Today I made a rava dosa, and it was perfect. Its skin was pockmarked and darkened to the hue of warm honey, and it let out a slight crunch of protest as I bit into it. It had taken me try after try, with an actual notepad to organise my trial-and-error experimentation in. And after weeks of agony, I met my reward.
If you had told me a few years ago that I would derive intense satisfaction from cooking a single dosa, that I would then mass message 20 people, and write an entire column about it, I would probably have gone into mourning. But that was a girl who had a surplus. Desire, however, comes from deficit.
I’ve always been very accepting of the idea of food as art. It’s tempting to conjure up an image of a beautifully presented plate of posh food. The oddly specific image my mind has always fixated on—some enoki mushrooms piled on top of a smear of richly coloured puree, varying other posh bits and finished with a tuile—is a few galaxies away from my single rava dosa, eaten just as I scraped it off the pan, hunched over the hob and flinging bits from hand to hand to not let the heat burn a hole through my flesh. But if art is something that stimulates the senses and provokes an emotional response, food is the most abundant and important form there is. For me, food is how I’ve built a home.
When the pandemic struck this time last year, I was days away from coming home. I’d just weathered a bleak and grey English winter, and an unbroken year of predominantly bread, potatoes and oven meals (sorry England, the stereotype is true), and my light at the end of the tunnel was returning home for a few weeks. Nani had the tindas bought (not an easy task in March, my angel), the rajma soaking and some methi on standby to bury me under as I stepped through the doorway. But, like all the good things, it was not meant to be.
I’d like to say I took it like a champ, but the pillowcases I screamed and sobbed into are beside me as I type this, and I feel too watched to lie. In my defence, there was a global pandemic, I was homesick and confined to four walls in a cold country that boils potatoes (without even a sprinkle of salt) and calls them a side dish. It’s enough to drive a person crazy even without their grandmother sending them photos of all the food they’d missed. I wanted home, and with no way to be there, I decided to cook myself a home.
It started with some dal and rice, my phone balanced precariously on the shelf as my mother and step-dad talked over each other telling me what to do. The bottom of my pressure cooker had inches of scorched lentils/chickpeas/cauliflower scoured off it almost daily until I learnt to understand the intonation of the steam, and I butchered more onions than I can count; for some reason, my school had thought it important to teach me how to calculate the angle of elevation of a cloud over a lake but not how to knead dough or chop garlic. But there are these small, pocketed moments amidst the char and the piles of washing up when you eat a single, blindingly perfect rava dosa, and your rough, butchered hands feel worth it, because for that moment you feel at home.
The past year has been about building myself a nest of comfort with food that is art, with food that sets off a palpable, visceral reaction in my heart and fills me with happiness. I’ve built myself comfort and home in small bowls with big chillies, but this past year has also brought maturity. This time has been an invaluable lesson on self-sufficiency. I should not have spent my time eating joyless ready meals, not when they made me that miserable. The ability to cook at a level that feeds my soul along with my body seems like a pretty core life skill that I, for the longest time, didn’t recognise as important. Perhaps this was a side effect of my privilege, of having had the luxury not to have to cook every meal, or a misplaced fight against gendered expectations, but now it’s a tad embarrassing for this to have taken so long. In a world where we have so little control, the ability to control something as important and impactful as food is a buoy in a choppy and turbulent ocean.
Today should have been difficult, marking a year since I was meant to be home, two years since I saw my grandmother and three since I saw my mother, but my little rava dosa, tiny but mighty, made me feel at home (even if just for a few seconds).
The writer is a student, bookseller and mother of two dogs and a cat in Bournemouth.