The making of a cook ....Rekha Karmakar

Last Sunday I was thrilled to make my second appearance on the Times Life front page. I got to know about it from my friend Nandita in Bengaluru. Coincidentally I was in hotel room in Bengaluru and there was a copy of the Times hanging outside the door. It was an article on men who cook and I spoke about my dad who used to cook. Which prompted my mom to pen down the story of how she became a cook thanks to my dad. Here's the story in her words:

Cooking had never been the purpose of my life. I chose to look away  while my mom cooked in the kitchen and preferred to concentrate on a book which seemed much easier than cooking. I was emboldened to act that way because of the indulgence of my dad. My mom cried hoarse saying that a lot of rebuke waited for me, after my marriage, because of my apathy to cooking.

Mine was an arranged marriage and  like all other girls of my time, I, too, had  to appear for screening tests, three/four times, to reach the final round. When my would be father-in-law came to have a final look at me before declaring  the result, he asked me if I could cook. I moved my head in an ambiguous way, which was more on the 'nay' side than on the 'yae' side. Munching on a huge sized sweet, my would be father-in-law assured me that I need not worry about cooking as his son could cook very well and manage things on his own.

Later, in the company of his friends, my husband  would joke that his own father doomed his fate for which he had to cook all his life. It  was,however, an exaggeration as he loved cooking and experimenting with different types of cuisines.

After my marriage, I went to my in-law's house in a suburban place at the outskirts of Kolkata. On the day of 'boubhat' ( a ceremony held a day after the arrival of the bride), I was supposed to cook lunch for all the relatives as well as serve them. In my case, it amounted to a little over thirty five people. The bridegroom, in turn, had to take a vow before all the relatives that he would provide his wife with rice and cloth  ('bhat' and 'kapar') all her life.

On the morning of 'boubhat', I was taken to the kitchen where I saw two huge 'chulas'/ovens burning with coal fire and also some big utensils. Menu for the lunch was 'pulao', brinjal fry dipped in batter, mutton curry and 'chutney'.  A kind relative put a huge 'kadai'/ wok on the fire oven and asked me to put oil in it for cooking mutton curry. I  was bewildered and did not know what to do.

At that time, I saw my husband peeping through the kitchen window and signalling to me on how much oil to put and when to put the chopped onions as he did not want his relatives to call his newly wed wife 'good for nothing'. The lady relatives  caught him red handed and chased him away saying it was cheating.

Luckily for me, at that time , my mother-in-law appeared in the scene. She scolded all the ladies saying how they could expect a girl, who was brought up in Delhi and went to university, cook like a rustic bride! It would be enough if I stirred the food occasionally with a ladle, which would be considered as fulfilling the ritual. It was very unprecedented for a mother-in-law of our time to behave like that. From that day onwards, she shielded me against the criticism of all the relatives for all my foibles and frailties, which were none too less.

We left for the U.K. after a few days as my husband worked there as a surgeon. Secretly, in my heart of hearts , I was very happy that I would not have to appear for a  cooking test any more in a foreign country. But God probably willed othewise.

From Heathrow airport, my husband took me to a friend's house. He called her 'didi' and her husband 'jamaibabu'/ elder sister's husband.They assumed the role of his local guardian since he knew them  even before coming to the U.K. and thus belonged to my  in-law's side.
Next morning, at the breakfast table, they did not hesitate to hide their dissatisfaction with me as they had long imagined  when M (my husband) got married, his wife would knock at every one's bed room, early in the morning , and serve bed tea. And there I was lying in bed till 7 a.m., a heious crime for a bride of our time. Though unhappy, I was too docile to say anything. Those days, husbands also did not support their newly wed wives for the fear of being stigmatised as 'henchpeck' husband, the worst name a man could ever think of.
After a day or two, we left for Devon and Cornwall for a  short holiday trip before my husband joined his new hospital at Farnborough.

We were allotted a beautiful well furnished flat at Farnborough by the hospital authorities. This was our first home and I cooked there for the first time after our marriage. My husband came home for lunch as the hospital was a stone's throw away. I cooked with a lot of enthusiasm, trying not to make any mistake. While having food, he said, 'Hmmm! Excellent food !Very good !Very good !' I guessed from his tone that something was amiss. I realized, what it was, when I tasted it myself. Some dishes had too much salt, some very little and some had too much turmeric.

