“Don’t you come here! You will create a mess.”
That’s what my mother would tell me every time I entered the kitchen of our house in New Delhi to try my hand at cooking.
My culinary skills were confined to boiling eggs and making tea. But I always thought cooking would be therapeutic, a bit like painting.
Then a professional opportunity got me into the kitchen. I was to live in the United States for six months while working as a journalist on an Alfred Friendly Press Partners Fellowship at the Star Tribune. My time away from home would include the holy month of Ramadan.
Muslims worldwide observe fasts from dawn to sunset during these weeks, from May 6 to early June this year in the U.S. It is a time of prayer, reflection and charity that includes fasting, a way to practice self-restraint, one of the five tenets of Islam.
During that month, the predawn meal, suhoor, consists of dishes that give the devotees energy throughout the day. In northern India where I live, it traditionally includes chapati, a flour flatbread, and vegetable or meat curry, along with deep-fried vermicelli and tea.
We go about the day with nothing more to eat. At sunset, we break the fast with water, dates and light snacks, followed by sunset prayers and dinner.
During the month of fasting, food — its sheer variety, taste, significance — manages to be on our mind constantly.
Perhaps that’s why I was overwhelmed earlier this month, a day before Ramadan, my first away from home.
Cooking for one
In New Delhi, I live on the periphery of the Walled City, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood. This is where guides take tourists to demonstrate how city life once was.
Mansions and buildings reminiscent of the planned city, established by Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in 1639, lie dilapidated. Houses with courtyards are making way for condominiums. Restaurant aromas steer you through the narrow lanes.
The excitement in this part of the city is at its pinnacle during Ramadan. Each night is a festivity of sorts: Eateries remain open all night; trios of young men zoom around on motorcycles; little girls play badminton in parking bays, and the town crier goes around waking people up before dawn for suhoor.
During the holy month, the activity in our household kitchen moves between suhoor, in the predawn, and iftar, the evening meal. Even people who frequently eat out make it a point to be with their families for iftar.
This year, I’m missing all that.
I arrived in Minneapolis in the first week of April and moved into a one-bedroom apartment, a stark contrast to the close-knit neighborhood back home. It took me two weeks and a lot of mental effort to become acclimatized.
My kitchen ban in New Delhi had been lifted at the end of February, when the women of my family realized that it would help me survive if I could prepare breakfast. My younger sisters, Aafreen and Anam, took turns to mentor me in how to prepare an omelet, spicy oats and upma, a semolina porridge.
That helped, but in Minneapolis I was still lying awake at night thinking about how I would manage during Ramadan.
I wanted to graduate to proper meals, healthy and made from scratch — and do it before the holy month began.
I started with lentils, considered an easy recipe. The ingredients — lentils, salt, garlic, pepper, turmeric — were available at the neighborhood grocery store.
Overlooking the “how-to-make” videos online, I made half a dozen WhatsApp video calls to my mother, asking her why the lentil, called daal in Hindi, seemed raw after it had completed its cooking time.
“Have patience. It will take time,” my mother said.
She was right. It hit me, though, as I was enjoying the daal that I have not felt lonelier while eating food. I was yearning for someone else to taste it. When you feel a sense of accomplishment, you want to share that joy. So I showed my family a picture of the meal.
Another kitchen try
“Try paneer with zeera rice,” a friend from India suggested. Paneer is a non-melting farmer’s cheese; zeera are cumin seeds.
I called an Indian friend who had settled in Chicago, who told me that tofu was the closest I could reach to paneer. Then I improvised in a later attempt by adding tomato purée and green peas to it.
With the newly acquired confidence, I made daal a second time. With a YouTube recipe as reference, I shopped for a particular green chile, though I could not find it in Minneapolis. Still, the result was close to what I am used to eating back home.
Next on my radar was a sweet-and-sour onion-tomato chutney. This one, too, turned out tasty, but rather incomplete since I could not find the necessary black mustard seeds.
On the breakfast front, I was preparing a variety of eggs — sunny-side-up, half-fried, full fried and scrambled. The other day, I was checking out a recipe for French toast, a good choice with its eggy bread and caramelized apples on top. Success. I have made it three times since.
And I discovered eight ways of making overnight oats, my favorite morning food.
I still miss the iftar platter back home, for which preparations continue until the last minute. But Ramadan has gone better than I anticipated.
There’s a sense of belonging in community iftars, hosted by mosques, restaurants and other Muslim groups — and I’ve found those to be an escape on days when my kitchen pursuits leave me unsatisfied.
I’ve learned cooking is about much more than preparing food. It fosters a desire to gather and share.