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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Dinner is served, and it’s not the best ‘keema’
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Dinner is served, and it’s not the best ‘keema’

In a family full of great cooks, Sohaila Abdulali on why she needs to get her groove back in the kitchen

Photo: Wikimedia CommonsPremium
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

My mother’s a fabulous cook. My brother’s a fabulous cook. My husband’s a fabulous cook; even better, he’s a fabulous baker.

I am not a fabulous cook. I used to be one of those women who can whip up a meal for 20 without breaking into a sweat. That was decades ago, however, and that woman seems to have left the building.

What’s my problem? And why should it be a problem anyway? My husband likes cooking, our daughter and I like eating, it’s copacetic. But it’s unfair that I get off so easily. Not because I’m a woman who should be sweating over a kerosene stove, but because the other parent shouldn’t be solely responsible for feeding a healthy teenager whose favourite line is, “I’m hungry." He has no expectations of me so I can’t pretend I’m having some feminist rebellion. Darn. But I remember when I did enjoy cooking, and I cling stubbornly to the fading vision of myself as an awesome, well-rounded, impressive human being.

Thomas Wolfe wrote in The Web And The Rock, “There is no spectacle on earth more appealing than that of a beautiful woman in the act of cooking dinner for someone she loves." How wrong he was. There is no spectacle on earth more appealing than that of a beautiful man in the act of cooking dinner for someone he loves (especially if, as in my fantasy, he’s naked except for an apron and a fedora, but this is a family newspaper so let’s save the masala for the cooking pot).

Back to the topic at hand: What happened to me, and how to fix it. I cooked madly in Boston, and had many an impromptu dinner party. In Delhi, it was either too cold or too hot in my barsati kitchen, so I lived on chaat. In New York, surrounded by takeout, and living next door to the aforementioned fabulous cooking brother, I forgot everything I ever knew about tadka (tempering) and timing. Then, marriage and a baby sprang startlingly but pleasingly out of nowhere. I should have been reading recipes, but I was too busy writing a short story about a selfish woman who has an abortion because she can’t face the thought of cooking for her baby. Also, I’m a brat.

I grew up in a family that freely dispensed adoration. It was very nice, but unfortunately I now expect admiration even if I burn the (pre-packaged) chapatis and put too much salt in the pasta. My partner grew up in a more restrained family, and therefore has the fatal flaw of not going on and on and on about how wonderful I am at all times. Also, he knows much more about cooking, and has eyes not only at the back of his head, but also stuck to his sides and lurking under his armpits. He sees everything and is generous with helpful suggestions. I do not respond well to these. I gnash my teeth. This is not good, especially when he’s correct, which he usually is, dammit. Cue the following fiasco:

Me: I’m going to cook my mother’s keema. But I need encouragement! It takes practice to get it right. It won’t be perfect, but don’t just sit and eat without comment.

Them (partner and child, suppressing eye-rolls): Okay.

I go into the kitchen and make the keema. It’s very boring to make keema. That big blob of beef has nothing compelling to say. I look out of the window and think deep thoughts while it’s sizzling on the stove. I ponder the crimson maples along the East River. I wish I had won a writing award so I could make a statement by flinging it back at the government. I wonder if the teenager has enough index cards to study for her history quiz. I hope Jane The Virgin is on tonight. While these important thoughts are using up brain space, the keema burns.

Whatever. It’s just a little khurchan at the bottom; it’ll add to the taste. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Tom on the sofa, bursting to say something, but nobly refraining. I remember indignantly how my mother gave him the family cookbook when we got married. I try to look nonchalant and will away the burning smell, and in this tense state I add too much garam masala.

We sit down to dinner. Tom takes one mouthful and says, “This is spectacular!" The teenager takes one mouthful and gets up to look in the fridge for leftovers. I grimly eat my portion and try to hide some distinctly sinister-looking clumps under my napkin. Tom valiantly takes a second helping and keeps the appreciative look plastered on his face. But he lets his guard drop at the end when I say, “Maybe I should have added tomatoes."

“That might have helped," he says before he can stop himself.

The keema was terrible. But next time it won’t be. Next time I will watch the pan, and add tomatoes. I will not look out of the window.

At the risk of poisoning my family, I’m going to cook a little more often. I do remember how much fun it is once you get into the swing of it. And I would like to show my child the value of keeping at something until you improve, of not being defeated by a little burnt keema.

Here’s the plan: I’m going to keep at it until I can make something they genuinely find spectacular. Until they beg me to cook. Then I’ll occasionally step into the kitchen, knowing that rarity adds lustre. When the mood strikes, I’ll invite 20 people over and produce a feast in seven and a half minutes.

But tonight, I’m ordering sushi.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

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Updated: 14 Nov 2015, 01:40 PM IST
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