It started with sukhto
One morning, during the humid Calcutta summer of my early marriage days, I found myself standing in the kitchen alongside my mother-in-law, staring at over a dozen ingredients she’d spread out on the kitchen counter for me to memorise. She was going to teach me to make sukhto – a traditional, bitter, Bengali dish served as a starter at lunchtime, with a mind-boggling array of ingredients.
For centuries mothers and daughters have shared more than culinary secrets in the kitchen. It’s where my mum, while handing down the family vindaloo and yellow rice recipe, revealed her apprehensions regarding me leaving home for the first time, and going to Calcutta for further studies. And standing all by herself cooking rajma – my favourite dish – was when she told me that she’d missed me the most.
But cooking with my mother-in-law was different.
To begin with, ours is an inter-cultural marriage. Every single family exercise together, even as impromptu as brewing the morning tea, felt like navigating an obstacle course, given I was used to drinking milk tea made from tea granules and boiled until the milk thickens and coats the rim of the saucepan, while theirs had to be aromatic Darjeeling long-leaf tea which came with its own instruction manual.
One morning, during the humid Calcutta summer of my early marriage days, I found myself standing in the kitchen alongside my mother-in-law, staring at over a dozen ingredients she’d spread out on the kitchen counter for me to memorise. She was going to teach me to make sukhto – a traditional, bitter, Bengali dish served as a starter at lunchtime, with a mind-boggling array of ingredients, and one my taste buds were yet to acquire a liking for. To add to my distress, I’d grown up believing cooking to be one of the dubious stratagems mothers-in-law devise to subjugate their daughters-in-law. Needless to say, I abhorred the idea.
Besides, I could barely string a few Bengali words together. The longest line I’d successfully delivered in Bengali had been aami tomake bhalo bashi, (meaning 'I love you') which, while it had left my beau all moist-eyed, I knew wasn’t going to impress the old block. But I was a reasonably good cook, and immediately recognised the vegetables and spices. As she ran over the ingredients, she caught me smiling knowingly at the kanchkolar (green banana) and mishti-aloo (sweet potato).
As if I’d recognised one of her ancestors from her family album, she asked, ‘You know them?’ Nodding and grinning, I tried not to sound cheeky, and replied, “We grow these bananas at our place too.” And pointing to the mishti-aloo, I suggested she try it roasted, preferably on charcoal, sprinkled with salt, pepper, and chilli powder, the way we ate it back home. Promptly she gathered up the vegetable into a large bowl and squatted on the kitchen floor with her bonti (carved knife on wooden base). For a moment I worried if I’d offended her by identifying the vegetables and was relieved when she smiled back at me.
“I too had a kitchen garden in Bilaspur. That’s before we moved to Calcutta,” she said, and I noticed a twinkle in her eyes as she regaled me about how she grew her own veggies; white pumpkin, bitter gourd, tomatoes, brinjal, beans, and spinach. When she mentioned the roses that festooned her trellis, “Rambling roses!” I exclaimed, in delight. They grew on the barbed-wire fence along the pathway leading up to our main gate.
And just like that we got talking.
For the first time since my marriage, I was having a genuine conversation with my mother-in-law as she deftly sliced the vegetables, not once glancing down at the glistening bothi. Even if it was in broken English and Bengali, it was unforced and enjoyable. On cue, I plonked myself beside her and began peeling the shojne-daantar (drumstick) using a knife.
“I can’t use that,” she said, indicating the knife. Twisting my mouth and pointing to the bonti, I shook my head apologetically. “Then don’t ever try it. It’s very sharp,” she cautioned, her motherly instinct coming to the fore. While cooking, talking came spontaneously. And we connected because she spoke of my bor’s (husband in Bengali) childhood, a topic most husbands are either reticent about, or plain clueless. Listening to his mother recount his antics was like reading his diary – uncensored. Sukhto was his favourite dish, and whenever a neighbour or a friend cooked sukhto, a portion was parcelled home in a tiffin box for him.
It soon became evident that the kitchen was her domain where she was unguarded, be it cooking or conversing. Stirring pots, we shared titbits of our lives and bantered about topics we’d never brace seated side-by-side on the sofa in the drawing-room. In between tips on how coating hands with mustard oil before cutting mochar (banana flower) helps to lessen the ugly, black stains the vegetable leaves behind on the fingers – she told me about her infatuation with a certain Bengali actor of her era. I shared my secret obsession about cricket while we delicately placed slices of hilsa in a steel container, and she poured creamy yellow mustard and green chilli paste over them, then set the container in the presser-cooker to steam.
Now with every traditional dish being recreated by restaurants, you don’t have to learn to cook it to enjoy authentic flavours. As time becomes a constraint, it’s also a viable answer to many millennials’ craving for home-cooked meals that remind them of their childhood. But standing by the woman of the house, chopping vegetables and stirring the pot, isn’t only about preparing a meal so that her son enjoys his comfort food throughout his life.
And it was not my mother-in-law’s ploy to offload a household chore or subjugate me, for she enjoyed cooking, and feeding people. But like I find with most mothers, cooking their child’s favourite dish is an expression of their love that goes far beyond the mere act of putting together a meal. That’s why food does much more than just tantalise the taste buds. It’s the way we continue to feel the surreal presence of our mothers and grandmothers in our lives.
With her too, the taste of those familiar flavours would go on to transcend time and space. Today, 17 years after she passed on, whenever I cook sukhto and watch my husband relish the taste of his mother’s cooking, I look back with fondness upon that summer morning when I didn’t only learn to make a traditional Bengali dish; we created a memory I’d cherish all my life.