warm up some milk in the microwave, bring it to our study table and wake us up. Rubbing my half-open eye, I would see Papa waiting for us and the cups of milk on the table. After pushing my brother A into the washroom and encouraging him to splash some water onto his face, he’d return to make breakfast. While we crawled through the process of drinking our milk, slouched on our bed, Papa would return with two Tiffin boxes. “Muzhuvan thinnanam, kalayaruth. Bhaaki vekkanum padilla” (You must eat it all. Don’t waste it and no leftovers).
Papa was real jugaad breakfast maker. If it was bread and Nutella today, he’ll give bread and cheese the next day and bread-jam-butter the day after! One day when I returned crying that I can’t have any more bread sandwiches, he made French toast. “Papaaa that’s bread tooo”, I would whine, and he would say “You’ll barely even know the bread is there amongst the egg and sugar and all”. Discovering ‘frozen, ready to make’ burgers, sausages, nuggets, and fillets were a life saver. Papa is forever grateful to the frozen food Gods, just like how mummy adores the pressure cooker God. She says if it wasn’t for the pressure cooker, rice wouldn’t really have made it onto our plates.
Papa not only made, but ate too. Lots! It was a delight to watch him eat. He’d sit and complain saying “edi this has too much salt, that is not fried enough”, and eat the whole meal up! After a point, mummy stopped bothering about his complaints because she knew he’d eat it all anyway.
In Kerala, there’s a practice of drying bitter gourd slices after marinating it and then lightly frying it. One day while laying the table, I happened to bring a bowl of bitter gourd fry and leave it on the table. By the time the table was laid and everyone seated for the meal, papa had emptied the bowl. He ate it like popcorn while watching the news. Ever since, whenever Mummy makes bitter gourd, she brings it to the table herself.
As for Mummy, the kitchen is her least favorite place in the house. The only place that she truly enjoys is that single couch in the hall. Still in her uniform, she’d sit there, stretch her legs out and read or watch WhatsApp videos with the volume blasting.
However, like rain in summer, whenever she manages to make food, it’s a treat! Away from home, the best memories of home are still mummy’s’ chicken fry, squid rings, strawberry shakes, beef dry fry, ghee roast and others of the kind.
Anyhow when I inclined away from the kitchen, my brother A inclined towards it! He learned to make perfect sunny side up eggs, before I even learned to switch on the stove. He even convinced mummy into buying a baking oven and cake mixes. They would sit around baking cakes and cupcakes, while I simply gulped them down.
But my moment of ultimate realization came, when last year I burned waffle after waffle in the toaster. I was trying to figure out the perfect amount of heat to make it crispy. As for A, he came in, toasted a couple of waffles and walked away with a jar of Nutella. After a god deal of coaxing, when he did allow me to taste it, I think I saw unicorns but I never told him that.
I began drinking cow’s milk very early in life. I grew up with 5 other toddlers, my cousins, at my grandparent’s house. Grandma fed us thick full cream milk without a drop of water in our early years and so by the time I was 2, I could identify diluted milk. This turned out to be a huge hassle for my grandma.
She had kept me in charge of delivering milk bottles to toddlers in the house. One day, grandma filled out bottles and noticed that in one bottle, there were a few drops less, until the brim. So she added a few drops of boiled water. That happened to be my bottle. After taking a sip, grandma said, I took all the bottles away, one in each hand, and one in each armpit, and emptied it in the sand. When she asked me why I had done that, I apparently said “ Appi paal aa,vellam indaayi” (It’s bad milk, it had water).
Well, thus love for milk didn’t really follow me into childhood though. I spilled milk every day when I started living with my parents. Everyday. So one day, when I spilled my milk, it flowed down our teapoy, papa made me kneel down and lick it all up. However, he must have felt a little bad that day, because, later, he tried everything- Horlicks, boost, Bournvita, milo and Nesquik, and even tea bags to make our milk taste better.
Sometimes food can be tricky. I was watching tv one afternoon, when I decided I wanted something to snack. I went up to the fridge and found Arabic bread, Khuboos. “Aah good, I can have it with the gravy left over from lunch!” so, I warmed up the gravy in a dish, set it aside, placed a couple of khuboos on a ceramic plate and left it in the oven for a minute.
When I returned, the khuboos was warm and soft. I continued watching tv while nibbling at my khuboos but after a few minutes, my khuboos turned hard and it cracked like papad. “Oh maybe I didn’t heat it enough”, so I kept it back in the oven, but this time for 2 minutes. When back to nibbling but it turned hard again. After a few trips to the oven, I was fed up. So finally I left it in the oven for a good ten minutes and returned to my TV.
After a couple of minutes, I heard mummy shouting from across the house, “Unnnii what is that smell! Where are you” I ran to the kitchen to find our oven up in smoke! While I stood there petrified, mummy ran in and yanked the oven wire off the socket. I don’t remember mummy yelling at me or scolding me. But I do remember her opening up windows and doors and waiting with me for the smoke to clear out. She then took out the plate from the oven to show me, both the plate and khuboos completely charred. “Don’t tell papa, I’ll handle this”, she said and sat me down to teach me an important life lesson. “When warming khuboos in the oven, sprinkle some water on it. It’ll prevent the khuboos from becoming too dry.”
That day, I thought I had mastered the art of using microwaves. So I went up to mummy and said “Now I know all that can happen. I’ll be careful”. She simply nodded knowing quite well that it was only the beginning of oven disasters.
Owing to the temperatures at Alain, the place that I grew up in, no food was allowed on the kitchen counter after meals. As for the dining table, except for cereals and biscuits, everything belonged in the fridge. So we’d chuck our breads, buns, jams, spreads and pickles in the fridge. Now, there was almost always a jar of Nutella in the fridge. The jar was glass with a golden foil at its mouth and a white plastic lid. Every time, we wanted Nutella, we’d keep it out at least half an hour before we intended to eat it, allowing it time to melt.
On impatient days though, we’d maniac-ly stab into the jar with a spoon or knife without waiting for it to melt. On one of these stabbing sessions, we discovered that since the jar was glass, it was okay to warm it in the oven. On one such occasion, I removed the lid, kept the jar in the oven and went away. Well, I didn’t blow up the jar, but I did forget to remove the golden foil. So when I returned, there was a layer of charred foil above melted Nutella. For the longest time, I couldn’t eat Nutella in peace because every time I dipped my spoon in a jar, I would be reminded of the acrid smell of burnt foil. But if people can move on after broken relationships, I figured I too could get over my jar of acrid Nutella.
Featured image credits: Micheal Crichton Photography, found on Pinterest.