#29 Life Lessons From the Kitchen — Cooking with Mom (Recipe + Video Included)

It was the 13th day of September and my mother had called me to visit. It had been about a month since I last saw her so time with her was past due and she was persistent that I come by.

The last few days of an Indian summer were upon us. The sky was blue, without a cloud in sight, and the heat from the sun wasn’t intrusive. Rather, it felt like a warm blanket that coated our skin.

My mom was going to teach me how to cook daal. She is an exceptional cook and after my father and her parted ways a few years ago, I missed her cooking dearly. A mother’s hand in the kitchen has the ability to let food skip the stomach, touch the heart, and hug the soul.

I have always been particularly interested in food. My love for cooking started when I was younger, as I would watch my father present food to us with extreme zealousness. Each dish, no matter how simple or elaborate, had to be majestically and delicately plated so to appease the eye as well as the stomach.

My mother was the primary cook growing up and her food was consistently delicious. My grandmother had the same knack for cooking and I think many mothers of East Indian descent carry this amazing gift that goes overlooked time and time again.

I felt it important to learn the dishes from our ancestors so I can share it with my children and others.

I asked my mom to teach me how to make daal. For those not privy to the cuisine of the east, daal (Hindi for lentils, and the also the name of the dish) is made with lentils as the main ingredient and serves as a quintessential dish of many Indian households.

It was a Saturday when I visited her. She lives in an apartment complex that reminded me of the many apartments my family grew up around during my teen years.

The food of different cultures permeated the air. Latin, Indian, and R&B music could be heard, as a few domestic disputes carried on. There is a certain life that was present that you just don’t find in the ‘burbs. Perhaps it is why I had chosen to live in similar surroundings in San Francisco.

As I walked in, to my surprise, my mother had started the prep work and carefully measured out the ingredients of the meal that was to take place.

The dish called for:

  • Lentils
  • Tomatoes
  • Cilantro
  • Eggplant
  • Carrots
  • Turmeric
  • Mustard seeds
  • Cumin
  • Fenugreek seeds
  • Ginger
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Tamarind
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Ghee
  • Chilies
  • Curry leaves

There are two main functions that have to be performed. The first step is to add water to the lentils and bring them to a boil. My mom started washing the daal by swishing them around in a pot filled with water. She repeated this about 5–6 times. Each time, she removed excess carbohydrates by pouring out the cloudy water.

As her beautiful hands slowly caressed the dal, I was reminded of all the times when she wiped my tears, put bandages on my wounds, slapped me when I was bad, and tucked me in at night.

Once the daal was clean (the water is no longer cloudy), she added 2 cups of water to 1 cup of daal, turned up the heat on the stove, and left them to boil. While the daal is boiling, add eggplant, carrots, ginger, whole garlic cloves, turmeric, chilies, and onion powder.

The second step is to sauté or choko the spice mix. This is probably the most important step because it adds flavor to the dish. You take a pan, add ghee, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. Once the tomatoes are liquified, you add the sauté mixture to the boiling pot of daal.

I have an uncanny memory from the past which has been a blessing and a curse, but in this particular case, it was a good thing. I am reminded of a quote from the late and great Bob Hope that is appropriate for these past events in time:

“When we recall the past, we find that it is the simplest things — not the great occasions — that in retrospect give off the greatest glow of happiness. “

As we started cooking the daal, I had a pen and paper ready. My meticulous nature would have me hard-pressed if I did not have a written record of exactly how to make this dish.

Something happened that left me a little uneasy and upset.

My mother forgot certain things and started adding different measurements of spices than what was planned. She forgot certain ingredients and started to pull them out of the fridge. She started changing the temperature constantly and eventually, the kitchen seemed as if Metallica was playing the Philharmonic.

It was organized chaos at best. I was writing all this down but had to constantly cross certain parts out and add others as she was changing. I was doing so much of this that I eventually put my pen down and said, “Fuck it. Let me just watch.” I said this in the nicest way possible, I promise. That’s when my mom said:

““Beta (term of endearment), I don’t think I have ever made daal the same way twice. Cooking is always something that you have to put action towards. There is no set way to make the perfect daal. Some days I will need more salt, and other days I will need more chilies . It’s never the same, but by some miracle, the food always turns out great. Cooking is a constant labor of love that requires you to be engaged. As long as you have the ingredients, your process of making the dish will always change. As long as you cook with love it will turn out alright. I promise.’”

Her voice was always gentle, fragrant of spring flowers, and calming. It was reassuring even though I had nothing to be assured of. It put me at ease.

When we sat down to eat, the daal tasted amazing. Shortly after eating, I realized I had spent almost the whole day with her and now had to part ways.

The very moment I left her apartment, one of my favorite songs started playing from a neighboring apartment. My mom came in for a hug. I could feel her left ear against my heart. It started to beat louder. I left and can still hear that song when I think of this moment.

This song was for my mother as much as it was for me. While walking away from her, I turned my head so I can see her from my peripheral vision. She waited until I was no longer in sight before closing the door.

A tear gently graced my cheek and I looked at the blue sky and closed my eyes for a little while before heading to my car. I miss her and miss how our family used to be.

When my folks split up, it was hard, but I understood my parents’ marriage wasn’t a happy one. Now older, my time with my mother is more precious. When we do see each other we only have time for laughs, love, and all good things.

What if all our encounters with people were like this? Truth is, there is no next time with those we love. We must pour our hearts out and tell those we cherish that we love them each and every time.

The next day I was in deep contemplation. I looked at my time with my mother as a metaphor for life.

We can’t always predict our lives. Similar to how my mother changed the cooking process, our life’s plan will continuously change, and there is no set formula to how things will end up. But in the end, I firmly believe things will work out.

Eventually, things will taste great. It is important to put action to life and have a plan but that plan might take us on a path that might seem rocky and at times, downright confusing. Sometimes we are so concerned about the destination, that we forget this is a journey.

Every step we take, inevitably weaves the tapestry we call life. Give each moment of your life the attention it deserves.

If my mom wasn’t meticulous in her cooking process, if she did not constantly taste the daal to make changes, it wouldn’t have turned out as good as it did. Each step was just as crucial as the last, and she allowed each step the attention it deserved.

In life, we each have to make our own daal. Learn from others and tailor your journey so it is best suited for your destination. My daal is different than my mom’s, but a part of her will always will remain in every dish I cook.

Love you, Momma.

  • Interested in making daal? Follow the video below to learn how:

With Love,

Anand Swamy

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