I first learnt about cooking through love. Or maybe it was the other way round. Time has blurred the details. But I distinctly remember the two being related, intertwined almost. I was 20 years old and knew nothing about a kitchen or how meals were made. I was living alone in a foreign country and deeply, madly in love.
Love made me hungry. Hungry for food and hungry for the approval and appreciation of the boy I was in love with. So I stood beside him and and watched as he prepared a meal. Watched his hands and the way h6e selected the spices. Saw that salt and onions, more often than not, were an excellent idea. I watched and learnt to prepare food from the heart, for the heart. To use the right vinegar for the dumplings. Star anise for one dish, cumin and cinnamon for another. Basil and thyme for the meats, a squeeze of lemon for the fish.
One night I made a meal I had improvised from recipes. I remember slicing eggplant to fry them in cumin, tossing the onions, browning the chicken and watching the tomatoes simmer in what would eventually becoming kuzhambu, steaming rice on the side with some jeera and feeling a sense of incredible freedom. I finished my meal, set some aside for my lover and went bed. In the middle of the night he woke me up and told me he had never tasted anything better. That night, my love won.
I stopped cooking for many years. Along the way, I stopped loving. Or maybe it was the other way round. I stopped loving for many years, so I stopped cooking as well.
Thankfully I was surrounded by people who nourished and cooked and fed me tirelessly. Pumpkin risottos on Saturday afternoons, briyanis on Sundays fresh from my aunt’s kitchen, long pub lunches after going to church with the crew, takeout meals around the dining table at home with my parents – murthabas stuffed with mince meat, mee gorengs tossed and fried, roasted chicken with fragrant garlic rice and oyster sauce-drenched vegetables. The days and weeks and years are unclear, but it was a stream of food that I did not make, of generous love that I needed to heal.
Someone I was talking to during this healing journey told me that perhaps I needed to go back to cooking again. A good activity for suppressed emotions, she said. To find yourself anew, return to where it began, she said.
So, I began again. Slowly. A lunch here, of shrimps and sambal and roasted potatoes. A dinner there, of parmigiana and a freshly tossed salad. The kitchen welcomed me into its space. My heart rose and fell with the smells and tastes that were created. My heart heaved a sigh of relief and slowly, slowly began to open itself up to beauty again.
Nothing humbles me more than watching someone make a meal for me. They were early days and he was whipping up a batch of brownies. We had been out late the night before, and yet here he was, up, yawning, having expressing and patiently stirring milk and eggs and butter and cocoa, double boiling and slow boiling and layering and pouring batter into cake tins. The house was filled with the warmest, most delicious smell of chocolate and butter and cake.
I remember watching him blurry-eyed with sleep, my toes curling with joy, a giant lump in my throat. Maybe that was the day I fell in love with him.
He makes food for me often. Breakfasts, in particular, because I know I will never put in the effort to feed myself in the morning. Little things, like buying me snacks from the airport. Filling my heart with the seemingly innocuous that mean more to me than big, grand gestures could. Because food nourishes my heart more than it does my body. Maybe because the process of preparing food is a thoughtful, mindful process. One which speaks of love more than many other things do.
I struggle with articulating these things to him. Instead, I cherish and enjoy everything he makes and tell myself to love him more, as much as I can, to love in a way that does justice to his love. It is a work in progress. Both inside and outside of the kitchen.