Cooking as metaphor. Food as love. Great, but who’ll do the dishes?

by Gautam Raja

Do not be afraid of cooking, as your ingredients will know, and misbehave.
—Fergus Henderson in Nose to Tail Eating

Sometime in the year 2000, I was standing, sweating in a friend’s kitchen, trying to tear the meninges off a sheep’s brain. The organ, probably over-boiled, was refusing to separate from its outer layers, and brain tissue was coming off in chunks—a bit like when you peel a very fresh boiled egg.

My friend was standing over the frying onions, and they were coming along nicely, so I was in a rush. By the time I was done, the entire countertop was a mess of pasty grey matter, and suddenly we didn’t feel like eating anymore. Brain Dry Fry would have to wait until we were in Bangalore, and Imperial, next.

Before this, my kitchen repertoire comprised omelettes and Maggi noodles. My friend was a little better off: she could make ishtew and a vegetable or two. So what drove us to buy a package of sheeps’ brains from the Sultan Centre supermarket, and not, say, skinless chicken breasts? Hubris or stupidity?

Neither. It was fear.

There’s a reason I’ve made pasta from scratch, but never made a chappati. Or why I can make perfect pesto, but not daal. Part of it is because I’m a Bliddy Indian. Most of it is fear. A fear of the unknown. I’ve seen chappatis being made all my life, but have never seen sheets of pasta being rolled out and cut into linguini or spaghetti. Set loose with nothing but instant noodles and cheese omelettes in my name, I wanted to confront my fears, and chop (and slice and dice) my way into the heart of darkness.

But there’s something too glib about this. And as I think about it, I realise it’s the other way around. It’s not fear of the unknown at all, but rather the familiar that’s the demon. All my life, daal and chappatis were things made, seemingly without effort, by all-capable, all-providing adults. If I make spaghetti that becomes toothpaste at the bottom of the pan, I can shrug and move on. But if I start to make chappatis and find I can’t… I’ve let the side down. A legacy ends. Tradition dies.

In all the reading I’ve done about cooking, the best piece of advice I ever got was the quote at the top of this page. Lift that quote out of the kitchen and apply it to anything you do: car repair, accounting, surgery, writing, marriage or parenting… With anything you put your hand, heart and mind to, do not be afraid, as your ingredients will know, and misbehave.