The one thing I was very certain about was that I would never make a career around food and writing. I’ve always been a writer and I mostly wrote about ghosts and fairies, my two great loves in life. As I grew older however, I gave it up, in the way that teenagers often give up good habits they’ve spent years cultivating.
My strong feelings against a food-related career stems from having a family that is obsessed with eating good food, cooking good food, all the while talking about more good food. I have had to, since then, eat my words, because not only do I talk about and think about food all day these days, I also write about it and photograph it for a living. And the person responsible for this was my mother, Kathija.
My mother is more passionate about cooking than anyone else I know. She spends her days poring over books and magazines, and now pinterest, to find inspiration for the next genius recipe. Like me however, she got interested in food quite late in life. When she got married at 17, she barely knew how to make a cup of tea. Over the next few years, she taught herself how to read Malayalam, and learnt to cook from the Malayalam women’s magazine, Vanitha. Although cooking and baking are what make her heart sing, creating in general is what she’s a natural at. At various points in her life she has taken up painting, sewing clothes, and gardening – albeit the last with not much success.
As I write this, she potters around my room, bringing in cushion covers and piles of fabric from the deep crevices of her linen cupboard. She’s on a mission to redecorate my room, for the fifth time in less than a decade…if I had to use one word to describe her best, it would be restless. I on the other hand, like constancy and am a creature of habit. While I can’t even bring myself to change my Facebook profile picture more often than once a year! Where I have a hard time accepting change, my mother thrives on it.
I recently asked my sister Shereen what her earliest memory is, and she said it’s of drinking eggnog that mum would make every evening. I have no idea where my mother, living in a small town in Kerala, learned to make eggnog, but I have to say I’m not surprised. Resourceful and always on the look out for something new, she changed the way my family ate, and instilled in us a strong sense of adventure. Although the culinary landscape in Kerala remained strictly traditional and conventional, my mother was whipping up marshmallows, soft as a cloud, peanut butter that actually tasted of peanuts and mayonnaise that was light and fluffy.
In 2012, mum and I decided to start a food blog together. I had cooked my first meal only two weeks earlier, and I suppose I was still high on the success of boiling pasta and adding some cheese to it and thought I was ready to start a food blog. We treated it as a project to work on while I was away from home – mum would test recipes, and send them to me to cook and photograph. The first recipe we put up was for homemade mayonnaise and we’ve been building up our repertoire ever since.
I moved back home soon after and for the next few years, while my mother cooked, I stood at her side, and photographed and wrote about it for The Malabar Tea Room. When we started out, we couldn’t get through a single cooking/photography session without arguing. I thought she cooked much too fast, and she couldn’t understand why it took me two hours to get a decent shot of a sprig of mint. Mostly, however, we argued because our ideas of what made for a good recipe were vastly different – she found my tastes too avante garde and I thought hers bordered on boring.
Four years of blogging and there’s still some eye rolling involved, but now there’s also a quiet understanding and dare I say, mutual respect. We’ve found a way to make our skills work together – I dream up unlikely pairings and combinations and she finds a way to create it. The most recent example of that is an Earl Grey and Honey Panna Cotta which is a result of me wondering what an Earl Grey dessert would look like, and mum turning it into the most beautiful golden-topped panna cotta.
Of all the things that I’ve learned from working with my mother, the most important is the way she turns even the most ordinary ingredients into something special. The knowledge that beautiful things can be made wherever you are with a little resourcefulness and ingenuity. The art of making something out of nothing – L’arte d’arrangiarsi. A lesson in not just cooking, but life itself.
The featured banner shows the author with her mother, Kathija.