When I try to list the things she taught me, I find myself not thinking of domestic tasks, but about afternoons wandering her garden in Ivanhoe, squishing overripe Napoleon Cherries under my feet. She told us we couldn’t eat them, but now I know they are quite edible, but you need to cook them. Carla, her Italian neighbour would lean over the fence at some point, I would climb the step ladder that perennially resided there, she would pinch my cheeks and hand over a plate of tiramisu (which I adored) or a bag of rock-hard almond biscotti (which I didn’t). We would go inside, and I would sit with Gran in the sun-room, while we ate Carla’s treats and she told me about her latest trip – The silk road, Orient express, a barge down the Nile, meeting the Dalai Lama. Princes and cruise ships in Italy, trains and houseboats in Canada. She nearly died of altitude sickness in Lima, food poisoning in Burma, was hijacked in Israel, pushed out of China for being nosy and nearly blown up in Pakistan. But none of this stopped her. Every year, she would save each penny – living on tinned sardines and condensed tomato soup, so she could afford another lavish trip. The only reason she doesn’t travel now is that she cannot get travel insurance. But no, she doesn’t cook.
Last week, I witnessed 12 Sub-continent women recreate Grandmaternal history on a plate as they shared their recipes. At some moments in the day I was jealous. Cooking is a pastime I treasure, but it did not come to me from my Gran. The cooks I watched conveyed their stories as they worked. They remembered standing on chairs to watch Granny stirring the pots, sitting on mats crushing spices with a mortar and pestle, gathering around the table to knead dough, then being part of the team that presented the males with this incredible creation. Food, but not just food, secret family recipes moulded into artistic sustinence, with the ability to warm hearts, spread smiles, sate souls and dry cheeks. It’s not really something I was involved in as a child, and hearing the tales, watching their blushing cheeks and shining eyes, it was hard not to wonder why I got ripped off. She could have at least helped me bake me some cookies…
I discussed it with one of the other attendees – a girl from India (Delhi), who was working the friday shift to bring a little foodie news to Dubai’s Bollywood radio. We wondered why so many western women had a similar hole in their upbringings, were never taught how to cook by the matriarchs of the family. Apart from being a little younger and prettier, she was just like me – a modern woman, working, living and playing in similar ways to me. But she remembered her Granny teaching her how to cook. It shows, that despite the fact that many believe our world is becoming more homogenized, cultures still value the role of women very differently – some still regard domestics as a primary role for women (whether they work or not), and the fine technique of this is something that is passed down. Or at least has been to Gen Y. But I do wonder if today’s five year olds will still agree when they are my age?
While discussing, I blamed World War II, the lack of male presence and the need for women to take up other forms of work, but also by the impact of the depression, when food was simply a fuel to fend off starvation. But possibly there’s much more to it than that. Scarcity is hardly a rare occurance in India, and other parts of the world famous for the quality of their home cooking. Our values, of money, time and art, have changed. (Check out the Daily Mail’s article) And it’s not only the war that did it. Fashions have changed faster since the 1920s than they have in history, and it’s not just about dresses – it’s the way we live, and choose to present ourselves. And cooking has not been the only thing to go. Hands up who knows how to cross-stitch. It is now more important for a woman to be well educated, well travelled, busy, fit, and of course, pretty – that will never change. As for the kitchen, well, there’s always restaurants and frozen dinners.
As the winner of Mumtaz Mahal’s competition stood up and accepted her award, she cried – just a little. The winning corresponded with the anniversary of her Grandmother’s death. The recipe was true to Manudevi (granny), and what she would have prepared the family for a typical breakfast in Delhi. It had two curries, pickles, chutney, poori pastries and a bunch of other stuff. When I went to Gran’s I got two Weetbix with warm milk. If I was lucky, she had orange juice.
But I won’t hold it against her, just like Tom Junod couldn’t in this piece for the Esquire blog. Gran has always given me plenty to feast on, and she has good taste. I just can’t put her gifts in my belly.
You can find the three winning recipes on my recipe listings here:
I also came across this article from Time Online in my searching for reasons why modern women don’t cook (didn’t find any reasons, just lots of opinions on whether they should or shouldn’t, could or couldn’t, will or won’t) – A modern cook’s conflicted relationship with his mother. Worth a read.
Mumtaz Mahal is an Indian Restaurant in the rickety yet totally charming Arabian Courtyard Hotel in Bur Dubai. They run competitions throughout the year for home chefs, including the Biryani Competition, which is also a doozy. The restaurant itself has a luxurious and yet homey feel, and the competitions reflect their desire to bring indian home cooking to the table. They also have dancing and live music most nights – it’s a hoot, and shouldn’t be missed. I’ve also added it to my Top 5 Restaurants in Dubai to take your guests.
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