Cooking curry is my mom's feminist act | KUOW News and Information

Cooking curry is my mom's feminist act

Nov 15, 2017

I’m the worst cook.

Actually, I'm worse than the worst. I’m the kid who burnt cereal because I thought microwaving Cocoa Puffs would result in a more melty-chocolate flavor.


Next year I’ll be off to college, and I’ll be legally known as something pretty weird: an adult. But while I can derive equations and write thesis statements, I can still barely turn on a rice cooker. 

My inability to cook is not a family tradition; it's just me. My Umma (mom, in our native language Malayalam) is a complete pro. And she wants to make sure I can make Indian food.

Aliyah created this story in KUOW's RadioActive Youth Media Intro to Journalism Workshop for high school students. Find RadioActive on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and on the RadioActive podcast.

I grew up with typical South Indian staples: puttu with banana, pothu erachi, and even a full sadhya meal. 

Sadhya is the go-to dish for weddings and festivals in Kerala, where my family is from. It’s served on a big banana leaf and includes dozens of small curries. And recently, it was the dish my Umma wanted to teach me.

"Look, you’re messing up," she said as I added too much water to a curry. "You’re messing up all over the place."

Even though Umma had a stern face on (she always does), she glided from one task to another while singing a song from the Bollywood movie 1942: A Love Story. 

Neelima Musaliar prepares a dish for the traditional South Indian sadhya meal.
Credit kUOW Photo/Aliyah Musaliar

I watched her cook, appreciating her more for her ability to identify spices just by opening the bottle and smelling them. 

I'm 17 years old. It's time for me to start thinking about my life outside of our family home. Adulthood means independence to me. But how my mom entered adulthood was entirely different.

Umma wanted to be a doctor or an engineer, but her parents weren’t too wild about her pursuing a job.  Now, she sometimes pushes her ambitions onto me. 

"As long as I had no complaints and passed every grade, my parents were okay," she said. "They really didn’t want me to excel."

She entered an arranged marriage when she was 21.

"Your family helps you find it," she said. "There was no Tinder. There was no — what is it called — Match.com." 

The only things she really had were her fancy saris and her ability to cook a few traditional dishes. She didn’t perfect those dishes for herself — she had to perfect them for a man.

I'm around the age my Umma was when she learned how to cook. She's teaching me to cook to show me that I don't need to stir the pot for anyone other than myself. 

"Now we put a little jaggery in here," she said, pointing to the ginger curry. "It's like brown sugar. Taste it." 

A school can't teach me the flavors of my family dishes. Only Umma can do that. She learned to cook from her mom, my Umama. Umama would make a cutlet, and mom would make the egg wash. Then they would  cook in an assembly line.

Neelima Musaliar spoons curries and rice onto a banana leaf to make a sashay meal, the go-to dish for festivals and weddings in Kerala, India.
Credit KUOW Photo/Aliyah Musaliar
 

A year after I was born, my family decided it would be best for my sister and me if we immigrated to America. Umma wanted her daughters to be everything she couldn’t.

"It’s the choices," she said. "You wouldn’t have had the choice to become anything [in India]. You wouldn’t have had the choice to do what you want. Choices in life you get better here [in America]."

But America is a also a country full of supermarkets with wonder bread and tomato soups. Umma wanted her daughters to study hard, but she also didn’t want us to lose touch with our heritage.

For breakfast, no Froot Loops for me. It was dosa, chammandhi, and sambar.

Even so, Umma felt like "everything tasted different" in America — the chilies, the tomatoes, everything. She had to learn to use what she had. 

Good South Indian food from Kerala is hard to get in America. The Indian restaurant scene here is dominated by people from the north, and North and South India have distinctly different cultures.

If you want to eat a good Sadhya meal, you have to learn to make it on your own.

My mom showed me the beauty in holding the knife on my own. And in the end, the girl who burnt her Cocoa Puffs made a pretty-okay sadhya meal.

I laid out a dish for my dad to try.

"I love the black eyed peas," he said. 

I looked to Umma for her final approval.

"It’s a little watery," she said. 

Umma learned to cook because that’s a skill an ideal Indian bride has. I’m her restart.

Now what my mom has are her nice saris, her ability to cook traditional Indian dishes, and her hopes for her daughters.

This story was created with production support from Ann Kane and edited by Carol Smith. Music: "Foreign Exchange" by GlobulDub, "Something Elated" by Broke for Free, and "Ultra Violet" by Aso. The RadioActive theme song is by Patrick Liu and Abay Estifanos.