The secret ingredient is always love

Cooking takes on a life of its own when you throw in love and affection into the mix, and don’t treat it like a necessity — or, worse, a chore. There’s a reason why they say the way to someone’s heart is through the stomach

By Anjaly Thomas

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Published: Sat 19 Mar 2022, 9:56 PM

A smart, unknown person once said, “Real cooking is more about following your heart than following recipes.” And thanks to this unknown person’s encouragement, my kitchen is the centre of “impulsive cooking made of on-the-spot recipes” but no one has complained yet.

However, it was not the case earlier. Once upon a time, I could boil water. I could even, if pushed, microwave an egg to some perfection. But that was long ago.

With the arrival of a man in my life, who incidentally appreciated a home-cooked meal, I had no option but to take a crash course on cooking, including lessons in grocery shopping and such like.

Enter the master chef Jerry (who excelled in the kitchen and trained people like me), who hand-held and list-checked my way through the supermarket aisles and taught me smells and aromas of food and spices, and later the art of turning chicken breasts into roulade and, for some reason, the entire process was fascinating and somewhat calming. The way he shaped carrots and carved meats was artistic. Thus, one afternoon, when the soup simmered on the stove, I fell in love with the idea of cooking.

Fast forward to a fortnight later when I put my lessons to the test and smiled proudly as I pulled out my baked garlic-butter sea bass and set the table with elan.

No way you made that was not what I expected to hear from the man, but the incredulous look as I nodded in the affirmative was reward enough. Easy recipes helped to build my kitchen store till I could blend my coffee, mix up spices and make a good ginger wine.

I had finally found my therapy. Cooking was the next best thing to writing.

Reconnecting with self

Dubai-based Marcela Sancho, co-owner of House of Pops, had little or no interest in cooking when she was a child, thanks to a dentist-mum who worked full time and rarely ever cooked. Although her mum was passionate about food, there was never enough push to develop her culinary skills. The after-school dining at restaurants and cafés with mum set her thinking.

“How difficult could it be, was my first thought. And that is how it all began. I was seven years old.”

Marcela recalls how her mum and her would go to the stores to gather the ingredients for her experiments and what a mess she used to make. “But this was where my passion grew and never left.”

She admits that she feels less stressed when cooking for herself or for others. “Cooking for others enables me to connect to people. It brings me pleasure and happiness that they enjoy the experience of having my dishes, especially Pops. And when I cook for myself, that is my personal time and my space to reconnect with myself. It helps me unwind from a long day at work or just spice the day up… it allows my creative side to take over. My fatigue disappears and my mood gets immediately in synergy with what I am doing. I especially love cooking Latin-American food because it connects me to my roots. It’s a beautiful process.”

She claims she is very lucky because not many people enjoy it as much when passion becomes a profession — but, for Marcela, this is not something she worries about. She enjoys researching food, developing new tastes and experimenting with ingredients. “I try to cook every night, as this helps me relax as well as have a healthier lifestyle. It’s a win-win situation for me.”

Cooking is relaxing

Mumbai-based food blogger and travel chronicler Abby Rebello says she has always loved to cook. What started as stirring the Christmas sweets’ batter and chopping vegetables, soon became a passion growing up. “When I was seven years old, I remember mum used to collect empty eggshells, dry them on the windowsill for a few days, and fill them with lovely green and pink blancmange. It was a joy to dig into those eggs. At that time, I thought I’d end up opening a restaurant. But life took a different route, and I ended up working in banking and IT. But even while working there, my friends used to love my unusual dishes and order some every now and then. Cooking was a hobby and an added income at the time.”

Stress is not a word she’d like to associate with cooking for others; in fact, Abby says cooking is a relaxant. “When I cook for myself, it’s mostly throwing things together and I usually end up making the same dishes again. But for others, I try to dish up things they haven’t tried yet or something they liked the last time — and there is absolutely no stress involved. And having friends appreciate my cooking or critique it just gives me incentive to cook more.”

Apart from being a means of sustenance, cooking is an expression of love, she says. “Cooking alone is fun but cooking with friends that just dropped by is even better. The jokes and buffoonery while cooking with many hands doesn’t really spoil the broth, it just makes it richer. It is a social act and perfect for bonding.”

She says she did consider making her passion her profession — like going to a place and sharing her culture through food and drink. For her, since 2017, cooking has been a bread-earner too, albeit not in the usual style. “I realised that rather than cooking for a small group of people, I could blog and share my mum’s recipes from our indigenous East Indian Christian community in Mumbai with readers around the globe. And that’s what I’ve been doing via my blog”

Cooking, clearly, is a stress buster for Abby. When she is under pressure with work deadlines that keep piling up, taking a few hours off to cook is the perfect relaxant.

