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The Emotions of Cooking


Shaya
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I was standing at the stove this morning, just after 8am, which is very early for me, but has become my new reality since my oldest has started school.

On the menu was a simple rice dish for my kids and their babysitter, as my husband and I have other plans for dinner. The dish is called kichree, and it's a red rice dish with lentils. Melt some cheese and tomatoes to form a crust at the bottom just before serving, and add white yogurt on the side of the plate. Comfort food. Food that takes me back through all the years of my life.

I realized, while cooking this dish, that each time I cook I am taking a little journey. The emotions began almost immediately. As I heated up the oil and added my onions, I was transported to the multiple pots my Mom would have on the stove, oil shimmering on the bottoms, awaiting the addition of the all-important base of nearly every dish she cooked: those onions. I recalled the confidence I felt when she first entrusted me with the task of stirring the onions and determining when they were "ready" for the addition of the next ingredients, usually turmeric, salt, pepper and some sort of diced up meat.

Then some very different thoughts overcame me. I was mesmerized by the beauty of the onions softening slowly and gently in the smooth enamelled surface of my Le Creuset. I felt I was witnessing perfection, and the miracle of cooking filled me with joy.

In went the cumin. Then the tomato paste. Italian. From a tube. Unheard of when I was growing up; we had those little cans that were far too large for one use but quite troublesome to transfer and store. Somehow this little tube brought in a flood of emotions relating to my Grandmother. She calls it "paste tomato". I remembered how she taught me to transfer the extra paste into a zip-lock baggie and toss it into the freezer for a future use. As I tossed the tube back into the fridge, I recalled that she and I discovered the little tubes around the same time; she is the only person I know who gets as excited about them as I do. This thought made me smile.

Then it was time to add some water to make a tasty cooking broth. When I could smell the aroma of cumin entangling with tomatoes. I knew it was time to add the rice; beautiful long white grains of basmati. I added every grain, scraping the bowl with the sides of my hand, just as I had watched my Mom and my Grandmother do time after time. Rice is precious, not a grain to be wasted. Same goes for the lentils. Each one must make it into the pot. This must be how superstitions stay alive! Lost in my thoughts, I added the lentils a little too hastily, realizing too late that I had forgotten to go through the ritual of checking for stones. My Mom always spreads the little grains on a wide tray and hunts carefully for any bits that do not belong. I recalled my younger self looking askance at these unsightly hard obects in the midst of the perfect orange disks, and wondering how on earth they had gotten there. This morning, my older self still did not have the answer.

I snapped myself back to the present and looked down into my pot. The rice looked a little pale to me. "Check the color. If it is too pale you can add more paste tomato" I could hear my Grandmother's voice speaking arabic in my head. So I added some more paste and stirred it around. Stubborn streaks of red emerged and brought back another memory, this time a comical one. It was of a time when my Mom was away and my Dad (a great breakfast and salad cook) decided to cook this dish. It turned out to be a mixture of white rice with red streaks and seriously under-cooked onions, rice and lentils. I think that day he realized the "magic" of cooking and developed a new appreciation for our daily food!

Then came the tricky part: when to turn down the heat, when to put on the lid, what temperature to keep it steady. All learned by watching; nothing written down. Just as is done in countless families around the world. I searched in my memory for the desired texture and temperature, and snapped on the lit when it felt right.

I turned around in anticipation of another cooking project; I was disappointed to realize that there was none. The sentiment of preparing food for my family grew inside me. I recalled the multiple dishes my Grandmother used to prepare in one day: rice dishes; stews; those dozens of kebbah, meatballs sheathed in a paste made with semolina; and m'hasha, those lovingly stuffed vegetables, bursting with flavor and color. These last two so laborious that the rest of us have yet to take them on. She tended to the food while we attended school. This, I thought to myself, must be how she felt. The joy of the cooking process, anticipation of our return home at the end of the day, the pleasure of feeding our family from her heart. I was beginning to understand how powerful are the emotions of cooking.

Edited by Shaya (log)
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Lovely writing Shaya, evocative. I felt like I was there with you.

One of the most wonderful cooking experiences I recall was making kibbeh with my friends mother at her kitchen table in California. I can still feel the movements required by my hands to put the little points on each end of the kibbeh. Funny thing is my friends mother never taught her to make this dish, I guess she figured she didn't have the patience required.

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A beautiful recollection of how most of us feel when we cook, Shaya. It's not often you realise how good it feels to cook for people, especially if, like me, you only cook for yourself at University.

I just got home for christmas today and got straight into the kitchen and made cranberry sauce for the very first time. It turned out really well and it currently awaiting christmas day in it's sealed jar.

I think today more than most recently, I can relate to your writing, as I felt that excitement and something else very personal, just from a punnet of fresh cranberries, sugar and two clementines.

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Thanks for the kind comments.

Lovely writing Shaya, evocative.  I felt like I was there with you.

One of the most wonderful cooking experiences I recall was making kibbeh with my friends mother at her kitchen table in California.  I can still feel the movements required by my hands to put the little points on each end of the kibbeh.  Funny thing is my friends mother never taught her to make this dish, I guess she figured she didn't have the patience required.

Kerry, this mentality rings so true with me. I think we are supposed to learn by osmosis or something. It's the school of watch-and-learn. The one time I "officially" asked my Grandmother to show me and a friend how to make her little sambousaks, she had everything prepped and halfway folded before I got there. :sad: My friend and I still joke about it, 15 years later.

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Beautiful post. I've been having a pretty bad week, this brought a smile to my face, especially since I can relate.

The best memories I have of my childhood are visiting my grandparents' farm, and enjoying my grandmother's cooking. When I'd be on the farm, it was my only time away from the harsh realities of city life - the violence, gangs, poverty, etc... Honestly, it's probably the only thing that's kept me level, otherwise I might have turned out like many of those I grew up with.

Nowadays, it seems everytime I turn around another person is dead, or in jail, or just fell back into drug addiction... Many more people I fell out with because I don't want to be involved in all the BS, I'm lucky to not be in jail, I just want to live my life. Most days I feel as though I'm losing my mind.

Of course my grandmother's no longer with us either, so all I've really got left is memories of the food she prepared (excellent Ukrainian food). It actually brings a tear to my eye everytime I cook those dishes I remember from my childhood, so many good memories, takes me back to those carefree days on the farm. She's actually the one who inspired me to cook professionally in the first place (although she never got to see it). Maybe this weekend I'll make a batch of pyrohy (aka. vareniky, or perogies in english) and some holubsti (cabbage rolls), might take my mind off everything else that's happening...

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Beautiful post.  I've been having a pretty bad week, this brought a smile to my face, especially since I can relate. 

Maybe this weekend I'll make a batch of pyrohy (aka. vareniky, or perogies in english) and some holubsti (cabbage rolls), might take my mind off everything else that's happening...

I find cooking to be a wonderful way to take your mind off the pressures of daily life. I hope you can find some solace this weekend.

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