Life is meals.
Never has the title of James and Kay Salter’s award-winning book rung truer than this past year. When Coronavirus arrived in early 2020, billions across the globe were suddenly tasked with preparing their own breakfast, lunch and dinner for months on end. Life, quite literally, became meals.
In India, as across the globe, the pandemic created the ideal conditions for first-time cooking. With maids banned from entering buildings, home delivery fraught with contagion anxiety, and restaurants no longer on the menu, even those averse to cooking decided to take a serious stab at it.
As millions struggled to pull up no-fail, pantry-friendly recipes, there was a stratospheric rise in culinary interest among the kitchen-phobic. Google searches for cooking videos hit record highs, and traffic to cooking websites skyrocketed. Viewership of YouTube channels like Spice Eats, Kabita’s Kitchen and The Bombay Chef soared.
The boom underscored the differences among amateur cooks. For many, cooking was simply a matter of necessity. Others turned to the stove as balm during a time of high stress. Some craved comfort and a sense of community, others derived a sense of structure from mundane culinary rituals.
When Natasha Nyss, 37, a hair and make-up artiste, decided to end her marriage and move to Goa in March, she was in no mental condition to cook. A Swiggy addict, she didn’t even bother getting herself a gas cylinder, the first step towards a functional kitchen.
As she struggled to cope during the lockdown, even the simplest of tasks appeared onerous. “The first time I attempted tea in the microwave, I forgot to add tea leaves! Yeah, I can be that silly.” A few YouTube tutorials later, she could pull off basics like rice and chicken curry. “It felt good. I never realized cooking in a microwave could be so easy and quick.”
Mumbai-based photographer Ritam Banerjee began cooking as a means of keeping away from the packets of Maggi noodles and Amul cheese he had overstocked in his pantry. His first masterpiece was a batch of charred spuds. “I thought I was the new Jamie Oliver, and kept frying the potatoes to get the colour right. I guess I overdid it,” said the 44-year-old solo shelterer.
FaceTiming with his parents in Kolkata improved his skills. As he got more creative, he found he liked to ad-lib by constantly tweaking his mother’s recipes until they were barely recognizable. The outlier did turn to BongEats to learn how to make chapattis, though. “Not to boast, but they were the most perfect things I’ve ever made.”
HR professional Neha Kamat, 36, stuck to the familiar, following the recipes of her culinary heroes—Sanjeev Kapoor, Varun Inamdar and Smita Deo—to the T. Sequestered in her Dadar home in Mumbai, she surprised herself by turning out a perfect batch of khandvi, a labor-intensive snack that has long intimidated home cooks.
The endorphin high she got from her maiden effort crashed when she attempted a trendy chocolate dessert in a jar. The glass in which she was making the confection exploded inside the oven due to overheating. “I almost set the house on fire,” she recounted, shuddering at the explosive memory.
Ayushi Chauhan, 31, was equally clueless about the ways of the kitchen when she began self-isolating in her apartment in Delhi in March. The fledgling cook started with tossing up a simple bowl of poha. “Growing up, I would always eat poha from someone else’s lunchbox as it wasn never made in my home. It was fantastic to see the tables turn as I packed extra helpings of it for work to share it with my colleagues,” said the marketing professional.
Embracing her hours in the kitchen to learn, Chauhan cooked up the perfect storm— everything from pan-seared chicken and malai paneer to her mother’s karela besan fry. “It took a bit of doing. But the joy I felt when I sat down to relish all that hard work was sheer bliss!”
Not everyone cooked with such gusto. Rahul Shankar, 47, Senior Manager at a Mumbai-based daily, felt jittery and overwhelmed when his wife Anupama fractured her arm during the quarantine. “I was a total mess,” he confessed. With step-by-step guidance from the spouse—and heaps of moral support from his college-going daughter—he managed a limited rotation of basics like dal-rice and mutton curry.
The year also saw several confident practitioners return to the kitchen after a long time. Anupama Bhalla, who spent 25 frenetic years in print media, longed to reconnect with her pahadi culinary roots. Confined to her home during the lockdown, she did just that.
Bhalla also welcomed the challenge of attempting a new culinary feat—baking her own quarantine sourdough. “I was like “‘Hey, if I can bake my own bread, I can do anything!’” shared the first-time baker.
So how are these newbies faring as life returns to a closer semblance of normal in 2021? Predictably, most have fallen back on old habits, preferring the routine and comfort of maids. But many have persevered, widening their repertoire of recipes and skills in the months following the peak of the pandemic.
Banerjee has come out of 2020 committed to a healthier lifestyle. “Earlier I would chew my maid’s brains about her cooking. Now I have trained her how to make the type of food I like to eat—low on oil and masalas and cooked on slow flame.”
Although his own kitchen hours have reduced, he remains committed to his newfound passion. “I found myself through cooking. There’s no quitting the kitchen. I’m here to stay,” claimed the enthusiast who’s on to Mughlai parathas next.
The curve of Kamat’s culinary skills has seen a spike in the past few months. “The lockdown has built enough confidence for me to cook for six people at a time,” said the 36-year-old, who wants to make nutrition a priority and has taken to baking gluten-free breads.
More of a Sunday chef now, Chauhan said she is still mastering roasting and sautéing. She aspires to make gooey-cheesed Italian favourites like lasagna and parmigiana melanzane in the New Year.
Nyss’s low-effort style hasn't changed, but she has invested in an induction stove to rustle up healthy one-pots. “Cooking for myself has become a part of self-love. It reminds me I’m worth it,” she said.
Bhalla witnessed the start of a new addiction for making difficult desserts. “I can’t believe how many self-made banoffee pies I’ve polished off!”
Most prize the memories of these initial culinary journeys and look back at their first year in cooking as a profound, even life-changing experience. “It felt good to feed my family in a time of crisis,” said Shankar.
As the New Year begins, the continuing uncertainty in the wake of the new virus variant has only added to the appeal of the kitchen. Faced with the prospect of indefinite social distancing and future lockdowns, many continue to swear by the raw release of chopping alliums as a potent therapy for Covid coping.
Along with the joy, comfort and creativity it fosters, cooking also offers a much-needed sense of agency in these amorphous times. Like Beth Harmon said in The Queen’s Gambit, “This is a totally new world that you can control. Because things do feel much out of our control right now.”
Harmon was referring to chess, but her words could well apply to cooking in Corona times. Banerjee endorsed this view, “Life in recent months has been stressful at times, but watching my chapattis puff up has kept me sane."