The silver stove and granite countertop are her kingdom.
Only Mama knows where the pots and pans lie.
Her tenderness and patience always shone through in the kitchen where she fed us. She spent my childhood cooking for our family of four, and now for my grandparents, who moved from New Delhi to suburban Chicago last year.
When I think of her cooking today, a thousand miles between us, I remember the school lunches and speedy dinners: turkey sandwiches, spaghetti in twist-top thermoses, and chicken seared on the grill come summer Saturdays. But what stands out are the Indian meals, meticulously planned and plated day after day.
There have been countless words written about the power of food in immigrant culture — what spices and smells mean to first-generation Indian-Americans who are navigating through one life at school or work, and another at home. I am just one of millions in the diaspora whose parents delivered cut fruit to them and peppered their childhood meals with turmeric.
But it is hard to overstate how big a role my mother’s cooking played in my upbringing.
It was the lifeblood of our household: Mama would knead the dough for rotis a few times a week. She soaked lentils nightly and chopped a horde of red onions and roma tomatoes to be blended into a paste for the tadka. She refilled the circular masala box with sunset-colored spices. Growing up, I often found dahi yogurt fermenting in the oven without any idea when Mama put it in there, or when she had the time.
Yet I never wanted to learn any cooking — especially Indian cooking — as a teenager. It seemed laborious and inessential, something that would require far more time and energy from me than I could offer. I did not hesitate to leave it behind.
In the months before college began, I was adamant I would figure out how to feed myself as I go. There would be a dining hall at my disposal, I told my parents. If not, I could swing by the grocery store or sustain myself on dynamite shrimp from P.F. Chang’s.
And my mother never forced it on me, anyhow.
Four years later, a switch flipped.
I graduated and moved into an apartment with a decent kitchen. I discovered that I like to chop, to slice vegetables while sitcoms play in the background. The knife hitting the wooden cutting board with a repetitive thud, thud, thud after a long day. Of my own volition, I made chili, orzo, chickpea salad, beef stew, and garlicky salmon. I air-fried eggplant chips and dished up omelets with specks of broccoli and sun-dried tomatoes. My boyfriend taught me to make béchamel and toast pine nuts for pesto.
Eventually, I thought: If I can cook all this, why can’t I cook what I grew up eating? Why can’t I mix in cumin seeds and deggi mirch? Why can’t I go back home, back to Mama?
But I could.
I brought up the prospect of cooking lessons to my mother a few weeks ago, and she was delighted. Excited, even. It surprised me because as much as Mama loves to eat Indian food, she has never spoken of cooking fondly. To her, it is a chore and responsibility, part of her duties as a homemaker. Perhaps she was just jumping at the chance for us to do something together when we live so far apart. But I like to think her joy came from the realization that I wanted to learn a skill that was so intrinsically linked to her in my mind.
It happened quickly from there. Mama bought me a pressure cooker on Amazon, and I drove out to the row of Indian grocers in Waltham and bought a few unhealthy snacks — gulab jamun and frozen Chicken 65 — to accompany the list of ingredients she had given me.
I was late to the first one, and Mama did not even mind.
“Don’t hurry coming back,” she responded to a frantic text I sent on a T ride home, asking to postpone. “I have all the time in the world for my cute Dittu.”
Over Facetime, we fried eggplant, cut into 1-inch rounds and slathered in yogurt. We washed kidney beans. We sliced ginger. Mama made me tilt my laptop over the stove so she could assess the color of the sabji and the temperature. I took mental notes without measurements. A handful of cumin seeds, Mama would say. A 3/4ths spoon of garam masala.
“No, less than that,” she added. “It’ll be too spicy.”
I never knew the next step, but the rhythm of cooking came naturally, like I was getting a refresher on instructions I knew from birth: how yellow the vegetables should be after they are tossed; how many times the whistle on the pressure cooker should blow; what the room should smell like when the daal is cooked through.
I also learned things about Mama I never knew. In between orders, she reminisced about the times she would watch her older sister cook in childhood or when she dropped a whistle into her garbage disposal 20 years ago. She rattled off everyone’s favorite dishes, including what I, “her cute Dittu,” loved as my tastes ebbed and flowed in each year of life.
It was an exercise in connection — a reminder that no matter how removed I am from my ancestral home, I can always forge a cultural bridge of my own. My internal monologue strings itself together in English. I write in this language for a living. But I can always find my way back through pickled mangoes and samosas with afternoon chai. Through aloo parathas and lassi. Through cucumbers salted and dressed with lime.
I can find my way back through my mother.
Want to try your hand at Indian home cooking? I wrote out my mother’s recipes for rajma chawal, fried eggplant, maa ki daal, and gobi aloo here.
Diti Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.