This morning I was making a lentil soup for my family, almost exactly the way my grandmother, in India, taught me decades ago. Or so I first thought. Her recipe used six tablespoons of butter, onions, garlic, red lentils, about eight different spices, loads of cilantro and a touch of salt. I recall my mom making this, but with much less butter, baby peas for us kids and no salt as Dad was watching his sodium. As I smelled the aroma of garlic from the soup that I was stirring, it occurred to me that my soup today was in truth a reflection of my life here in the United States, far away from India: butternut squash, chicken stock instead of water and no cilantro as my hubby thinks it tastes soapy.
The changes to the recipe had occurred so slowly, so gradually, that I never really noticed that I had changed it. It made me think about all the recipes I made and how, in fact, I had begun to change them to reflect our way of living. At first I have to admit I felt guilty, almost as if changing the recipe meant I was changing the memory of a childhood taste. Familiar childhood tastes give us a place to belong: they bear witness to our lives. Changing them seemed sacrilegious.
When I told my mother this, she reminded me that she in fact cooked the same way. In fact, I remember, over thirty years ago, my mother had sat down and jotted some of her favorite recipes in a note book that I took with me to college. What l loved in it most was not the recipes but her notes along the margins: Reduce the chili. Add extra sugar for Monica. Reduce butter because the taste is too greasy. This could easily qualify as our family cookbook because in addition to recipes, it holds our memories. My mother lives oceans away but her cookbook is my constant companion in the kitchen providing warmth, support and comfort. In the margins now are my own notes of what my family likes.
But it is not just recipes that get passed down and changed. Even the way food is cooked depends on so many cultural traditions, and can change as we grow. As each successive generation learns what and how to cook, they often just accept that what they’ve learned go hand in hand. But then, without even realizing, they do something different.
It’s funny how culture shows up where you least expect it. I remember learning to cook without tasting my food. You see when I learned to cook from my grandmother, she taught me never to taste the food during cooking. Why? Because in our household, the first serving of food was always intended for the Divine. To taste the food when you cooked it would make it impure. So I learned how to cook by watching the potatoes brown until just tender in heated oil, singing a song, just long enough, to perfectly boil eggs, listening to the spices sizzle in hot oil and to the herbs impart their aroma in dishes when added at just the right time. And now I teach my son to cook the same way-I am always making him smell, touch, listen to food to learn how to cook it perfectly. But he breaks with “my” tradition: he does love to taste!
When I was growing up, one of my best comfort foods was watching my father prepare his pièce de résistance-his Indian-style scrambled eggs. He would simmer some oil, throw in onions, tomatoes, green chilies and cilantro. Chat with me until the tomatoes softened, then add the eggs and scramble them. The final addition would be turmeric and cayenne. The sweet smell of the onions, the lemony scent of cilantro, I associate them all with my father’s love. Not only did I love the recipe, I loved breaking the eggs for him, feeling all grown up when he would let me pluck fresh cilantro from the herb pots, and chatting with him as he cooked. I introduced this dish to my husband and then to my sons.
On a recent visit to India, it warmed my heart to have to wait in line for my father’s scrambled eggs behind my boys. As I waited patiently, I heard my husband explain to my dad how much he loved the dish. And then he went onto explain our family rendition of the scrambled eggs-using Indian cheese instead of eggs, mint instead of cilantro and jalapeno instead of green chilies. Changing a recipe, it turns out, doesn’t make it less of an heirloom-in fact, it only makes it more our own.
Monica Bhide is a food writer and cookbook author. Her work has appeared in Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Eating Well, The Washington Post, and many other national and international publications. You can find her at:www.monicabhide.com.