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Lithium Soup, sweets, and phone lines

Oct. 29, 2018
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One of my apartment mates walked in today, talking in a mix of English and Cantonese about herbal soup. Her mom was on the other end of the line, directing her towards the freezer and then the sink: “Wait, let me video call you… I defrost the chicken like this? Like, just put it under hot water? Okay, now what else do I add to the pot? How long will it take?” My roommate emerged from our double, joining my apartment mate in the kitchen. “Oh, my mom’s made this before, too. Looks good.”

I continued clicking through my chemistry homework with a smile. Many of my evenings hold similar conversations with my own mom: “How much jeera powder should I use in this? Will my khichdi last another couple days? Do I really need rasam powder to make rasam?” Every time, she laughs at how much I overthink my food. “It’s easy, Arya. Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out.”

A little while ago, the only thing I knew about my mother’s childhood was that she had one 15x17 cabinet that held her life: books, toys, and scrap materials for crafts, all things that were hers and hers only. Past that, everything in the one-bedroom house was shared with family, and she never minded that.

My sister and I have heard this story many times, through both nostalgia and frustration. Our upbringing is vastly different from that of our mom, but I would often forget that because I didn’t know very much about her childhood besides her cabinet. I knew she lived with her two parents, three siblings, and one of her uncles. I knew that she would make skirts out of her dad’s old trousers, and I knew that she was familiar with all the stray dogs in her apartment complex. I knew that one of her older brothers would often bring her paperback books from the stand down the road (and just as often send her on excursions to bring him vada pav from the vendor on the street corner).

People sometimes ask me questions: where did my mom grow up, did she go to this school or that school, how does she know our family friends? One of my first cousins came to stay with us this summer. She barraged my mom with questions about her previous life in India, and my mom would happily oblige with answers. When my mom wasn’t around, my cousin asked me the questions—tremendous guilt settled in my stomach as I realized that, more often than not, I wouldn’t know any answers.

It was only after my mom started teaching me to cook this summer that I learned a little more about her experiences growing up in India as well as what she did when she came to the U.S. Food became the epicenter of bigger conversations; through picking up recipes for my favorite dishes, I registered how similar my mom and I are in practically every way.

I swiveled back and forth, back and forth on our kitchen counter barstool as I watched my mom flatten and pinch, flatten and pinch the dough of her kozhukattai. The fall months bring treasured foods—thanks to my college’s late start, I get to be around to enjoy a good fraction of them fresh from the kitchen.

Mom scooped the sweet, sticky coconut filling into the center of the next batch of dough circles before embarking on folding them. I watched her dip her fingertip in water to seal the top of the dumpling-shaped sweets before arranging them all in a circular metal tray for steaming. After all the filling disappeared into the kozhukattai, she rolled the leftover dough into small rounds and spread them on a separate steaming tray.

I recalled this as I sat on a friend’s couch in his on-campus apartment, watching him churn out heaps of cong you bing, Chinese pancakes, for the growing crowd in the living room. We were about to watch The Kid’s Table, a web series exploring Asian-American identity, and my friend was delightfully insistent on presenting us with his freshly-made pancakes and chili-maple dipping sauce. “Food brings people together,” he always says. “Food is love.” 

Since my mom taught me to cook, I turn to food to unwind and connect with the people around me. One afternoon, I enlisted the help of a couple friends to make gnocchi. We spent two hours kneading, rolling, cutting, boiling, and frying our potato pillows to perfection before five of us sat down around our dining table to demolish the final result. My mom taught me not only how to properly use an arsenal of spices but also how to take cooking step by step, taking care and enjoying every stir, flip, and slice. Her food gave me another way to share moments with the people around me and build closer friendships.

“How’s your soup?” I asked my apartment mate as she sipped a bit from a ladle.

 “Not salty,” she said, “which is good. Last time I made soup, I added so much water and then made double the amount but it was still so salty.”

I chuckled, knowing how much my own cooking improves when my mom is on the other end of the line.