Food for the soul, literally

There’s a viral meme going around depicting a massive queue of people waiting to audition for Masterchef once this pandemic is over. Given the sudden rise in cooking endeavors I’ve noticed just in my immediate circle in the past month, I’m beginning to feel this might not be too far-fetched of a joke.

Food is something we all have some sort of a relationship with. For some it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, for some it evokes feelings of guilt and shame, while for others it might just be something you need to consume to stay alive. The need for food is the most primitive of needs, and those of us privileged enough to never have had to worry about how to fulfil this need might have never given it much thought. But this pandemic has forced us all to slow down, and as more and more of the usual hustle and bustle of our daily lives is stripped away, we notice the basic things more.

Meals might be the only thing providing a semblance of structure or routine in some of our lives right now, and comfort food is more important than ever. When everything feels rather hopeless and dismal, digging into a plate of creamy pasta does for me what meditation promises to do, but hasn’t yet delivered. A moment of silence in my mind, of simple satisfaction.

So it’s not surprising that cooking has become one of the most popular skills to pick up, hone, or simply enjoy during this quarantine. People who are used to visiting restaurants or ordering in whenever a craving strikes, are now left to fend for themselves. Some need an activity to fill the empty hours, and finally have the time and reason to try out the fancy recipe they’ve been eyeing. However, I still have to say that of all the shocking things that have happened in the past month, my sixty-five year old father’s first venture into the kitchen is definitely in the top five for me. For a man whose culinary skills were restricted to making tea and toast for over six decades, to suddenly be trying to understand the difference between jeera and dhonia is another bit of evidence of how strange and far-reaching the effects of this pandemic are.

Not only do people want to cook while stuck at home, they are no longer googling only “quick easy recipes”! The slow cooking revolution has begun. From handmade fresh pasta, lovingly cut into cute shapes, to coffee that needs to be whipped for a good twenty minutes before it looks like it should, to bread that has to be kneaded and left to rise for hours, people are giving into the urge to produce something from scratch and marvel at what they created. This makes me wonder, will our food habits be permanently altered by these tumultuous times? Will we become more mindful eaters, actually noticing the flavors of every mouthful, instead of rushing through meals? Will we become less likely to waste, having experienced what it’s like when supplies are hard to come by? Will there one day be recipes with names like “grandma’s special egg-less flour-less pandemic cookies”?

handmade pasta by my brother

For me, someone who already enjoyed spending time in the kitchen before all of this began, food and cooking has been a lot of things in recent times – therapeutic, guilt-inducing, comforting, annoying, and now, thought-provoking. I’ve chopped vegetables and mixed batter when I needed to tune out the noise in my head, felt uncomfortable indulging in my favorite ice-cream while knowing many aren’t able to access essentials right now, and sulkily washed a thousand pots and pans while promising myself I’m going to stick to one pot recipes from now on. As a Bengali girl, my relationship with food has always been a confusing one. Our culture is such that one moment our families will be shoving every kind of unhealthy, rich, dish our way and the next be wondering (out loud) why we’re looking a little “healthy” (read: chubby) these days. I also don’t feel motivated usually to cook anything special for just myself, I love cooking for people. But these are anything but usual times, so yesterday I found myself with a plateful of hot off the stove khichuri, aloo bhorta, dim bhaja, achaar, and goshto, an elaborate dinner for one, and for the fifteen to twenty minutes I spent eating this food, it almost felt like I was back home and it was just a regular rainy day. Did all the “quarantine diet” and “home workout” posts by influencers constantly springing up on my Instagram feed make me feel a bit shitty afterwards? Yes, yes, it did. For there are people out there who have decided that gaining a pound during a global pandemic is absolutely out of question and that this is the time to restrict yourself around food more than ever. I admire their dedication to physical “fitness” (please remember thin does not equal fit, and vice versa) and salute them from the comfort of my couch, pandemic cookie in hand.

my eggless tiny batch pandemic cookies, made in week 3 of the quarantine

Food has the ability to transport us to places we miss, people we can’t be with, and moments we wish we could go back to. If it’s a source of comfort for you, by all means (safe and sustainable means only please), use that, because we all need a little bit of extra comfort these days. In case you neither like cooking nor eating (and are therefore a very strange, possibly extraterrestrial, creature), I direct you to Masterchef Australia episodes, at which point, if you aren’t comforted by Matt Preston’s stately voice, I suggest you return to your home planet.

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