(for concerned friends & family. I have a new roommate, and she is amazing)
What is it that makes us whole? What is it that makes us human- humane? For me, the art of cooking is the most fulfilling- filling human experience. There are several dishes that I have mastered, however, Sri Lankan cooking has helped me not only stay alive and healthy as I live alone in a studio apartment, away from my mothers wholesome hands; but it has been a spiritually healing experience, allowing me to connect with my heritage, culture, and ancestors.
“Make sure to fully brown your onions and garlic before you add the curry powder” they tell me as I add two heaping spoonfuls of Jaffna curry powder, “Ayooo! Do you want to burn his poor mouth? Be more careful with the portions of spice!” You must cut the onions very thin, small so that they can dissolve in the curry, in the mouth of your lover…”
However patriarchal my ancestors seem to be; however overbearing, unnecessary, and antiquated they act, I take in every line of advice they give me. There is something that they know, that I don’t… I listen, as if my life depended on in.
“The way to his heart is through his stomach, you must care about each grain of rice, every ounce of powder, count the mustard seeds one by one.” “Fill his stomach with love, he will fall in love with your accuracy, you will fall in love with the way he consumes each morsel of laddu.”
I finish conversing with my ancestors, turn off the stove, and head upstairs to my bed. I fall asleep, dreaming of the meal I will share tonight with my lover. Suddenly, my roommate and her boyfriend barge into our apartment…
“Ew” he said, as he took a spoonful of beef curry from the pot, “Its way to hot, way over spiced, too salty, too much- going on”
She responds, “Yeah, and she always talks about how hers is better than her mothers…”
“Oh yeah, well its nasty…”
Little did they know, I was upstairs, and I heard every word, which stung more than a paper cut dipped into a bowl of lemon juice- or rather, eating curry with your hands after a long day at the paper factory… I wanted to scream, take the whole bowl of curry and pour it over their pale, ignorant faces. If my curry was so over-spiced, then why did their people come to my land to steal the very spices they offended?
“Measure rice with your thumb and forefinger. Make sure to add a tablespoon of butter, so that the grains are coated in a delectably salty oily texture.” “As you stir the cumin and onions, pay attention to the way the oil burns. Carefully add the curry leaves, take in the scent as they sizzle in the pan. Add the whole dried chilies. Smell, smell the way it makes you feel.” “This food will cure your illness. The turmeric can be put upon your head, your scalp, your skin, put in your food, will help your memory, your love.”
I listen to my ancestors, as if they are the only entity keeping me alive. As soon as the gas clicks on my stove, my heart calls out to them, and they respond with little words of wisdom and love. They offer me what was washed away, into the Laccadive sea, as the colonizers stole all we had to give. Now, the colonizers laugh. They laugh when we embrace what was once ours. They laugh and mock, and then they turn around and attempt to make the New York Times easy 15 minute chicken tikka masala.
The irony of cooking, the passion I share with my ancestors, is a gift. Not to be played with, not to be mocked, but only to be cherished.