I’m in Kerala, India, land of coconuts, on yet another of my attempts to see and write about the entire world. Sreedevi, goddess of prosperity, is trying to teach me how to cook. Her son, in the U.S. for the last ten years, always spoke of his mother’s cooking whenever I asked about India. I asked about the tropical weather and backwaters of Kerala, the elephants and their babies roaming and bathing, yoga and Ayurvedic therapy. He handed me a tourist book on Kerala and reminisced about the mango pickle and beef pickle and dosa. He told me he won’t be needing any belts on his visit to Kerala and that luckily he’ll be wearing the traditional mundu (similar to dhoti, a piece of cloth that will easily adapt to an increase in weight). I thought it would be fun to learn how to cook a few authentic dishes — something to show off to friends, make me seem worldly, maybe even exotic.
After only a few days, my taste buds are already addicted to Sreedevi’s yellow rice and her chubby white rice, her coconut-based curries, her pickles so spicy hot I have to add yogurt. I can’t eat her beef pickle without a happy groan escaping me — it demands praise.
When I first entered Sreedevi’s kitchen I knew instantly that the kitchen is her kingdom and that I am merely a visitor. I have now entered and exited her kitchen many times — each time leaving with a little more knowledge, a little more confidence, but I know I won’t be going home an expert of Indian cooking. Every time I step through her kitchen door, ghosts from kitchens past fly from the walls — my own mother and her words spinning around me, “I thought you hate stoves.” “I thought you were too good to lower yourself to do something as base as cooking.” “I thought you … ”
Leave, I shout inside my head and her ghost flies out the windows like the steam from Sreedevi’s pots.
I feel like a four-year-old who knows nothing and wants to know everything.
“What’s this?” A spiky metal jutting from the counter.
“For shredding coconuts.”
“What’s that?” Little crescent-moons in a large plastic container.
“Jack fruit chips. You try.”
I put a golden handful in my mouth. “Yum,” I say even before I swallow. Yum has been my most used word for the last several days.
Today, we start by frying onions. “I am bad at this,” I tell her, staring at the large metal wok-like pot. “I have tried this before,” I speak slowly. “They always become mush,” I mush my hands to show what I mean by mush. I speak slowly for her to understand my American English but I know I am the slow one here. She is god. She turns up the flame, “high fire” she says and hands me the metal spoon. “You stir,” she makes stirring motions because I look like I don’t understand. I understand, I just know if I do it, it will become mush and she will have to start over. Another onion will need to be cut and I can’t do that either. She doesn’t use a cutting board, she uses her finger. A hard, rubber, finger-glove goes over her pointer finger, like a long thimble. She holds the onion in her hand and then chop chop chop of large knife against rubber-covered finger and we have chopped onion that I now have to keep from turning into mush. I turn the pieces quickly with the spoon as she looks and nods her approval. She should be shaking her head at me. I’m learning from a master and I’m at the stage of learning how to stir. The “high fire” cooks my face and my arm as I remember not-cooking with my own mother.
My mother cooked British-style, bland and boring, meat and potatoes. My father saw it as good-old-American meat and potatoes. Except for my mother occasionally sneaking in onions, they agreed — food should not be spicy, it should be comfortably warm like a cuddly blanket, not hot like stepping into a fire. Growing up, I played stupid in the kitchen when it came to cooking real-food, dinner-food. I baked because I loved sweets. And because playing in all that flour was fun, not boring and not work like my mother’s cooking that was always orchestrated with complaining and a bit of banging of pots as she insisted I should pay attention and learn how to make these things. She wanted her daughter to be a responsible contributing member of society, or at least a member on a well-balanced diet. “Are you going to live off brownies for the rest of your life?” she was always asking. I avoided dinner-food because knowing how to cook it would mean having to cook it, every night. I was going to be more than a wife-who-cooks-her-family-dinner. I was going to be someone who mattered.
Sreedevi takes a bit of food and pops it in her mouth, like popping pills, or like the child-me used to pop pop-corn or candy into my mouth, like shooting baskets, back when just about everything in life was some sort of game, some type of fun. I watch her move from pot to bowl to sink to pot, as she radiates a glow of passion and concentration combined — the same combination I feel when I write.
I look back to my onions and glory of all glory, they are turning brown and not mushy. It’s a miracle. “Look, look, it’s working.” The four-year-old me is inside adult me, jumping up and down and yelling we did it we did it. . “Good,” she says. She throws in a handful of items and motions for me to keep stirring. “Ginger, garlic, chili.” I look into the quickly frying food and try to memorize how much of each item was thrown in. “Can we talk about the recipe later so I can write it down?” “Yes, yes,” she smiles and nods like I have offered her something rather than asked for something.
