Cooking With My Pakistani Mother…And Losing

(Photo: star5112/Creative Commons)

(Photo: star5112/Creative Commons)

“Amina, yanh ao!”

What is wrong with this woman? She wants me to go over there?

Jaldi se!”

Quickly? Okay, okay. Ten seconds to rinse my hands, 20 to the family room and…five full minutes to hear what she has to say? No, this is impossible.

As I’m standing there, trying to figure out how to stir my frying onions in the kitchen before inevitably receiving instructions from my mother in the family room, the fragrant cloud enveloping me turns suddenly bitter. I look down. What was a golden glowing nest a moment ago is now a charred tangle of slop.

Ruined. Again.

I take a moment to enter my zen state, leaning my face against the nearest cabinet in a gesture that is more headdesk than anything else. Then I join my mother on the sofa, defeated and smelling like singed aromatics.

This episode, like so many others, demonstrates a truth I would do nearly anything to strike down: When it comes to having chops in the kitchen, my mom is a heavyweight and I’m hovering somewhere above waterboy. And let’s be clear–Amma is no full-time chef. She’s a doctor and a doer. I have not met a single person who can multitask better than she can, and she’s the only person I know who can solve family crises while making biryani. I, on the other hand, couldn’t successfully fry onions if I were on Adderall.

Maybe you think this is because I’m a bad cook. It’s not. I’m adept, even skilled, when it comes to a lot of dishes. But there’s a simple reason for this discrepancy with my mother, and it’s true for anyone whose parents hail from the subcontinent. Our mothers are finely tuned, impeccably programmed timing and measuring devices. Whereas I rely on recipes, volume-delineating apparatuses and timers (oh, where would I be without timers?), Amma will concoct a feast in half the time it takes me and she’ll do it using imprecise tools like plastic spoons from Baskin Robbins and coffee mugs. For a doctor, she’s not very scientific, is she? Still, her karahi chicken somehow always turns out better than mine.

Now, here’s the kicker. When my mom got married, she could not cook anything. Her mother, my nani, hand-wrote recipes with minutiae I wouldn’t have even thought to point out. For example, “Don’t lean over a boiling pot to check the rice, for you’ll risk steaming your face off”–or something to that effect. This implies that my mother’s talent was not innate. At some point, Amma was as recipe-dependent as I am! Somehow, in the past 26-or-so years, she’s gone from cheat sheet to straight up andaaza–otherwise known as the Pakistani art of cooking by estimation.

This leads me to the conclusion that this superchef who can leap frying onions in a single bound may be lying dormant in me as well. Perhaps I’ll train for years, using guides and tools to perfect my skills. Then, one day, I’ll emerge, as a butterfly from my cocoon, able to make curries and pilafs without so much as a clock. One day, I’ll make my mother proud.

Until then, maybe I’ll build a kitchen tool belt with all manner of gadgets hanging from it. Hey, I’ve got to be prepared for the day I can hoist it over my head in glorious victory.

Amina Elahi is’s Managing Editor. Check out her blog, where she posts words and images that make her think.

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  • Mark

    Ha. I think this is something we all experience as we make that transition from childhood to adulthood- from being the ones cooked for to being the cooks- for ourselves and for others. I share your pain- I can’t cook a lot of things either. But my mom is 100% Italian and a fabulous cook, who still insists that my grandmother’s meatballs are better than hers. :)

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