Conversations about Mother’s Cooking surface anywhere and all the time. It’s always trending when after hours of toil in the kitchen, hosts place food on the table for their guests. A summary survey of the fare and guests take off one by one on how their mothers used to make the very same dishes – the lamb rogan josh, the pork vin d’alho and the what-ever-else that is on the table.

The evening then becomes an extempore elocution competition. Guests go into overdrive about how their mothers used to make the classics – hand-pound the rice for the appams, place the biriyani on a charcoal stove under the tamarind tree, or bake seven layers of bibinca while attending to five children and nursing the sixth on the side.

These are priceless conversations. They unveil undocumented details for making the dish and touch on the high notes of taste that ensured that the offspring recalls the preparation even decades after mother put it on the table. The devotees at the shrine of mother’s cooking would linger over the quality and quantity of ingredients like ghee, almonds and saffron that went into the dish. In those days, these were rare items and within reach of just the high-net-worth families.

At some conversations you can be only a listener. My mother never cooked, was never taught or coaxed to cook, never enjoyed cooking and never felt it was necessary for a woman to perfect a cheese soufflé or make feijoada. She had no complexes about her lack of skills and no hesitation in sitting down to a meal that had been prepared with no cutting or grinding contributions from her side. As a consequence, she never grumbled when the food was burnt or when the okras were gooey and unpalatable. She understood weights and measures; she knew that ginger was a rhizome, that cloves were aromatic flower buds and that nutmeg was the seed of a tree. But her skills decidedly lay in realms beyond chick-peas and mung. She focused on preparing young women to stand on their own feet both inside and outside the kitchen and devoted her entire life to the mission.

And so it was that she came to live with us and at Christmas filled my stocking with the cookery world’s best seller of the year.  She enjoyed the gift too and flipped through the pages that showed everything from a complete wedding breakfast to illustrations on how to truss a turkey. She spent hours with the book but her contributions in our kitchen remained limited to boiling drinking water for the family. There was no blanching and stir-frying involved, but it did keep all of us free of typhoid and all other water-borne diseases.

As age slowed her pace, she was keen to contribute more to her life with us especially in the kitchen. She cared for her two granddaughters but she was keen to make a mark that would one day empower me to talk of “mother’s cooking.” She sure tried!

One night while we were out at a party, she put our children to bed and came into the kitchen to boil water. She turned on the gas, placed the vessel with water on the fire and went back to complete the last few words in the daily crossword. Sometime later, when we entered the house and passed the kitchen door there was a bright glowing object on the gas burner – the water had boiled, evaporated and the steel vessel stood out like an object from out of space!

There were no damages and we never spoke about the object from out of space ever again. Life continued as before. As our girls grew up, she took them to school, read to them from the Panchatantra, taught them Sanskrit slokas and did everything grandmothers love to do. Every now and then between stories or homework she paused to ask if they could see what in her mind was the bigger picture.  Did they know what they wanted to be when they grew up?

That was my mother’s cooking – She believed that women can dream of a life beyond cinnamon and cassia, outsource cooking when necessary and focus on standing on their own two legs. She knew her granddaughters were still too young to take a call but that was reason enough to work hard to prepare the ground and opt for early sowing.