The smell of saffron filled my nostrils. My mouth watering, I could not wait any longer. So hungry. Told myself to be patient; I knew it was worth waiting for. Ah, a bite. I closed my eyes.
YES! The tangy flavor of the orange and lemon, smoothness of coconut milk, texture of shrimp, fish and vegetables – the unmistakable experience of a Kerala Curry. For eight year-old gourmet Vayu, however, this was yet another Sunday dinner with the family.
I remember those days. At the time, eating did not seem to provide much beyond nourishment and temporary satisfaction, to fill a hungry stomach after a long day in school, or to satisfy taste buds craving Indian chickpea stew. But for some reason, food was always so satisfying and interesting to me. Whereas my friends organized parties at McDonald’s, all I wished for was Norwegian fish balls. In the back of my mind, I must have known that there was something more to food; I must have subconsciously known what later struck me as obvious. As I grew older, I realized cooking connected me to the world. Cooking connected me to people, to cultures, and to nature.
Early on, it was clear that cooking acted as an important bridge to my cultural heritage. Coming from Kenya, Cuba, India and Norway has not always been easy. Meeting family always meant adapting to new practices and traditions. However cliche it may seem, there was a certain unity in this diversity. In fact, the only shared characteristic might have been the most powerful. All family placed heavy emphasis on food and cooking – an emphasis that was quickly adopted as ground pillar in my own family. Sunday my family would gather friends at our place to share a dinner. Mom would cook the Sunday curries of Kenya and India, Dad would cook Cuban Frijoles and Norwegian fishballs. When visiting my family in their respective countries, I understood it was through my senses, namely through cooking and eating, I got to know these countries and cultures. Whether at my grandfather’s table in his sketchy Habana house or with my uncles at the Norwegian family farm, food acted as a powerful link to a rich cultural heritage. Cooking and food united us.
In these moments, cooking and food also connected me to the people around me. If there was one rule by which I and my sister had to abide, it was to gather at the dinner table every night, no exceptions granted. During these moments, I became conscious of the fact that, along with sharing one meal a day, discussions, arguments and love all surfaced at the dinner table. We would eat, talk about life, and occasionally I would tease my sister. Sometimes dinner would never end; sometimes it would be over in the blink of an eye. Whatever the duration, dinner was time well-spent. Cooking and food fostered unbreakable relationships, built on true compassion, love and caring. It connected me with the people I love.
Cooking also connected me with nature. Having the privilege to spend every summer at our family farm in Norway, I became aware of the close relationship between cooking and nature. My uncles and aunts would always me on foraging adventures; into the forest looking for chantarelles; harvesting vegetables and strawberries in the backyard; fishing and cooking traditional food while camping in the mountains. From these adventures I understood the true beauty of cooking. In fact, I not only learned how to appreciate nature, but I also learned how to treat its amazing bounty – I realized how cooking connects us to the land.
In today’s society, where there increasing awareness of organic and local foods, we must not forget this important role of cooking. While awareness is certainly great, it is rather useless if it does not translate into action. If people cannot relate to their food on the most basic level, if they cannot cook, how will they ever truly understand the beauty of nature, the beauty of natural foods? How will they ever understand and fully appreciate the true value of an organic eggplant, if they do not know how to prepare it? Ultimately, cooking and eating is the means by which abstract awareness translates into something concrete; if you how to prepare the foods you purchase, you also understand the true beauty of local and organic foods, because you get to experience it with all your senses. By knowing how to treat the bounty of nature, we can connect to our land.
This is the beauty of cooking. Cooking connects us to the world. It connects us to people, to cultures, and to nature.
Vayu Maini Rekdal