Before coming to Oxford for my post-graduate degree, I had never cooked. And when I say never, I mean never, ever, EVER. Yes, I occasionally helped out with some minor tasks at home and loved to bake, but I had never actually made anything non-sweet that was meant to be eaten by the human sort of beings.
This was driven largely by the fact that even after I moved out of home for college, food was available in the dining hall or ‘mess’ as it’s usually called in India. Obviously, it wasn’t greaaat food and we constantly complained about it. But that is just something that college students are wont to do – as normal as gossiping and sleeping in class. The fact of the matter was that the food served was by and large of an edible quality and some dishes could even be classified as good (imagine that!). It wasn’t the home-cooked food, made with love and care that we ate at home, but it was definitely better than average and most definitely better than what some of our counterparts at other law schools were eating (I speak from personal experience).
What all this led to was my complete lack of cooking abilities when it came to real food, the kind that one usually likes to eat for meals, rather than afterwards as a dessert. Add to that the fact that my mum borderline hates cooking and my dad (who actually kind of likes it) is more of an experimental cook and you have the perfect recipe for absolutely nothing. To her credit, my mum made a solid effort in the month or so before I left to get me to cook some basic foods at least once each, but after a few, I successfully persuaded her (come on, I learnt something at law school!) that I could manage. She then reluctantly agreed to stop, but on the condition that I write down all the basic recipes in an actual notebook. For the first couple of weeks, everything went smoothly, largely due to the fact that I didn’t have much time to cook and sustained myself on free food at the bazillion fresher’s events or takeaway salads and sandwiches. But the day I hit the two-week mark, my stomach went into protest mode and started growling at me angrily, bellowing like a beast who must be vanquished. Alas, left with no choice but to give it some home-cooked (in this case, self-cooked) dal, I embarked upon the brave mission, with my whistling pressure cooker as my steed. And lo! behold! I actually managed to make decent dal! (Honestly, it was not that amazing, but I was over the moon).
That day for me marked the beginning of a very fun, sometimes disastrous, culinary journey. I took to cooking like I had never imagined and soon, I was making the basics like a pro and expanding my repertoire with more risqué choices like butter chicken. Where I had started with some version of a lentil mishmash, I was not only dishing out regular stuff quickly, but also experimenting with new things. I’ve always had a creative bent of mind and while dance was my usual outlet for it, in the absence of other options, cooking started to occupy that space in my life. It was the part of the day I often looked forward to, when I let my creative juices flow. The ability to shut down the hubbub of activity that was my constantly whirring brain and focus, almost single-mindedly, on making a good dish for myself was both peaceful and relaxing. And the fact that my flat mates were all foodies and great cheerleaders for food experiments was the lucky bonus that made the process even more fun. Once we had cooked for each other a few times, we started venturing into each other’s cuisines/favourite dishes too and had all sorts of food nights – Indian, Turkish, Mexican.
Last week, I made almost an entire dinner for a few friends by myself and they loved it. After they had finished licking the dishes (quite literally), they started talking about how difficult it was to find time to cook and get ingredients and recipes etc. etc. I smiled and told them about my experiences over the last year and assured them that I had been in the same boat exactly a year ago.
It also made me realise that one of the most difficult things about moving out of your home country is often the availability of decent food. We all come from different places and are used to different kinds of foods. But moving abroad often means having to experiment with new stuff and more importantly, having to leave behind your comfort zone in terms of food. Being an expat is hard enough on its own and irrespective of how much importance you give to food in your life, it becomes one of the things you tend to miss most about home. And while cooking can seem like a daunting task, if you can gather up the courage to at least try it a few times, the results might surprise you. For me, cooking became my way of sharing my home, my culture and a very important of me with my new friends. Simple things like balancing spices to suit different taste buds and discovering striking similarities between dishes from opposite sides of the world greatly enriched my experience of living abroad. And despite the times we burnt pans, forgot to add salt or made things too spicy, it was a journey that brought me closer to the people I was around. Maybe it won’t be the same for everyone, and maybe it’s harder when you don’t take to it, or when you don’t have supportive people around you. But like everything else in life, it’s definitely worth a try. Who knows, you might be the next Masterchef in the making!