Her daughter is in the main room watching TV and resting from the heat and her work. On the computer in the office is a half-designed house, something that matters.
Sreedevi throws in some powdered spice and then turns down the heat. “Low fire now,” she says. In another pot, she cooks the remains of the fish I watched skinned and beheaded earlier in the day. A girl came to the back of the house with a large aluminum bucket of fish. Sreedevi told me she always buys if they are willing to take the skin and heads off. The bare-footed, sari-wrapped girl let me videotape while she worked. I felt bad about the videotaping at first. I didn’t want her to feel like I was making fun of her in any way. It took me a while to be convinced she felt I was making her a star, putting her in my camera and then taking her home to America.
Our fish-onion mix is cooking under its lid and all responsibility is taken from me, at least for now. Sreedevi, in a magical swirl of activity, has new ingredients combined, including many I’ve missed, though I do believe potatoes are in there somewhere. She removes a paste of spices from what looks like a large coffee grinder and throws them into another mystery concoction. I feel like her Sari-clad movements, the ginger and the cardamom and the hot chilies, the high fire and low fire and pots and grinders form a language a lot like her native tongue, Malayalam — a language that moves fast, like a tongue-twister, like a dance.
Now for the fun part she has explained to me — making little patty balls on wax paper covered with bread crumbs — like making cookies. But, I’m called out of the kitchen. Again. A man is here to show me how rubber is taken from a tree. The man is here now and kitchen-cooking things can be learned at any time. Another time it was a trip to the store. Other times it was people to meet, or a hammock to lie in. Or a lively lizard playing hide and seek with a light fixture. I’m easily distracted, easily persuaded to leave what I am not good at. This time I’m sad I’ll be missing the rolling of balls but I’m thankful I won’t be taking my turn at the frying. We’ve come too far to risk my turning the patties to mush.
I realize how safe baking always was. The measurements were exact. And there were no expectations. No one needed my cookies. No group of people ever arrived in a kitchen at a set time, sitting down to a set table, and waited for them. Cookies were dispensable.
I return from my rubber tree lesson. Sreedevi’s daughter, son, and I eat — my favorite the patties deep fried and spicy hot good. For now, the patties dipped in ketchup, the chicken curry, and the chubby rice are the entire world, they are everything that matters — not the half-designed house on computer screen or my half-written article in my Mead notebook. Sreedevi’s son adjusts his mundu, loosening it a bit more. He says he’ll have to stop eating soon or he won’t be able to fit on the plane.
Sreedevi puts her specs on, places a book that looks a lot like an old Bible on the table. I sit down with my Mead Composition notebook, swirls of color I’ve penned in on its cover. We go over the recipe slowly. A fingertip of ginger and two or three pinches of garam masala. Tablespoons that are large spoons and cups that are teacups. “I never measure when I cook,” she says. “I taste and…just know when it is enough. But for you these measurements will work.”
The ghosts from kitchens past creep under me through the cool marble beneath my bare feet, tug at the pant legs of my salwar. I watch Sreedevi as she makes sure each person’s favorites are within reach of their hands. In my mind, I answer the ghosts. It’s different when it’s done with care. Everything matters when it’s done with care. Even cookies that people enjoy, even though they are dispensable. The ghosts sweep back a bit but they remain. And then it hits me, how we all did wait for my mother’s food which was quite delicious despite the lack of enjoyment during its preparation. We waited and she provided without fail. I fill the room with my thoughts. Thank you. The ghosts sink back into the white marble. This time I feel they won’t be coming back.
I realize the Bible cookbook is actually an old date book, 1985. I debate sending Sreedevi a new cookbook as a thank you from America. Then I decide against it. I remember something her son told me regarding his mother’s cooking. “She cooks to the tastes of her guests. The dish changes depending on who is eating it.” I see Sreedevi in her specs, her hands dancing over and through the pages of the old date book and see a goddess in a swirl of unmeasured activity — her jottings in date book, and now in Mead composition notebook, a lot like a map of a landscape that is subject to change on a god’s, or goddess’s, whim.
She is prosperity, a presence, a god energy not to be contained in a recipe. I will leave feeling touched by this energy — a little more exotic and worldly, and a little wiser.
Leslie Van Dyke is a bookseller, newsletter editor, and buyer of event books for the famous Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. When she’s not surrounded by books at the store, she is busy at home attempting to write them. At the moment, she is working on a memoir, a novel, and a collection of short-stories. She never reads one book at a time either. At the moment, she is in the process of reading two novels, a work of non-fiction, a book on meditation, and a book of poetry. As you can imagine, her rooms at home closely resemble those at the bookstore. For more of her work, see her web site.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.