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The call came from my ex-fiancé on a cloudless spring afternoon. “My mom passed this morning. It happened at 1:30 a.m.”
“I’m so sorry,” I murmured.
Three years earlier, he and I had separated after nine years together, sold our home and moved to different cities while his son, who had lived with us, went away to art school in Norway.
Back in 2003, I recall being nervous meeting my fiancé’s parents for the first time. He’d told me they had wanted him to marry a nice Indian girl, yet his wife had been Japanese-Canadian and I was of English and Scottish descent.
On our way to their house, I recall him saying that tea was never just tea where his mom was concerned. I understood what he meant when his mom set plates of pakoras, chickpeas and potatoes on the coffee table in front of us. She then added little bowls of cilantro chutney, lemon pickle and mango pickle, along with napkins, and dishes for us to serve ourselves.
“She always does this,” he whispered.
I didn’t share his disapproval, as my sights were on the freshly fried pakora, which I rolled back and forth over the green chutney on my plate. I tried not to burn my fingers while blowing on the irregular-shaped ball before taking pea-sized bites into my mouth, then finishing with gulps of Assam tea. Abandoning all restraint, I ate four pakoras on that first visit.
From that time on, we visited his parents every month and his mom would prepare a three- to four-course meal, after which his dad would serve us tea. It was during these afternoon visits that I began to recognize in his mother the qualities of an artist; a serious chef and innovator who prepared her own spices, chutneys and pickles from scratch.
She would test and retest her recipes over several months or years until she arrived at her high standard of perfection. She prepared meals based on the Sindhi cuisine of her people, and infused them with her singular artistry to devise dishes and flavours no one had tasted before.
I remember the day she gave me a masala dabba, or Indian spice box, which consisted of a stainless-steel container with little pots inside and an inner lid to preserve the spices’ freshness. She had filled the pots with fresh garam masala, cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, red chilies and mustard seeds, and she gave me an additional small tiffin box with some garam masala she had made up for me that week.
“I don’t want you to run out,” she told me. The way she said it was as if she was speaking about running out of air or water. And, in some ways, this comparison was not wrong. Garam masala, which means “hot mixture,” is a core ingredient in North Indian cooking. Most dishes would die without it.
My fiancé and I had been together for five years when his mom began giving me formal cooking lessons. One time, in my early days as an apprentice, she thought I was too unsure of myself. “If you trust your instincts in the kitchen, then you become a better cook,” she told me.
I asked her how she became such a good cook, and was surprised when she told me she had learned after moving away from home.
“I wrote letters to my mom in India asking her to send me recipes of the food I ate growing up,” she said. “From the letters I was able to imagine the textures, tastes, smells and amounts of the foods.”
During our afternoon cooking lessons, I soaked up everything she said and did, observing how she strained the paneer or the way she pressed out the chapati dough with quick flicks of the rolling pin before setting rounds onto the smoking pan.
The lessons lasted three or so years, then stopped after the breakup. I was no longer someone to whom she could pass on her recipes so that they would stay in the family.
I knew that I would never inherit her recipe books, rolling pins, chopping boards or tiffin boxes. I was a dear friend, no longer a beloved daughter.
Yet, when I was in town on business or visiting family, I’d see her and she would make me a three- to four-course lunch just like old times. There was something about our joint understanding of the poetry of food that bound us and couldn’t be easily undone.
Not long before she died, I called to tell her I didn’t have black cardamom for a dish I was making. She sensed the panic in my voice, and laughed – lovingly – at my inability or unwillingness to improvise.
“Don’t worry if you don’t have exactly the right ingredients!” Then, she explained: “Saying you don’t have exactly the right ingredients is an excuse for not cooking.”
And so it was. After romantic heartbreak and the loss of an Indian mother, my life at times resembles a dish I improvise to fill in the missing ingredients, hoping that somehow the elements will miraculously work together.
Although I sometimes feel that I have more questions than answers, I will give her the last word on this: “Take pleasure in the process of making food. It is not a chore, but a joy.”
Lissa M. Cowan lives in Toronto.