How Cooking with My Ailing Mother Taught Me A Simple Lesson in Love

How Cooking with My Ailing Mother Taught Me A Simple Lesson in Love

It was a baton she passed on to me in the garb of a favourite recipe

“You need to let them soak some more.”, she said when I was about to turn over the vessel containing wet rice flakes. 

They had been soaking in water for about an hour now, enough for the fragile little wafers to become a soggy mess. I wanted to drain the water. Yet, I turned to her, acknowledged her instruction and did as she bade me, leaving the flakes alone. 

There was no getting around her when she was the backseat cook.

A week ago, she decided we would make the onion rice flakes dish on Sunday per her instructions. And so far, we had deviated from every rule in the dish-making book. 

I had yet to chop the onions. We had run out of fresh coriander and grated coconut. They are must-haves for a perfect plate of flakes.

“Can I move to the onions now? And perhaps add a potato or two?” I asked her.

“Has the flakes soaked enough?” she asked for the fifth time.

“Yes, it’s been swimming in water for an hour, and now it has drowned. Should I rescue it?” I joked.

“Yes, yes, do that now, or you’ll get lumpy flakes! What have you been waiting for?” she chided, forgetting that she had issued an opposite order a short time ago.

I quickly turned the flake vessel upright and checked the contents. They were not entirely beyond salvage.

We had moved into the kitchen so she could oversee the cooking process. Perched on a chair, she was unhappy she couldn’t stand and hover.

I selected some onions and a couple of potatoes from the basket and took them to her.

Looking at the contents of my hand, she approved of all but one onion and then asked me to show her the first cuts as I chopped them.

I occasionally took the chopping board to her for inspection as I chopped.

Amidst comments like, “Too thin!”, “Too fat!” and some sarcastic ones like, “We are making “onion” flakes, right? So add more onion.”. we got the chopping done. I also chopped some green chillies too quickly for her to realise.

“Now?” I looked at her.

“Take the cooking pot, the big one you like. Put it on the burner with a high flame”.

“How much oil?” I asked.

“Just about this much”, she said, showing me her fingers put together like a scoop.

“Okay”, I said, pouring oil in the pot.

“You know the sequence, right? Which spices for the tadka?” she asked me.

Tadka is a technique used to bloom whole spices (and sometimes other ingredients) in fat to extract their aromas and fat-soluble flavours. The spices usually pop and fly when dropped in hot oil.

“Think so”, I said, still looking to her for guidance, which I knew would come.

“Okay, so put in some cumin and mustard seeds first. Let them pop. Then add salt, I think.”

“Should I add the turmeric powder then, or go for the salt?”

“Right, turmeric powder it is. Don’t forget the salt, though!”

“No, I will sprinkle it once the flakes are added.”

“Not the flakes right away. It goes in last, before the salt!”

So it went.

She told me the ingredients, their quantity and sequence. I tried to make suggestions now and then.

All through the process, she wanted to be involved in every step.

She wanted to check if the onions and potatoes were cooked. Or that the flakes were just the right colour from the amount of turmeric I added.

I did not let her leave the chair for her safety. We had sat her at some distance from the cooking range so that popping spices wouldn’t hurt her.

She wanted to stir the flakes, but I refused to let her. With her weakness, she was in no position to handle the load of flakes in each stir. She was sure she could have done it but could not overcome my opposition.

Finally, it was time to let the flakes cook to perfection, and we retreated to let the steam do its work.

As the smell of good cooking wafted in the house, she went off to bathe and get ready for breakfast. She chose to wear a new outfit that day and called me all the way to her bedroom to admire it. She smoothed out every little crease in the fabric while I told her how good it looked. Like all hand-printed cotton dresses always do.

We had our fill of onion flakes shortly after. It had turned out to be really good.

Some friends unexpectedly dropped in around that time and were also treated to this snack from the Konkan. They loved it.

As a child, my first memories of onion and rice flakes were of this fulfilling dish being served steaming hot by Mum for our midday snack at 5 p.m., almost once a week.

My grandpa at the head of the table, me, my sister and Mum on the remaining chairs, partaking of the yellow goodness. I always had an extra quarter of lemon squeezed on my share for the tangy aftertaste.

This concoction of carbohydrates, vitamins and spices is my favourite ever since. I can have it as one of my meals daily. I have also developed a discerning taste for well-made onion flakes. Nothing less will do. And it helped that my Mum never made okay-tasting onion flakes. The dish was always fantastic! Always.

Thirty years later, on that Sunday, when I just carried out the “doing” part of the flakes under Mum’s supervision, it turned out to be just as good.

To the friends who had just dropped in, Mum could not stop raving about the great job I had done. All I did was listen to her step-by-step guidance and carry it out.

I stood by silently. As I watched my ailing mother savor each bite of the onion rice flakes that day, her eyes twinkling with delight, I realized that love, like the perfect recipe, is about following the right steps with care and devotion.

By then, she had undergone four surgeries, 30 chemotherapy cycles, nine radiation cycles and hosted a tumour in her brain. She couldn’t remember where her room is in the house. She forgot days, dates and events.

How does she replicate the taste of lip-smacking onion rice flakes over and over again? Even when she is not cooking it herself?

How does she do it?

Despite the challenges life has thrown her way, she continued teaching me the most profound lesson in love: that it knows no bounds, no matter the circumstances.

Operation Onion Flakes was a grand success – I could handle the tadka, after all. There was no stopping Mum now.

She looked up her old recipes and made notes on tastier things to prepare on the weekends.

All her life, she never lacked the confidence or shirked a challenge. And now she has me as her “hands”.

Our shared moments in the kitchen weren’t just about cooking; they were about crafting cherished memories, nourishing our souls, and proving that love is the most enduring ingredient of all.

Cooking with her, I found a recipe for life’s most profound lessons—a recipe I’ll cherish forever.

If you smell some apple pie baking when you next pass our house, don’t care to drop in.

We like having our pies and eating them too.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.