The Pandemic Cook: How I Learnt To Love Food
I have never identified as a cook or even a foodie. So many things jostle for a piece of my identity. Pointlessly gendered things rouse my ire. Cooking is one of those things. Indian women are supposed to emerge from the womb as fully qualified therapists, beauty queens and world class cooks. Cooking is especially linked with a woman’s value, her entire worth based on how well she serves other people. This tweet by Rutuja really struck home.
I grew up around kitchen microaggressions by other women. Cooking was treated as a cut-throat race to win the trophy of Supreme Woman. They jealously guarded their kitchen secrets. Food was their currency of power. Cooking was done to show off one’s worth at the cost of putting other women down. All social rituals centered around the kitchen, where such women presided as dictators. The more laborious, the more self-sacrificing a woman showed herself to be with elaborate preparations, the better her chances of winning the Womanhood prize. Female gatherings always boiled down to culinary championships. Even mixed groups would eventually auto-seggregate into living room conversations between men on politics, sports, people while the women would retreat to the kitchen. It would become a question of my character if I was the only woman still seated in the living room. In the kitchen gathering, I would be an inferior, a barely tolerated alien in the land of the Great Indian Woman Who Cooks.
With this history, no wonder my early feminism included a rejection of cooking. When food was a constant guillotine dangling over my head, I decided I would not give it any more importance than as a basic need and as a corollary, be disdainful of anyone who made it their whole identity. I wrote this poem when I was 24, describing the autobiographical Superwoman who proudly hated cooking. I also gave her a sad ending where among other things ‘She’s the bahu who spends too much but at least she cooks now’.
Over the years, I grimly added cooking to my survival toolkit, weathering brutish judgement and weaponizing it against dysfunctional men. If you’re an able-bodied adult and can’t feed yourself, what is your worth as a human being? I figured it out through challenges so what excuse could a Raja Beta have for not doing so? Adulthood means first the act (not just proclaimed ability) of taking care of one’s needs – body emissions, communications with the world, actions that impact other people and finally daily nourishment to keep it all going. We must all eat after all. It didn’t have to be superlative. There’s no first prize in self-reliance.
But food has always been political. I began reading food fiction during the first lockdown. I was instinctively seeking comfort between pages since I had not found it on my plate. The stories I read, were written with love but they told of political turmoil, of war refugees, of abuse survivors. What united these stories was that their characters found healing of every kind (comfort, companionship, independence, love, inspiration) through food. It was such an odd thought – to find healing in the very things that represented pain to me. I realised so much bloodshed & devastation goes into our identities – cultural, linguistic, culinary. Food is a tangible representation of those complexities.
Indian cooking is incredibly classist. What is commonly thought of as ‘Indian cuisine’ is the result of centuries of feudal systems and mass exploitation. Even what we think of as a basic meal (when compared to other parts of the world) is excessively elaborate. A full Indian meal needs the kind of preparation that is only possible with slave labour whose entire lives are devoted to one task like grinding powders or making pickles. Everything is supposed to made ‘apne haath se’ (from scratch) or it doesn’t count. Even among those of us who can afford it, we choose not to buy readymade ingredients or even simplify existing recipes because we have the option of demanding ‘from scratch’. Imagine entire livelihoods being made from the act of rolling papads which turn into one of the dozens of optional accompaniments to a ‘basic meal’. Our cultural biases are built into our tastes. And for those of us sensitive to these intersecting realities, no wonder cooking feels overwhelming. Or like Rutuja says, enough to make me 🔪.
The pandemic forced even the most rigid of people to break regressive social barriers of ingredients, flavour, taste etc. Because I have family members with co-morbidities, we lived with stringent COVID precautions and for much longer. For two years, every single thing that entered the house from a packet of Marie biscuits to a single banana was washed, dried and used for maximum value. Vegetable procurement became the highlight of our week, an elaborate 3 hours involving the whole family sorting, washing, drying, chopping and storage. We stopped buying things like coriander because it was just too painful to clean and lasted for such a short while. Coriander! It’s only the single most important garnish on every single Indian dish, North or South. But a garnish was the kind of luxury that we decided did not merit the effort it took.
