👀 The cookbook that never was
#398 | And a love that told its tale
I'm standing by the large window in my room. The midday sun sparkles on the red brick houses and churches that dot the landscape. Tufts of white float across an azure sky. There's a figure in the distance. Blue jeans, lime yellow shirt. He is walking towards my apartment; we're to meet on the other side of the street. I must run
We go to the grocery store, Rema. It's a two-minute walk from my place; three from his. But we always meet in the middle when we go. And we always go together.
We know the store quite well. The back aisles have the essentials - yoghurt, rice, cereals. The meat section is where we get discounted packs of chicken that have almost reached their expiry date. We rue the absence of whole cuts and complain about bloated chicken breasts - "They've definitely pumped water into these".
We linger in the frozen aisles, deciding between strawberries and raspberries and cranberries (we can only afford one type at a time). We never pick up the frozen vegetables - still traditionally Indian enough to insist on freshness. One time, he does get a bag of green beans. But even with his long-nurtured cooking skills, he can’t make them taste good.
We move on to our guilty pleasures - Pringles (expensive, yet delightful), and alcohol. We gaze longingly at the expensive vodkas and gins and whiskeys, but our hands reach for cheap Porto (it does its job well).
Near the cash counter, we look through the veggies- mushrooms, tomatoes, zucchini, and potatoes awaiting our approval. We go all-in on the garlic and onion, lamenting the lack of “punch” in the garlic cloves here in Denmark. We are done, at last, carrying two bags full of groceries home, parting ways on the sidewalk.
Only to meet again the day after, because we're in the middle of a pandemic in a foreign country, and there's nowhere else to go. The local government hasn't forced us to remain indoors, but it's shut everything else down. Supermarkets and parks are our only destinations.
And each other’s houses.
His apartment is on a lane across the street. He has a proper living room and a dining area (and a garden too). I have one room and a shared kitchen. So, I go over more often. We spend our days in disbelief, looking at the news pouring in from across the globe, exchanging stories about how friends and family are coping with the lockdown back home in India, and wondering when this will all come to an end.
We have these conversations in the kitchen, where we make rice and daal, burgers, 'desi' pasta with cumin and garam masala, and cakes (apple, cinnamon, banana) - eventually graduating to more complex dishes like biriyanis, breads, galettes and pizzas (rolled with wine bottles).
He does the heavy lifting – the kneading of the dough, the seasoning of the meat. I sit on the window sill and watch, learning the exact moment garlic and chillis go into hot oil, how to salt brinjals, and how to slap pizza dough until your palms glow red. I watch him fuss over every little detail, at times revelling in his own culinary triumphs; at others, disappointed for not being able to forge the tastes he imagined.
As someone who always loved to eat but never learnt to cook until I absolutely had to, I am still shocked when the food I cook tastes even remotely good. Still afraid of fire, of the splashing specks of oil, of not being able to anticipate the whims of mercurial spices, I learn from him. He is patient, holding my hand (mostly metaphorically but sometimes literally) as I navigate this familiar yet unknown universe, slowly letting my curiosity and imagination overtake apprehension.
Sometimes, when we’re feeling particularly homesick, we go to the Turkish supermarket. They sell Indian pulses and masalas, and even something akin to Maggi. One time, we find some sweets resembling Jalebis. We get a box; empty by the time we reach our own neighbourhood. Another time, we yearn for spicy French fries, so we walk five kilometres back and forth to an Indian supermarket for a packet of Chat Masala. We laugh about that one for days, but we both know it was worth it.
We develop a common weakness for sweet Danish buns filled with vanilla custard and cinnamon sugar. We get five of them in a packet for a couple of Danish Kroners – a special offer that’s only available when the store is about to close. He warns me not to indulge too much, but then makes Suji ka Halwa when he craves sweets. Sometimes I call him over when I’ve made pancakes or French toast with strawberries and honey. He is generous with his praise, and I feel what I felt as a ten-year-old whose teacher wrote ‘Very Good’ in her class notebook because she got all the answers right.
One afternoon, lounging on his living room sofa, we talk about writing a cookbook together - an anthology of all the recipes we brought to life in his kitchen, and how that kept us relatively sane in these unprecedented times. I am serious about it, but I don’t know if he is.
The months pass – five to be exact - and he keeps talking about wanting to go to France, where his friends are. I nod along, sharing my plans to stay with a friend in Budapest, wondering if he knows that if I had it my way, we would stay here in this small Danish town all through the summer, cooking, eating and walking through empty parks laden with carpets of blue flowers.
If I had my way, we would still be in that kitchen, or in some other kitchen - now, four years later, arguing about whether to make Bengali food or Gujarati food or marvelling at the juiciness of a lamb patty we made together.
But some meals can never be cooked twice, even if you never forget the flavours.
Today's thing is The Food and Love Project, illustrated by Sophia Katharina. It's a collection of stories and recipes sent in by ordinary people around the world. Each recipe is accompanied by a tale of love, which, unlike the tale above, ends happily ever after.
Thanks for reading Just One Thing! Subscribe to receive every post.