Growing up in India in the late 1980s and 1990s, feminism took my friends and me firmly out of the kitchen.
The tubelit kitchen was where our grandmothers belonged, with their pallus tucked in to their petticoats, oil-slicked surfaces, loud exhaust fans with blackened spokes, red LPG gas cylinders under the counter, pressure cookers hissing loudly, drowning out the conversation of the men in the drawing room, drinking whiskey and eating the pakoras fried by their mothers, their mothers-in-law, their wives, their sisters, or their maids. The kitchens were hot, only fleetingly cooled by the air of the coolers and, in later years, air-conditioners, in the living room.
As my friends and I bore witness to this difference, we deemed the kitchens ambitionless, futureless, narrow, somewhere we did not want to be. We wanted to wear pants and drink whiskey in artificially cooled air and discuss politics and philosophy and travel the world and have careers and recognition. We left the kitchen to others and turned to face the world.
Many of us married men who knew how to cook, took pride in how to cook, and make elaborate spreads for appreciative guests at dinner parties. In our own home in Mumbai, my husband broke down walls and opened up the kitchen so he could cook while chatting, while drinking, while enjoying the air-conditioned air. Friends sat around, pottering in and out, helping, rinsing, dicing, refilling, laughing.
A few years ago, circumstances moved my family from Mumbai to New York and our daily diet quickly changed from rice to pasta, curries to sauces, masalas to herbs, paneer to cheese, sabzi to salads. It was fine. Our stomachs were full and our hands were also with two small children so I didn’t give food much thought.
I find myself switching off the stove and rushing to my laptop. I think of a story I may have wanted to tell my grandfather if he were alive.
Last August, on a bright summer day at my friend’s house in the Hamptons, swinging our feet into the deep blue swimming pool, drinking wine and watching our kids thrash around on floaties, culturally about as far away from my late grandmother’s kitchen in Delhi as I could be, my friend, a friend from college, was shocked that I still didn’t know how to cook.
“What do you do when you just want basic daal rice? Or like chicken curry but not the heavy restaurant type?” she asked.
My mouth watered thinking of the food of my childhood. The basic daal rice she was describing that no Indian restaurant will serve. Indian food not doused in masala and ghee. Daily Indian food, the food I do crave and miss and want my children to eat but have mostly ignored because I eat to live, rarely live to eat, and when you do the former, it’s easy enough to not cook and not overthink and just get by.
She was right though. I don’t want my half-Indian children eating only pasta and chicken nuggets and string cheese. I don’t want them constantly nibbling on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or pizza. I want them to know the smell and taste of cumin and ajwain and turmeric and dhaniya. I want them to get annoyed when their fresh manicures end up stained yellow from haldi. I want them to crave daal rice the way I do.
I told my mother about this and she immediately gave me a round masala tin with smaller round tins inside it for garam masala, dhaniya powder, jeera powder, jeera, mustard seeds, a tray under the lid for cinnamon sticks and cloves and elaichi. A round tin that is identical to the one my grandmother used in her small Delhi kitchen.
I thanked her and put it away in the back of a cupboard in the kitchen and forgot about it and boiled some pasta.
I am a Writer, with that all-important capital W. I have an agent and deadlines and things I’m working on. People are waiting for things I’m supposed to be working on. I sit self-importantly at a laptop. I wear glasses, my frown lines are deep. But last year, I struggled. I kept hitting creative roadblocks, not quite finding the voice I wanted, losing plot points, meandering aimlessly, spending all day writing and then all night angrily deleting.
Like all homes of elementary school kids, my family spent the entire fall sharing and trading germs—we got knocked down by common colds, RSV, flu, strep, Covid, norovirus. The kids missed days and days of school, my work got more and more frustrating. I got angry. I felt lost. I forced more words onto the page, I disliked nearly all of them.
Many mornings I stand in my kitchen with my laptop open on one counter, rajma cooking on the stove, potatoes soaking near the sink.