Peter Griffin started a group during the first wave, asking his friends for tips and support for minimally equipped people navigating food needs. That group made me realise how many other people there were in the world just like me. We were doing what we could to feed ourselves and our families and that was all that mattered. It felt okay to say “I made a chutney today” without having to fear mockery. The group supported each other and celebrated each other’s small wins. The picture is from a recipe I posted (for brinjal-nut dip/chutney/curry).
I found my way into the kitchen via shared chores. I would do the dishes after everyone had gone to bed, savoring the hard-gotten silence and space in those tumultuous days. Perhaps because I was reading a lot of food fiction and emboldened by Peter’s group, I turned to simple experiments whose traces could be cleared away before anyone woke up.
Apple pie used ingredients that we never ran out of (flour, butter, salt, sugar, apples), needed no elaborate equipment or processes and got done in a short while. I must have made dozens of them in those months – small ones that fit the one glass bowl that no one noticed. Apple pie felt good in my stomach, also because it became like a secret I had with myself that nobody could ruin with identity-policing.
I started ‘properly’ cooking last year when my family caught COVID in early January. With the paring back that the pandemic had done, I felt more confident to take on the kitchen stove. I was able to bring our collective situation to “We must all eat, I’m the only one who can do it, this is all we have so we will make do. No complaints, no fusses.” Because of my minimalist start in pandemic cooking, I didn’t feel pressure to make Instagram worthy food. If the meal got made in time and was palatable, I felt good.
Cooking has been a truly grounding experience for my spirit. I’ve been the one cleaning the dishes I use, doing the elaborate preparations of chopping or hunting down obscure ingredients when needed. This has given me a new appreciation of food. This means I’m more confident about my tastes and my instincts. I’m also better able to see how much of the culinary experience is unnecessary fuss. Shakti introduced me to one pot meals with an impressive nonchalance that inspired me.
Because I had the space to experiment, fail in peace alone and gain confidence, external pressures stopped hitting as hard. I followed some pandemic trends like dalgona coffee (mine is made with Marie biscuits) and ignored the others like banana bread (never liked bananas). I was able to ask younger women/married women for cooking advice without dealing with ageism & single shaming. It stopped being gendered as I noticed men in various corners of my life, navigating the kitchen. Pandemic cooking became a way for me to start or revive conversations with people I’d had in my world for a long time. My cooking today includes inputs, appreciation, idea-swaps and conversations with Tareque and Gaurav.
In December, I wanted to close the year acknowledging the hard growth I’d experienced through the pandemic but also the gifts. I invited two couples I knew over to dinner. It was my first ever hosting of a sitdown dinner that I had cooked myself. Two of the people in the party are professional cooks. They have each cooked for me over the years, bringing me surprise delicacies, offering comfort & laughter expressed in a dish. I really wanted to be able to do that for them too.
Both families accepted and ate with gusto. They even happily took home leftovers and sent me photographs the next day saying ‘Lunch today courtesy Ramya’! It was such a gift to me, that they trusted me enough to cook for them, that they did me the honour of eating what I had made. I have only heard and read about such things before but the last week of 2022 brought me this rich experience that I will treasure all my life.
I don’t cook every day but it is part of my weekly routine. Some days I’m enthused enough to try something new. Dhokla. Moussaka. Sheera. This is my creative side, rejoicing in experimentation and play. Then there is a heart-warming, soul-nourishing feeling of cooking a simple lunch for my family. Rice with sambar & brinjal curry. Rotis with chole or moong daal sabzi. Poori with aloo. Rasam sadam with cabbage poriyal. Pav bhaji with chapatti instead of pav. Morkuttu soru. Every peppercorn I use instead of a green chilli reminds me of my knowledge of health and my economic privilege. Every leaf of coriander that elevates my dish says thank you for surviving the pandemic. My breakfast always includes a basil leaf picked from a plant I grow and love, every day. It’s life-affirming.
If you ask me today, am I a good cook? I’d say no. But I am a competent cook. I can take care of myself. I can feed my family. What I make won’t hurt people to eat, won’t destroy the wallet. I have an idea of how to make do with what’s available – of course that’s local to me. And most of all, I enjoy cooking. Where cleaning dishes feels like meditation to me, now cooking feels like a gift that keeps giving. It is a calming experience to cook. It is a reassuring experience when people agree to eat what I cook. As with my gardening, this is simple and enduring. I like who I am as a cook. Cooking makes my connection with the world complete.
Booklovers, here’s a list of the Food Fiction books that kept me nourished in the pandemic: Food Reads.