Fed By Kali's Flame

Self-portrait as Kali
Image: Prachi Gupta
Year in Review 2018Year in Review 2018We made it through another weird year. Let's look back on how we got over.

Two weeks after I moved into a new, bare apartment, my brother died. His death left a void in my life; shattered my confidence and, temporarily, I felt as though I forgot how to be a person. I have many hobbies: I run, I paint, I read, and I write. During times of stress, I have always leaned on these things to distract, to reflect, and endure. But after his death, my body would not move. My brain would not focus. The words would not flow. The desperation and the rage trapped inside me erupted in ways I did not recognize. I obsessively researched furniture online for hours; though I am an atheist, I sought out Indian art and Hindu mythology, and, to my surprise, I began to cook.

Smashan Kali by Raja Ravi Varma
Image: Wikipedia
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In Sanskrit, Kali means “force of time.” Kali is the darkness that existed before the Earth and the universe were created and from which it was born. There are many origin stories that describe her—in some ancient texts she is seen as the one of the tongues of fire, Agni, and elsewhere she is the manifestation of the unbridled rage of other Hindu gods. Around her waist, she wears a belt of human heads, and in common depictions, she carries a sword, trident, and a bowl to catch blood from severed heads. She dances on the corpses of the demons she kills. Her rage is protective, like a mother’s anger towards those who threaten her family, and like time, she is both healing and nurturing. Kali does not fit into Western conceptions of good and evil, she is an energy, a force that existed before its creation and will exist after its destruction. Kali Ma is the Mother of the Universe.

It’s not a coincidence that I was drawn to Kali’s ferocity just as I began to cook. Cooking is an act of destruction and rebirth. We slaughter chickens for their meat and harvest corn only to rip it from the fertile stalk and we cut, chop, butcher, burn, and roast the remains until they are wholly unrecognizable from their once-vibrant origins. It is a violent act that sustains us and one around which we build family, community, and tradition. Like Kali, cooking transforms destruction into something nourishing; something beautiful and comforting.

I’d never thought of food as more than sustenance. Just as I brush my teeth so that they don’t rot, until this year, I shoveled food into my mouth so that I had energy. Cooking was an extension of this chore, a ritual in which the effort I put in outweighed the brief satisfaction gained. My sense of desperation from raw, cutting grief and a rage I’d never before known, propelled me into the kitchen and transformed my relationship with food.

One of my most salient memories of cooking is when, as a teenager, I planned a surprise dinner for my mom’s birthday. Armed with a recipe of vegetarian spring rolls, I meticulously picked out the ingredients at Wegman’s on her birthday weekend and then went to my friend’s house, where we cooked together. It was the first time I had purchased an avocado and I had no idea what to do with it. After studying the surface, I peeled the avocado like a hard-boiled egg, slowly chipping off the tough, scaly green skin. It took me a good 10 minutes; only years later would I learn the proper (and much easier) technique of slicing the soft flesh length-wise and then pulling the sides apart, around the large seed. The spring rolls took so long that, for the actual main course, my brother and I just heated up a bottle of Ragu tomato sauce and boiled some pasta. My mother, who, every night, rolled fresh roti as part of an elaborate homemade Indian meal, was elated by the gesture. The lesson I took away, however, was that cooking is hard.

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The summer I turned 16, at the behest of my dad, my mom taught my brother and me how to make a full Indian meal—raita and curry and daal and roti and several vegetarian subzis, like aloo ghobi—but the knowledge was wasted on us. Part of my resistance to learning to cook came from the suspicion that in a future married life, it would be considered my job, just as it was in the household where I was raised. I would not reach for boondi or kala channa or hing or any of the recipes for my favorite food for another ten years, when I moved to the Lower East Side, my first time living alone in New York City, in an apartment where my stove, oven, sink, and fridge spanned the same length of my arms outstretched. After cockroaches invaded, however, I put aside the pressure cooker and for months subsisted mostly on the poke bowl place downstairs and frozen dumplings from across the street.

I moved into an apartment with a kitchen (an actual separate room) with new appliances that made me want to understand how to use them. I left behind the four-pot set from Target that I’d owned to since 2009, bought nicer ceramic ones, and, for the first time, owned more kitchenware than just a handful of glasses and free mugs. My theory was that, with new tools (and a nice kitchen), I might be more inclined to use them.

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At first, I didn’t realize that I was cooking; I thought I was indulging. I bought Midnight moon cheese and crackers, but they were not enough. So I bought olives and charcuterie and hummus and feasted with wine. I ate so much hummus that I bought a food processor and found the tahini at the local grocery. My cousin taught me how to make pizza dough: yeast, water, and flour—a mixture so easy that even I could make it. My home became my sanctuary and, so that I could avoid interacting with people as much as possible, I began making pizza almost every week at home. From there, my repertoire grew to include my boyfriend’s recipe for tofu stir-fry and cucumber-onion-tomato salad.

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In my search for comfort, I reached for the familiar: Indian food. But rather than reach for perfection, I sought simplicity. I learned my aunt’s shortcut to making Tandoori Chicken: marinating chicken with tandoori masala and yogurt for a few hours and then roasting it. I bought a used copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian cookbook, the one I’d seen at every auntie’s house growing up. I found a recipe for khichdi—lentils and rice cooked in a pressure cooker and spiced with onion, oil, cumin, turmeric, and ginger—that tasted similar to what my mother had fed me when I was sick.

Spice racks that my boyfriend installed in our kitchen
Photo: Prachi Gupta
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I used oil, onions, garlic, and ginger in nearly every meal. To save time: I bought ginger and garlic paste and a big bottle of lemon juice to reduce chopping. I kept rice in the fridge to keep weevils away; my pantry was perpetually stocked with the key ingredients I needed. I slowly developed andaaz, a sense of what spices and flavors I needed, as I learned recipes by heart. I invested in an Instant Pot, a small food processor, a blender, four cookbooks (and now own five, after a friend gifted another one to me for my birthday), three cast iron skillets, 48 spice jars and labels, a spice rack, an electric kettle, a hand-held strainer, a colander, pots, pans, and various types of glassware and dishware. They were each tiny revelations.

Rage thrust me into the kitchen. I lit a flame and heard the satisfying hiss of onions frying in the pan and somehow, the heat and the pressure transformed raw ingredients into complex flavors and whole meals that sustained me. In those next few weeks, cooking became something it never was: a way to express myself; a way to pass the time; a way to remind myself that I could do something—an accomplishment; a way to nourish my body, a way to delight and surprise myself; a way to unleash my rage and turn it into something productive; a way to progress and to create in the face of destruction.

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Murgh Cholay on Diwali
Photo: Prachi Gupta

But slowly, as my pantry grew, so did my confidence and ambition. I made Instagram-ready ramen, and by November 2018, was able to whip up my first full, authentic Indian meal: Arvi (taro root), raita, and Murgh Cholay (chicken and chickpeas in a spicy stew) for Diwali.

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I don’t have ambitions to bake a cake from scratch or host large dinner parties. I will never be Samin Nosrat. I will probably never let my grandmother taste the Indian food I make, nor would I consider myself a “cook.” But cooking, for me, is controlled chaos, a way to harness manic energy and turn it into something tangible and comforting. It is a way for me to release my inner Kali.

Kali’s ferocity carried me to the kitchen. But over time, the rage dissipated and transformed into a calmness that comes from the reassuring passage of time and the slow realization that I could take care of myself. Now I feed myself the food cooked by Kali’s flame.

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About the author

Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is a senior reporter at Jezebel.

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