The instant pick-me-up

For Dubai-based auditor Cheryl Anand, cooking was a natural outcome of marriage and setting up a home. “In my generation, it was understood that we would have to cook once we were married. My mum was a homemaker and made every meal a treat to remember. I guess a small seed was planted in me while just watching her weave her magic.”

Eventually, Cheryl leant to cook and in a strange turn of events, it turned into a passion. She admits to feeling tired at times, whether it is cooking for self or family and friends, but, for her, dishing up a delicacy is truly the way to relax. “The compliments that follow are the true icing on the cake. It is an instant pick-me-up.”

Cheryl dabbled in baking as a home business but soon gave it up because she says she didn’t enjoy it as much. It added to her stress and the satisfaction that came from baking for family and friends was missing. “It was so indifferent, in the way that I simply boxed up the cakes and muffins and sent it on its way — there was no smile or love to go in that box.”

When Kavitha T Sserunkuma moved to Uganda from Malaysia after marriage, food she grew up with was hard to find. That didn’t deter her, of course. The early days saw her sourcing ingredients in the local markets and dreaming up meals that reminded her of home and was healthy at the same time.

“For many people, especially expats, cooking or hunting down ingredients is nothing but a chore, and something that they derive no pleasure from whatsoever. I wish it wasn’t that way because the very act of cooking from whatever is available, is a skill,” she says. “And good beginnings always have great endings.”

Going a step further, she began a food network on Facebook to encourage people to share their love for cooking and share recipes and secret tips to better cooking. “Cooking is also exciting for me — I love watching the chemistry of ingredients transform a dish. Sometimes, sharing your recipes of pictures of food with total strangers is also a morale booster. Every bit of appreciation helps.”

Today, Kavitha has adopted Ugandan cuisine (along with Malaysian) and taken her hobby to a whole new level. “Plus, it gives me an opportunity to nurture my family and friends. To express my love and take care of them. And who doesn’t like one-word praises like fabulous or delicious? There is one other thing: confidence. This is the one thing that didn’t come with years of experience but from cooking dishes to my expectations.”

Men on a culinary mission

For Dubai-based accountant Sydney Dias, cooking anything was a chore until one day he found himself stirring the pot out of necessity. He says cooking was ‘forced’ on him but does not regret ever having started it.

“When my wife was undergoing chemotherapy, I was forced to take over the kitchen so I could make healthy meals for her and get over the collective stress we all faced. Of course, I didn’t know basil from thyme, but I took baby steps and eventually figured out what went into soups and salads and what made kebabs moist.”

Dias first resorted to Instagram for inspiration but soon realised that creating a picture-perfect meal was daunting and almost impossible to make. “I found my solution in easy, one-pot dinners, sheet-pan meals and two-ingredient recipes. Once I was confident about the spices and oils, I boldly stepped into the world of healthy cooking. If anything, my experimentations did open the door for new friendships and great times.”

His wife eventually recovered, but his passion remained. “I enjoy (especially) making a curry of potatoes and cabbage and strangely not just my family even my friends find it amazing. I cannot explain this.”

Meanwhile Johnson Thiga, store manager at a coffee shop in Dubai was forced into the kitchen due to the unavailability of Ugali. Today, he is happy he moved — for two reasons. He understood how important it was to be self-dependent and discovered a side to himself he didn’t know he had.

“Ugali is the one thing I missed eating in Dubai, so I had no choice but to make my own. My mum instructed me over the phone in the beginning, but today, I am the star Ugali-maker among my Kenyan friends in Dubai. No matter what time I am called to dish up this one, I am always ready. The very idea that someone depends on my skills to refresh their memories of home makes me happy. Only food can give you that feeling of being home away from home. What is better than food? It is food made and served with love.”

Cooking is not just altruistic

At its most basic, cooking fulfils survival needs but life was never just about the basics, right? Beyond the survival mode is a whole new world of culinary artistry waiting to be explored that not only leads to the creation of new recipes but also gives you a feeling of personal accomplishment.

I don’t know if the way to anyone’s heart is through the stomach, but what I do know is that it has opened doors to some great times and memories and healing. I have more friends eager to come over than I ever had when I was making eggs in the microwave.

For me, cooking is the language of love — the love I give. So, those I love, I cook for. I’ll add my own special touch to it — so it’s more delightful and memorable. That is motivation and that, in turn, is therapy. “There’s a tremendous amount of confidence-boosting and self-esteem boosting [while] performing an act like cooking for others,” explains Julie Ohana, a licensed clinical social worker and culinary art therapist. “And that’s part of what lends itself to those psychological effects about being able to do something that you feel really good about.”

I love that cooking give me a chance to be creative and indulge in me-time and relive the taste of food I have eaten around the world. I adore losing myself in the rituals of chopping, stirring and tasting. Of going wrong and trying again. Cooking is soothing. Cooking is art. Cooking is love.

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