This week I’m doing something a little special here at Words to Eat By: an entire week of guest posts! I’ve invited some blogger friends, all parents, to write about their families’ experiences with food. The final guest post veers from that topic just a bit—it’s an essay by Monica Bhide, one of my favorite food writers (I’ve blogged about her before). While Monica is a mom, to two adorable little boys, in this essay she reveals how what her own parents taught her about cooking gets, let’s say, adjusted by a young American chef.
A Question of Taste
It’s Not Easy Accepting Who Gets to Lick the Spoon
It started out as a perfectly normal workday. A food writer by night, I was working at a consulting firm, out of my lonely cubicle, on the seventh floor of a suburban D.C. office. I worked alone, since most of my teammates were all over the United States, part of what is called a virtual team. It sounds glamorous but translates into being very lonely at work. So imagine my surprise when the receptionist called me to say I had a visitor. I could hear her giggling on the other end of the phone. “Who is it?” I demanded to know. “Well,” she hesitated, “it’s a gentleman in a chef’s uniform and he has a picture of you holding your cookbook. Says it’s from The Washington Post.”
A chef here in my office? With my picture in hand, no less. If you live long enough you see everything, my grandmother used to say, and sure enough here it was—a chef asking for a novice writer at an HR consulting firm.
And there he was, a young man in uniform, chef’s hat and all. He extended his hand toward me, saying, “Hi, I am Jonathan Krinn and I have just opened a new restaurant downstairs in this building. It’s called 2941. My mother saw the article about you in the newspaper and told me to check you out. She thought we might enjoy meeting each other.”
Those were his exact words. I thought his mother was matchmaking. It must have shown on my face. “Since you write books and I cook,” he quickly added.
I wasn’t sure how to react. He invited me to his kitchen, to learn more about him and his cooking. And I agreed, reluctantly, not knowing what would be expected of me.
We set a date and he left.
I took the day of our meeting off from work and arrived armed with nothing more than anxiety, for now I had Googled him and knew who he is. What on earth would we talk about, I wondered.
The interior of the restaurant looked like a new bride: perfectly adorned, a bit coy and yet very inviting. He met me at the door and led me into the kitchen. It was huge, almost as big as the restaurant. I was in awe of all the gadgets. As we chatted, a chemistry began to develop. His passion was French American food and mine was Indian, so vastly different, and yet the soul behind them was the same.
He muttered something about showing me how to make a perfect sauce. I was completely ill at ease, my knowledge of French stopped at “oui,” and he was talking a mile a minute about ingredients and techniques. We were standing over the pot. And then it happened, that bewildering incident.
He took a spoon, dipped it in the sauce and then proceeded to . . . dare I say, lick it. I was stunned. Completely horrified and stunned. He offered me some and I shook my head. “Are you okay?” he inquired.
I stuttered, “You tasted the sauce. . . . How could you do that? Don’t you know you are not allowed to taste while you cook?”
Now it was his turn to look stunned. “I have never heard of that,” he said. “How would you know when to season?”
When you least expect it, culture shows up. I had learned to cook by sight, smell, sound and texture. In our kitchen we were not allowed to taste.
My father would teach me to roast spices and learn that coriander whimpers, cumin smolders, mustard sizzles and cinnamon roars. I learned to cook by sight as the colors of the spices turned and then by smell—sweet, earthy, heady, sharp if they are roasting correctly, or the unforgiving acrid smells if they burn.
My mother taught me to make curries by hearing how onions sing in oil, from a slight sizzle to a glorious harmony as they get perfectly caramelized. I learned to watch the tomatoes marry the onions. The sign the union was complete and ready for spices to be added was when the oil separated from the mixture.
Roast, sizzle, temper, broil, boil, bake, simmer, saute, fry—we had to do it all by watching and listening.
The reason, I was told many years later, was that in our house the first offering of the food was for the gods. If you tasted while you cooked, it made the food impure. My grandmother would carefully take the first piece of bread she cooked each night, place it on a plate along with a helping of all the other vegetables and lentils, and set it aside before the meal for the family was served. After we all ate, she would go outside and set the plate in front of the cows that used to hang around our neighborhood. Cows are considered sacred in the Hindu religion and feeding them is said to be akin to feeding God.
Jonathan listened carefully to my story and nodded. Then he held the spoon to me and said, “Here, taste it. There are no cows in D.C.”