In Praise of Smelly Curtains
I learned the joy of cooking from an immigrant mother whose sole instrument for measuring was her index finger.
My childhood consisted of a secret life.
At home, I gorged on all the “smelly” Indian foods that my mother made for me. At the school lunch table, I pretended to be satisfied with the generic sandwiches I packed for myself. I learned to feign a love of spaghetti when, in reality, I could not figure out why everyone loved italian food so much. Though I am now living openly as an Indian food lover whose hair occasionally smells like curry leaves, getting here has not been an easy journey. I’ve had to face my own hypocrisy and learn to cook from an immigrant mother whose sole instrument for measuring was her index finger.
My mother knows her way around a kitchen, even a kitchen she’s never been in before. As I sleepily chatted with her on the phone on a recent Sunday evening, she asked what I was cooking. Normally, this would be a reasonable question; I usually talk to her while cooking, the sound of sizzling onions (and often the smoke alarm) acting as the soundtrack for our conversations. But this time, I had only stepped into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of water. There were no sounds of chopping onions or clanging pots to reveal my location. My mother, I’m convinced, has a sixth sense about these things. She has laboured over steaming stovetops smelling of cloves, cumin, and cardamom. She knows the sound of a kitchen from thousands of miles away—even if that kitchen is completely silent.
Like her mother before her, my mother used food as a vehicle for her love. As a young child, I was sent to school with aromatic curries and rotis accompanied by sides of obscure vegetables. But as we moved from city to city and I tried to fit in with my friends, I broke her little Indian heart by trading her rich rice and dal dishes for my dry PB&J sandwiches. This was the distasteful business of assimilation. I realized that to some, my light brown skin signalled strange “Third World” customs—including “stinky curries”—and I felt desperate to be like the Laurens and Samanthas I went to school with.
When I went to university, I was thrilled at the prospect of not having to worry about my clothes and curtains smelling like Sambar or Aloo Gobi. But I soon found, like my friends who missed their moms’ casseroles, that I missed my mom’s rotis. I wasn’t able to escape from school to my parents’ dinner table to live my double life as an Indian food lover. With the stress of my first year of university weighing on me, I was too exhausted to pretend anymore. I betrayed my carefully curated persona and threw caution to the wind as I openly ate spicy curries and rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In my second year, when I realized I had no idea how to make any food that actually tasted like food, I frantically called my mom and asked for help. I wrote down her recipes that included vague directions and inexact measurements like cooking mustard seeds and tomatoes “for a while” and throwing in a “handful” of rice. A while, it seems, can mean anywhere between 1 minute and 45 minutes; a handful is anyone’s guess. These phone calls were filled with exasperated sighs while I tried to force my mother to standardize her recipes.
Nevertheless, handful by handful, I stood over the stove, my phone cradled by my ear, and learned to cook like a barely passable Indian woman.
My mother may have passed on to me my unnecessarily complicated relationship with eggs and my need to make everything from scratch, but she also passed on her knowledge that good food brings people together. My own tradition of welcoming others with food started in one of my last semesters of university. A friend had come over and wanted something to munch on while we chatted and watched TV. My cupboard and fridge were sparse, and I only had the ingredients to make moong: a savory, nutritious breakfast soup that I often requested my mom to make for our family on lazy weekend mornings and that, as a frugal university student, I had taken to making regularly. Though I loved it, I was also insecure about eating the dish in front of others. My roommates had joked about the foul smell of asafoetida, the herb that gave it its distinctive taste, as well as the soup’s murky, swamp-like appearance. I was still conscious of the off-handed comments people sometimes made and nervous to feed moong to friends—partly for fear of judgment, but also for fear of rejection. I worried that if she found the flavours too overpowering or the asafoetida too “stinky,” I would feel exactly as I did when my schoolmates looked condescendingly upon my rotis when I was twelve years old.
But alas, hungry friends will not be denied.
I whipped up the moong in the pressure cooker I had stolen from my mother and watched my friend drink most of the greenish-brown soup, leaving just a few spoonfuls for me. She still remembers that soup and asks for it from time to time when she visits, just like I do when I visit my mom.
The culture of food I rebelled against as a young daughter is the one I continue to create now. On the weekends, when my friends and I cook for each other, we create our own little families the way women in our families have done for generations.
And I now cherish the fact that our curtains smell like our mothers’ food.
Green Bean Poryial
On medium-high heat, cook some mustard seeds.
Once they start popping, reduce heat to medium. When all the seeds have popped, add some channa daal.
Once browned, add the diced red chili. Fry for a bit. Then add ginger and diced green chilies. After a few seconds, add onion, curry leaves and turmeric.
Once translucent, add green beans, then dried, grated coconut.
Saute one onion, then add some diced green chili.
Add fresh ginger and garlic, then add 2-6 tomatoes (chopped, to your taste). Add salt. Add turmeric. Cook until oil leeches from tomatoes.
Add chili powder and 1 teaspoon coriander powder. Add 1/8 teaspoon of garam masala (just for a light flavour, a tiny pinch). Add in a cinnamon stick if you want, then add rajma and water.
Garnish with cilantro if you have it.
Text: Aditi Jain