Traditional and Authentic Cuisine? My Mom can do Both

Whenever my mom is cooking a delicious meal, the kitchen is always warm. My mouth waters when I can smell fragrant spices that waft through the house. My mom is an amazing cook. I’m always interested in the way she cooks and how good the food is, so I’d often find myself in the kitchen, watching my mom prepare great meals. I watch her put in so many different ingredients, and somehow make all of it look delicious. Looking at her, I am constantly reminded of how envious I am of her talents, and I’m amazed at how easy she makes cooking seem. One day, when I was younger, I looked curiously as my mom prepared a potato curry in the kitchen and asked her, “Mom how did you get so good at cooking?” My mom placed the spoon that she was using to stir the aromatic curry down, and looked at me. The response she gave me was shocking: “I just had to.” With that short answer she went back to cooking, leaving me extremely confused. What does that response mean? When she turned to look at me again, my mom noticed my puzzled expression and said, “In India, most girls had to learn how to cook so that they could provide for their families when they are married in the future. I had to learn from my mom.” I was very surprised by what she told me at the time.

Looking back on this childhood memory as now, a college freshman, I can understand what Emily Matchar says in her article “Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig?”. Matchar states that “In Colonial America, kitchen work was viewed as a lowly chore”. Comparing this to what my mom told me all those years ago, it seems like cooking was viewed as a chore all around the world. It was something that had to be done for people to survive, and the job fell onto the shoulders of women. In my family the tradition was the same: my mom and grandmother cook, but my dad doesn’t really know how. When I heard my mom say that she had no choice but to learn how to cook, I was very upset. I thought that this went against all the things I learned about in school and in general about becoming a strong, independent woman in the 21st century. Why did my mom have to cook if she did not want to? Although I was frustrated, I developed a newfound respect for my mom, as even though she had to learn to cook, she did so with patience, and now she’s great at it.

However, at that young age, I immediately came to the conclusion that I wanted to break this ancient tradition. I did not want to learn how to cook just because I was a girl. I didn’t want to contribute to the tradition. I failed to realize that even though my mom was forced to learn, it doesn’t mean that she despises cooking. Of course, there are some days where she gets annoyed at the mere sight of the kitchen, but there have been many other instances where she gets super excited to try out a new recipe. I never realized this because I was so fixated on the idea of not adding to a stereotype in Indian tradition.

Now that I’m 18 years old, I can’t believe that my silly childhood behavior has led me to now fail at cooking, all the time. Since I’m now older and wiser, I decided that I wanted to help my mom out more with cooking. Recently, I asked my mom if I could help her make dinner. She smiled at me gratefully, and asked me to make the rice. She gave me some simple instructions and left the kitchen. Unfortunately, my cooking ended up as a disaster. I ended up burning the rice. My mom came back into the kitchen and lectured me for about an hour, because how could I mess up one of the easiest parts of cooking? Still, through the countless failures, I’m trying to learn now, because cooking is a basic life skill (my younger self should have known that) and I want to connect with my heritage.

I’ve come to the realization that I don’t have to uphold older traditions in order to cook. I can cook for myself, and that is enough of a reason to cook. These days, a lot of people cook because it can be a fun hobby, and helps them eat healthier foods. Even women are enjoying to cook, without having to become the stereotypical housewife. Matchar says that this new term is called “femivorism”. This means that cooking is now more based on the principles of being able to provide the best and healthiest food for your family, and for yourself.

Reading Matchar’s article helped me understand that I can have a passion for cooking and learning to cook the food of my heritage without becoming a stereotype. That’s what my mom does all the time. She always makes interesting foods that spark her curiosity and challenges herself to cook something she isn’t used to. She even tried making a vegetarian lasagna over winter break, and it turned out to be the best lasagna that I have ever eaten. Also, rather than submerging herself into the old culture, my mom has found a way to cook for herself and for us by trying out recipes and modifying old ones.

While she experiments, my mom will always continue to cook authentic Indian food for everyone. My mom’s friends always come to our house to eat her food, because yes, her South Indian dishes are just that incredible. Now that I want to help her continue to keep this traditional food in our family, I really began to think about just how authentic my mom’s cooking is. When I think of authentic food, I think of idlis, dosas, and even sambar, all traditional staples of South Indian cuisine. More specifically, I think of the kind of South Indian food that my mom makes, because these are the foods that I grew up on, and the foods I associate my culture with. The recipes that my mom uses to cook every day came from both her mother and mother-in-law, and have been in both their families for generations. These recipes are always passed down, so that ancestors can be remembered through the simple act of cooking food. All the spices and specific powders used to make certain dishes are only from India, as my grandmother sends them from time to time. The powder is made from many different spices, all grounded together by hand. I think that all of this is what truly makes my mom’s cooking so authentic and delicious.

The topic of authenticity is discussed by author Robert Ji-Song Ku in “Introduction” to Dubious Gastronomy. He talks about something called “Americanization” and describes it as “a process often construed as coercive, if not corrosive, and thus rendering food unpalatable.” Reading his piece, I recognized that many Indian restaurants here in the U.S. are also trying to “Americanize” their menus. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it helps to appeal to people who aren’t Indian to come try the food. Ji-Song Ku also says that adding an American twist to the cultural Asian food could be a positive thing. He mentions that “all cuisines have a history: tastes shift, regional distinctions go in and out of focus, new techniques and technologies appear”. Food is bound to change wherever it goes, at it has to adapt to the new environment. I prefer eating Indian food at home rather than going to a restaurant because I feel like my mom captures the authenticity of South Indian food well. However, like Ji-Song Ku, I don’t think that Indian food in restaurants is any less authentic. Each cook can have his or her own interpretation of a dish, and that’s what I believe makes food authentic. Personally, I don’t think that I’ll be able to find my mom’s authenticity anywhere else. All the vegetables and spices that she uses for each dish are so vibrant and full of flavor. When I watch her cook, it’s magic. This is why I want to find a way to keep these recipes alive.

My cooking journey is far from being over, as I still have so much to learn about it. In all honesty, I’ll feel really accomplished if I can just make a cup or two of rice without burning everything. My mom mentioned that even she wasn’t perfect in the beginning, because cooking good food takes a lot of work and dedication. She believes that with those values, anyone can learn to be a great cook. I think that my mom is a great example of a 21st century woman, as even though she had to follow old traditions, which she did not agree with, she decided to do her best, and became successful in her own way, while keeping her culture alive and sharing it with me and my sister. I wonder if I will one day be able to carry the traditions in my own way, like she does. I want to carry them in a way that makes sense to me, and maintains that authenticity which makes the food so good. Through my mom, I realized that traditions can be changed, but if you truly care about it, the authenticity and soul behind food will never fade away.

Photo by Lai YuChing on Unsplash