Like most teenagers who didn’t have many friends to hang out with after work, I developed an interest in cooking as a way to entertain myself. Almost every recipe I saw (that I liked) involved tools I didn’t have access to, like a grill, a waffle maker, stand mixers, oven—you get the idea.
Most Asian homes don’t have those appliances—and more importantly, they have no use for them in their kitchens. Generations of Indians lived full, healthy, and happy lives eating wholesome meals without even setting eyes on a microwave or an oven. Cooking heat came from firewood stoves and kerosene or oil lamp burners, both almost extinct now. Modern homes have induction or gas stoves. As a child I sat beside my mother watching her blow through a kerosene stove awaiting the water to boil.
On a side note, she also had a vintage oven in which she baked buns—buttered with a sesame-strewn crust—for us each week, but it was still a phenomenon in a society far more accustomed to traditional cooking methods.
By the time I was old enough to understand its functionality, my mother’s oven had fallen prey to rust and disuse. That’s why the oven fascinated me so. When I saw a video of bread rising behind the glass, as a flower to the sun, my heart swelled in longing. Buying an oven went right on top my list.
But it was also an investment and my inner miser took long enough to weigh the benefits and the possibilities of me making optimum use of the purchase. After years of being on my need-to-buy list, my inner logic won, pushing the oven to the more idealistic nice-to-have-but-high-maintenance list. And so, despite spending almost four years wishing, I never bought an oven.
Then as planned my move to Australia, I realised an oven was a household staple in the first world. Of course, that’s why every recipe called for preheating at 400 degrees F or 200 degrees C. My joy knew no bounds. I couldn’t wait to get started, to bake my aches away, to watch bread that I kneaded rise to the occasion.
Except, it took me over two months to pluck the courage to open the oven.
It was the first thing I saw in the kitchen. Unmissable, wide and thick-skinned, with knobs and symbols, and a clock that showed the wrong time—the oven was too much to take.
The oven, an appliance I’d imagined to love and cherish, felt alien and condescending. For the love of bread I couldn’t figure out what the symbols meant. How hard was it to add explanatory text in there? And why was the fan so big, staring at me as I peeped in, as though from behind soot-studded bars?
It was scary. I forgot all about the wonderful recipes I’d planned—choosing instead to cradle the comfort of the pot. Who needs roasted pumpkins when you could boil them instead? After all, the result was the same—softness, edibility.
And so it was a whole two months before my housemate, trying hard not to snigger at my ancient reluctance to modern equipment, explained the symbols and nudged me to live a little.
And since then I’ve been roasting chickpeas, baking crackers from intended cookie dough, making crispy onion flowers, and toasting oats with tahini and Vegemite (trust me, it’s good stuff if you like savoury stuff). I’ve been on an experimental rampage, throwing everything in the oven, testing temperatures, resting my palms in the glass as winter raged outdoors, and appreciating the oven for its might.
Then one day, too confident to wear oven mitts, I used a cloth to pull out the tray, singeing a small part of skin on the tray above it. It wasn’t painful for I’d pulled my hand out instantly. But the scar lingers, as a visual reminder of my adventures with the oven, with the power of heat, a power beyond my control, a power that I took for granted—that we all often take for granted.
As I look at the scar now, weeks later, I think of my carelessness, but also my growth as an individual. In just a few months, I’d gone from not knowing what an oven is to being so comfortable that I shrug off a small burn without a flinch.
Not to underestimate the importance of kitchen safety, but I can’t help but amuse myself of how ingrained the oven’s become in my life. It’s a reflection of a bigger picture—a sign of my adapting to a new society, and melding in without much friction.
We seldom realise it in our everyday rush, but when you’ve moved to a new place, things that once overwhelmed you soon become part of you. I paused to realise: that’s how oven and I are now.