I blamed my professional frustrations on everything I could—my husband, my children, my babysitter’s schedule, my barre studio’s schedule, the kid at ballet class who sneezed too close to my daughter, the pile of papers on my desk that needed to be dealt with, I blamed the sun, I blamed the clouds, I blamed White Lotus for being too good, I blamed myself, of course. I was furious at myself.
One morning while my kids were in school and my husband was at his studio, I slammed my laptop shut and pulled that round metal tin out from the back of the cupboard and decided to make daal. I soaked the moong daal in water for an hour and spent the majority of that time staring blankly into the bowl. Then I cooked it. Then I Googled how to cook rice and I cooked rice. I overcooked it. And then I stayed standing in the kitchen and scarfed down an enormous bowl of it. At night, I served bowlfuls to my daughters and, to my absolute delight, they ate it all.
My grandmother died two years ago. I wrote about her here and here and here. I loved her, I miss her, I wish I hadn’t pushed my way out of that kitchen. I wish I had made her write things down. I wish I didn’t have to stand here, almost forty, trying to figure out the difference between garam masala and curry powder (primarily turmeric, grandmother Google tells me easily enough).
After that first experiment with daal, I started cooking the way I do a lot of things these days—with full commitment. I marinate chicken for hours, I soak dry rajma overnight, I stir daal and ghee for halwa until my arm hurts, I clear the kitchen counter and let my two girls, ages four and five, climb up near the hot stove or instant pot to drop in the cumin seeds and learn its smell. Together we learn to step back as soon as we put onion into a hot sizzling pan so its splatter doesn’t burn us.
I am working on figuring out the best ways to turn my American kitchen into what I would have needed from my grandmother’s Indian one. I use an instant pot and an air-fryer, things so bulky my grandmother wouldn’t have wanted them in her kitchen even if she agreed that they were helpful. I learn shortcuts (instant mashed potato powder to thicken gravies that need thickening, my aunt taught me). I swap flavors—I recreated my grandmother’s keema patties by cooking the keema with a readymade taco seasoning instead of trying to figure out the exact combination of Indian spices that I would need. The result was all eaten within minutes of cooking.
I throw away dishes that just don’t work, cannot be salvaged, and rinse off the pots and pans and try something new (my grandmother would not have appreciated this kind of waste). Unlike when I do that to sentences, I don’t hate myself for this.
And, of course, as happens, as I cook, I find my words return to me. I start to return to my grandmother’s kitchen in Delhi—that apartment, that housing complex, that neighborhood. The place where I grew up, the place that runs through my veins and made me want to be a writer in the first place.
If I close my eyes and smell the spices, I could be sitting in the tubelit drawing room in Delhi, with the overhead fan whirring and my grandfather pouring whiskey into Mr. Ghosh’s glass. They are all dead—my grandmother, my grandfather, even Mr. Ghosh—but they come alive in my mind as I cook.
I find myself switching off the stove and rushing to my laptop. I think of a story I may have wanted to tell my grandfather if he were alive. Or I remember the time Mr. Ghosh fell off his bed and his wife asked me to help him back up and younger me held his bony elbow and wanted to disappear into the ground as I looked away from his hauntingly aging body—I should write about that, I think to myself. Poor Mr. Ghosh. I wonder where his grandchildren are now. Have I crossed their minds recently? What would we be to each other?
Many mornings I stand in my kitchen with my laptop open on one counter, rajma cooking on the stove, potatoes soaking near the sink. It turns out, the part of my brain that processes recipes is separate from the part of my brain that makes sentences but they are connected enough that one awakens the other. Today I am making a coconut chicken curry with rice on the side. It’s on the stove now as I write and so far it smells good, I am optimistic. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll toss it.
I have no big takeaway on feminism except that for some women it is in the kitchen and for others it may need to be elsewhere and for others still it may be everywhere or nowhere.
Tomorrow my husband will probably make salmon and couscous.