From the next day, training session for my cooking classes started. I was asked to  cook a simple 'begun bhaja'/ brinjal fry by my husband to start with. I cut a piece of brinjal , smeared it with salt and turmeric and put it in the oil, which splattered all over as the oil was not ready. One side of the brinjal was  burnt whereas the other side was raw. My husband did not hide his dissatisfaction with my performance and continued with his resolve to teach me the intricacies of cooking with more perseverance.

He was a hard task master and did not spare me if I went wrong. He taught me which 'phoron'/'tadka' to use for which dish. He also taught me how to cut vegetables for 'sukta'/ a bitter curry, dry mixed veg curry or 'aloo posta' as in Bengali cuisines, vegetables are cut in different shapes and sizes depending on the dish.

British fish were cooked like Bengali fish, using different types of spices and seeds, which I kept on confusing.             
I found cooking meat and chicken curry simpler as one formula
fitted all.

I started cooking on my own after a few months. My husband graded my cooking as that of a 'Registrar' ( a middle grade doctor as per the ranking in British hospitals) or at the most as that of a 'Senior Registrar' but I was never being able to reach the highest post of a 'Consultant'.

Though I did not like to cook the every day 'humdrum' Bengali food, I did like to cook Chinese as well as a few British food items.

My husband learnt authentic Chinese cooking from one of his Chinese patients, to whose restaurant's kitchen he used to go quite often after the recovery of the patient. He taught me the optimum level of boiling rice and noodles, how to stir fry vegetables to retain their crunchiness or how to make dry chilli chicken. Later in life, my sons and their friends appreciated my Chinese cooking very much.

Quite often I used to fry sausages, bacon or make scrambled egg for breakfast. Sometimes I would make burgers with mince meat and put them inside buns. Cooking chicken stew, grilling lamb chops and chicken or making ham and chicken sandwiches were my every day activities.

Our next door neighbour, eighty year old Mrs Taylor, taught me how to bake a cake. She wrote the recipe of her favourite ' sultana cake' in a piece of pink paper in her impeccable handwriting and handed it to me, which I preserved for a long time but lost it in course of time. Every time I baked a cake, she gave me a live demonstration, imparting with her baking secrets like grating the rind of an orange in the batter for an orangy flavour. The whole house smelt of freshly baked cake.

So this is the story of a novice young girl of the seventies who learnt cooking after her marriage, more out of compulsion than out of a passion for cooking.

I admire the girls of today, who can whip up a meal whenever needed, in spite of working. The 'good old mom and aunts' of yore have been replaced by  youtube and videos which not only demonstrate cooking but also give exact measurement of the ingredients.

Cooking is also no longer looked down as the work of the 'stay at home' women, who have nothing more worthwhile to do than cooking. It has reached the height of prestige hitherto unknown to it. Thanks to the
cooking shows on t.v., videos, food blogging , restaurant reviews etc. for this prestige.  Keep it up!

Rekha Karmakar


Such a nice story. Breaking stereotypical representation of Bengali gender roles. And now we know where you get your passion for food. You mention your mom a lot. But its the daddy's genes that actually works here. :)
Anjali Koli said…
Mrs.K enjoyed reading your story, is similar to my Mom's she had never cooked before she got engaged. Her mother taught her only humble dishes from my village in the 3 months wait until marriage. After coming to Mumbai as my Dad's bride she was there with the responsibility of cooking for 4 men in the family, churning out bf, lunch and dinner. However since my grandparents lived in the village my Dad would teach my Mom to cook and uncles also helped with the prep work and even taught her to roll chapati, it's a Mumbai thing. In the village she had barely picked making rice rotis but those no one would carry in lunch box because it was considered rustic. So she had tough time with chapati making for 4 men who would eat 10 each. Later she became a decent cook. Dad however is a passionate cook. I have his trait I guess. Thanks for sharing your memories yet again. Oops my comment is too long, more when we talk !
Unknown said…
such an awesome warmth it gives to read ur mom's riveting story...
R. karmakar said…
Thanks every one for ur encouraging comments.

Sassy Fork said…
Looks like Kalyan takes after his dad! Beautiful story and I am sure you have reached "Consultant" level now :)
R. Karmakar said…
Ha ha! I have forgotten cooking. Not even a House Surgeon now.
Pinku said…
such a lovely mom too learnt everything about cooking from my dad. the only thing she knew how to make well was a egg curry rest dad taught. now rannaghor is making her forget all her cooking skills with some convoluted recipes.
R. Karmakar said…
Yeh hai ghar ghar ki kahani.