A family that cooks together, stays together

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For as long as I can remember, Amma’s cooked all the meals for our four-person household. It’s something she’s incredibly proud of, yet a tiring job nonetheless; she’d wake up earlier than everyone else, serve us our morning chai and coffee in bed, and then work for hours to ensure that breakfast was served and our lunches were packed and ready. It’s a labour of love that I’ve always appreciated, but regrettably never as much as I do now, having seen her work up close for five months with no distractions.

Moving away for university has made me learn how grueling cooking can often be. In my quotidian scrambling, I’ve fallen back on instant noodles and easy pasta recipes more times than I’d like to admit. In times of homesickness, I’ve vowed and then abandoned plans to recreate the elaborate South Indian dishes Amma seems to cook every day almost effortlessly. After being sequestered with my mediocre cooking skills during term time, returning home to my mother’s cooking is therefore always something to look forward to, and she’s always equally as ready to spoil me with all of the food I’ve been deprived of.

This time, however, returning home felt different. It became difficult to determine when I’d be leaving for Durham, which meant that after a few good weeks of guiltlessly letting my mother feed me, I began to feel a bit ridiculous for not sharing the load. Simultaneously, my sister and father were at home, inundated with fewer school or work responsibilities than usual and it became difficult to justify why my mother was continuing to make our meals for us with no assistance on our behalves. And thus, we arrived at the following decision – my father was assigned the job of taking care of our weekend meals, while my sister and I volunteered to cook Sunday brunches and a couple of dinners during the week. 

It’s now customary for my father to interrupt unrelated conversations with queries about the contents of our kitchen pantry; Acha’s office breaks now involve making shopping lists filled with obscure exotic spices and condiments. My sister’s baking has become so commonplace that our senses have grown accustomed to the lingering scent of vanilla and the sound of a ticking oven. Amma’s culinary vocabulary has expanded too; while the rest of us have been trying to navigate new terrain by attempting recipes beyond our skill level, she’s rekindled her own passion for food and added a handful of perfected recipes to her repertoire. As for me, I’ve been learning how to replicate my favourite comfort dishes so I don’t have to fall back on instant noodles once I’m back at university.

Making the decision to cook as a family has brought us closer in the most surprising ways. The other day Acha accidentally burned his hand in a kitchen accident for the first time and we all celebrated. He’s also foraged fresh fodder for dad-jokes since discovering cross-continental recipes: names like bibimbap and menemen have inspired many of his dinner comedy routines. My sister, who’s generally the more graceful sibling, accidentally cut a ceramic plate in half and I laughed at her for weeks. And a personal favourite anecdote — a few weeks ago my mother tried to recreate my version of a family favourite, since, in her own words, ‘it tastes so much better than the one I make!’. Full disclosure: I hadn’t realised I’d done anything different from her usual recipe, but accepted the praise anyway.  

Making the decision to cook as a family has brought us closer in the most surprising ways.

The delightful thing in all of this is that as I begin to memorise the way my mother stocks her kitchen cabinets, I’m beginning to find more empathy for the years of cyclical exertion she put in to unfailingly keep all of us well-fed and satiated. Caught up in an ugly economic culture that undervalues domestic work, I took my mother’s cooking for granted. As someone who stayed away from the kitchen barring midnight trips to the fridge, it’s been an unlikely blessing to see it transform over the past few months into a space of togetherness, giving us moments of peace and reasons to celebrate even in the deafening pandemonium. While the past few months have had their unpleasant moments, I’ve been indescribably grateful for these brief moments of refuge, entree-inspired dad jokes and all.

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