In Isolation with Neha Kale

Location: Sydney, Australia

In the first weeks of lockdown, I wanted to cook with ingredients that sparked kinetic reactions. I wanted to make food that contrasted with the hush that had fallen across the world outside.

When I looked out from our balcony, our bustling inner-west street had become a theatre of one: a single car ambling towards Parramatta Road, a lone UberEats cyclist deliberating over whether or not he should enter an apartment building, a solo dog walker stepping on a growing pile of autumn leaves. I found myself foraging through the pink Tupperware container where our spices live in plastic packets with fading labels.

I scrambled fresh eggs bought from the café down the road with fried onion, green chilli and coriander. I toasted turmeric and mustard seeds in hot vegetable oil to make split-pea dahl, lentils turning obnoxiously thick and golden. Later I ate them in the sun with a tablespoon of good Greek yoghurt, knees covered with a crocheted blanket.

I delighted in the way the mustard seeds jumped up and down in the saucepan, the way they sputtered and demanded more attention, the way turning the heat up could make them a little crazy. They were awake, not inert.

I once had a flatmate who taught me that crushing basil leaves between your fingers released the herb’s flavours, made them aromatic. You do this, he said, right before you add it to what you are cooking—like the lasagne that E baked for the first time this week, puzzling over, but then nailing the béchamel.

Since then, I’ve been obsessed with the idea that ingredients can possess a secret language, that they can do different things in different contexts. That they can lead double lives.

Two years ago, during an especially memorable family Christmas back in Perth—a brown snake made a surprise visit during dessert—my aunt and uncle gifted us a copy of my grandmother’s recipe book. Inside were handwritten recipes for prawns pattia and dal ghosh, techniques written in curly cursive, titles made grand by quotation marks. (My grandmother, glamorous in pearls and fifties dresses, always knew her way around an accessory.)

Underneath, my aunt translated the names of her spices from Hindi to English. Jeera referred to cumin. Cloves were lavang, and dhania equalled coriander seeds. Cardamom pods—maybe the best spice of all—were elaichi. These are words that I didn’t know but knew. These were words that tasted different in my mouth even as they pointed towards the same thing.

“I try to avoid sentimentality and I try to avoid the easy cliché. I try to avoid any mention of mangoes, of spices and monsoons,” the Indian poet and journalist Jeet Thayil told NPR during an interview about his book, Narcopolis, set in the seamy underworld of 1970s Bombay, a city I was born in but barely know.

Thayil was onto something. When you’re Indian-Australian, cooking with—or writing about—spices is inherently risky. Spices can signify a readymade exotic. Too easily, they can become a symbol of immigrant longing, a means of enriching a narrow and neutered reality.

Thinking about this reminds me of a time, in my twenties, when I only wore Cheap Monday jeans, when I couldn’t bring myself to buy naan at the supermarket for fear that the cashier would think they knew me. A time when I was only too ready to tie myself in knots for people who didn’t love me, blasé—in the way of twentysomethings—of what I’d lose if I cleaved myself in half.

A few weeks into isolation, the actor Irrfan Khan died unexpectedly. I felt a grief that was inexplicable. We poured glasses of red wine and watched one of his films, Mira Nair’s The Namesake, based on Jhumpi Lahiri’s book of the same name. It follows Ashima Ganguli, a classical singer, who moves from Calcutta for her husband, an engineering professor, to the chilly suburbs of Massachusetts. In the book Ashima, missing home, combines “Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl.” She adds “salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper.” She wishes she could find mustard oil.

During isolation, I’ve found myself performing a similar kind of culinary tetris, scrambling for ghost ingredients to sate real appetites. Cooking with spices has shown me—more slowly than I’d like—that avoiding the sentimental, shirking the cliché in an attempt at self-preservation can be a way to erase myself, to kill the things that I truly want. 

On bad days, it feels like acquiescing to a culture that suffers from a failure of imagination, one that insists on our duality rather than our plurality, one that asks us to make a choice—immigrant or citizen, mother or lover, worker or human.

Over the last couple of months, the pandemic has rendered the lives and livelihoods of international students, new immigrants, gig economy workers precarious, untenable. All the illusions of protection have been punctured—the pressure to prove your worthiness, prove that you belong, prove that you can neatly assimilate, has been exposed as the scam that it always was.

Last Friday, a few days after restrictions started to ease, I cooked butter chicken. The mascot of Indian cuisine in the West, the dish is a good metaphor for the dangers of believing any food is “authentic,” the consequence of a single story. When it’s good, it tastes like it was conceived for a 16th century Mughal emperor, but was actually invented by a chef named Kundan Lal Gujral at a restaurant called Moti Mahal in 1950s Delhi.

I marinated the chicken in yoghurt and jeera, dhania, elaichi, the words floating into my head automatically. I simmered the chicken in cream and butter, ginger and garlic, relishing the way the way the spices sounded and smelled when they collided with hot fat. A friend came over for dinner and we gathered around our table, taking care to sit away from each other. We talked and laughed, listened to music from the nineties, savouring the pleasure of good food and good company.

The next morning, I stacked the dishwasher. I stuffed the packets of spice back into the Tupperware, taking care to wiping the residue off our counter. The light was changing. Outside, the street was quiet, but there were a couple more people crunching through the autumn leaves, the street no longer a theatre of one.

By Neha Kale