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Why I Am Learning To Be A Bad Cook

As an immigrant, I feel linked to my homeland through homemade Indian food. But what happens when I fail to maintain that link?

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At first it was just the onion. It was the last red onion, and had been lying forgotten at the back of the crisper from last month’s grocery haul. It was somehow both mushy and frozen at the same time, the layers no longer easily pulled apart but now crystallized together, and overall very hard to dice. And the tomatoes were not at their best, either but oh well, into the pan it all went. But then, it was the turmeric. The packet had been left open, and the yellow sand was clumpy with moisture. I sprinkled it over the diced chicken and my finger and thumb came away stained. And then it was the burning hot handle of the pan, and my stinging palm under the running tap. And finally it was the rice bowl, slipping from my hands as I rinsed the starch out of the rice, and then sharp shards of white ceramic covered my kitchen floor.

So that’s when I dumped the whole pan out into the trash can, swept up the remnants of the bowl, and sat down on the floor to cry. Something about this afternoon’s failures, coupled with the half-frozen rain outside the kitchen window, and the skin of my palm still painfully red, made me throw an internal tantrum; I hate this tiny kitchen, I hate being away from home, and I want my mom!

I’m a 21-year old college student living far away from home, which means that my first instinct was to call my mother in tears. But it was about 3 a.m. in India, and although she might answer my phone, I would feel too guilty about waking her up over a simple kitchen mishap. Even though somehow, failing to cook my mom’s chicken curry did not feel like a simple kitchen mishap.

It felt like I was failing at life.

Being an immigrant in America, food from my country is linked to my very existence in so many complicated ways.

There’s the vaguely racist question I get from white Americans on a weekly basis– “What’s your favorite authentic Indian restaurant around here? Do you have any recommendations? Is it really authentic, though? Is it like what your mom cooks for you at home?” I often don’t have the heart to tell them that my mom rarely cooks, and when she does cook (if I request a favorite dish from my childhood), it definitely doesn’t resemble the nuclear-orange chicken tikka masala at the nearest Indian place.

My mom’s cooking is incredible, which makes it even more sad that I so rarely get to enjoy it. My two ultimate favorites are her chicken curry and her rajma, which I only get to eat whenever I am able to go home to India and visit. The thought of that rajma (a rich type of stew made with kidney beans) gets me through the 16-hour flights back home. It gets me through the coldest of winters here in New England, when I am left wondering why I ever chose to go to college in America in the first place. But my mom’s rajma is too hard to recreate in my kitchen, so I default to the chicken curry recipe. This is my ultimate comfort food; it is guaranteed to cheer me up after the worst day of classes, casual racism from my peers, Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim vitriol, etc. My housemates always know when I am feeling homesick– they can smell the frying onions and coriander.

I suppose that’s why, when I failed to cook my mother’s chicken curry, it felt like I was failing myself. I was failing as an immigrant, as an Indian, and as an adult.

But in this political climate, in Trump’s America, I cannot afford to make myself feel guilty in this way anymore. I know now, more than ever, immigrants like myself must find new ways to survive. I am reevaluating what my survival looks like. Sometimes, it looks like asking the kind lady at the threading salon where she buys her mango pickle. Sometimes, it looks like piling all my friends into a dorm room and watching a Bollywood movie (with or without subtitles). Sometimes it looks like forgiving myself for all the little failures of life. And sometimes, it looks like ditching the homemade naan and ordering chicken tikka masala on Grubhub.

Which is exactly what I did that afternoon on the kitchen floor.

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