Cookies!

I’ve done quite a lot of baking since moving to Australia. But I’m no baker. I’ve never made delectable goods people would want to buy. 

I’ve baked vegetables, pumpkin seeds, and oat clusters. I’m a complete novice otherwise.

I volunteer at a co-operative food shop. Yesterday, one of the managers walked up to me as I cleaned the counter and asked me how I felt about baking. 

Unprepared. Unconfident.

And then, for the first time, I was asked to bake something. It was to be either banana bread or cookies. Nothing new or unheard of—we had s pre-designed recipe. I just had to follow instructions. If it said to boil two cups of salt, well… you know. 

I wouldn’t boil two cups of salt.

But I was making chocolate chip and tahini cookies. 

This wasn’t my usual marinate-vegetables-and-shove-in-the-oven recipe. It wasn’t anything like the pumpkin and oats mixture I bake all the time. To put it simply, it wasn’t simple.

cookies in the making

However, on paper, the recipe was pretty straightforward. It had fewer steps than the banana bread, and even though I’d have chosen the bread to stuff my face in, the cookies seemed far less intimidating to make.

I read the instructions over and over just to make sure I didn’t forget the salt or the vanilla, the oil, or the milk. 

It was a vegan recipe, and only a few days ago, I’d seen the recipe’s author bake some cookies herself. So I had a reasonable idea of how they were supposed to look. I recalled awe-ing at how flawlessly the cookies had spread and how much people enjoyed chewing them.

It was a lot to live up to. And that terrified me. Even though it was just flour, baking soda, and salt for the dry and oil, tahini, milk, and sugars for the wet, I still felt an enormous pressure over my head as I measured the ingredients, battling with myself over the difference between a heaped and flattened cup.

The recipe suggested 15 cookies. And as I balled up the cookie dough, smiling to myself at how much it resembled the cookie doughs I’d seen on television, I realised I was making far too many—I’d made thirty small balls instead of 15 big ones. Anxious, but still proud of my mixing capabilities, I greased the trays, arranged the balls, and popped them into a waiting oven. 

freshly baked cookies

For the next fifteen minutes, I was thankfully too distracted to bite my nails and check in on the cookies every two minutes. When they came out, smaller than I expected, they were more like blobs of chocolate-topped brownish flour than flat disks of chewy goodness. 

My heart sank. Perhaps I’d sunk the cookies.

The first taste-tester said it was good. But he’s a nice guy. The second affirmed the first guy’s comment, adding that the cookies were crunchy and crumbly—which is good, if you like crumbly cookies.

They were both more than less than helpful. I still couldn’t tell if the cookies were any good. And I didn’t trust myself to eat any.

We sold out of cookies in a day.

Many people appreciated my cookies. And yet, as a novice baker and an incredibly-doubtful person, it’s hard to believe.

Perhaps it wasn’t so bad.

Perhaps I’m not such a terrible baker, after all.

Perhaps I could do more…

Taken for granted

Living in South Asia, cooking was one of the biggest concerns for my mother. She’d wake up at 4 am to prepare breakfast from scratch. She’d feed us, and once my brother and I left for school and our father to work, she’d clean up and start making lunch. When we got back home, not only would we have a plate of wholesome rice, vegetables, and the occasional meaty or fishy treat, but we’d also have perfectly-proportioned tea and a snack to get us through our homework. While we gorged on the spring rolls, cutlets, or some other goodness, she’d set up the kitchen for dinner. From kneading the dough to rolling it out and cooking it, my mother would spend at least two to three hours sweating over each meal, painstakingly poring over the rolling pin, making sure each flatbread was even on all sides, not too thick or they wouldn’t cook in the middle, but not too thin either for they’d then become too crispy and brittle-like. All the while, she’d ignore the sweltering heat emitting from the stove as her skin and life burned.

She wouldn’t go to bed until after 11 pm.

In a day, she’d spend at least 6 to 8 hours prepping, cooking, and cleaning up. To say she was tied to the stove is an understatement.

She wasn’t the only one. A lot of Indian families had a similar lifestyle. A lot of Indian mothers never had time for a ladies’ night out or even to go to the bathroom at times—because their toddler would wail if they leave the room.

I grew up observing my mother. And although I wouldn’t have had the same life as her, I would’ve still spent a lot of my life cooking and scrubbing had I stuck around the same societal mentality.

When I moved to Australia, I couldn’t believe how easy the food was. I’m not referring to the abundant restaurants. Cooking itself is now effortless. I rarely eat out—it’s way too expensive. But I do cook a lot. It’s too easy. Canned pulses, frozen fruit and vegetables, and oven-friendly meals have transformed cooking from a chore to a ritual as simple as pulling on a favourite t-shirt in the morning. I don’t cook three meals a day either—I make a pot of beans and use it for three days. People think it gets boring, but it doesn’t. I always have some fruit and vegetable lying around for a quick snack or meal. My meat-eating brother gets chicken wings and shoves them in the oven. It takes less than an hour to prepare a weeks’ worth of meals. It’s fast food without the harmful ingredients and effects you’d associate with fast food. Because everyday meals are so quick and easy, I get a lot of time to work on my hobbies and endeavours—to experiment with new recipes, to read and write, to prepare an elaborate meal once a while, or just to wander the streets, aimless. It’s such a nice feeling not to be a slave to the kitchen.

It’s all too late for my mother, though. Sadly, she didn’t have the convenience that I now have. 

That’s the problem of modern life—we take so many things for granted that we fail to realise that even the seemingly instantaneous chopped tomatoes weren’t always that instant.


Image: Melissa Walker Horn on Unsplash

Oven and I

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.

Alternative reality

“I’ll have a flat white with an extra shot and almond milk, please.”

For most of us, that’s just another coffee order. A custom drink unlike the regular rather milky beverage.

However, until recently, that was more than a luxury for me. Before I moved to Australia, I took my coffee black or with home-made oat milk, which I wasn’t a huge fan of anyway. I’m vegan, and so my only option back in India was to go black or go home. I didn’t mind much, because I’ve always felt that functional coffee should be strong, sugarless, and black.

Still, it would’ve been nice to blend a splash of almond milk in my coffee.

Sure, I could still get it off one of those niche supermarkets that almost no one goes to, where they stock about two or three cartons of alternative milk every six months. The reason—almond milk is an imported good. And so, naturally it was far too expensive for my lifestyle. It remained a rare and pricey trinket I could observe from a distance, without ever a hope of possession.

Coffee shops stood no chance of offering it.

Does that sound pathetic?

Because it is.

Now though, I have three cartons of almond milk in my pantry. Yes, it costs little more than regular milk, but it’s still abundant and accessible. That’s first-world privilege.

We don’t often realise that even the most negligible aspects of our everyday life is such a big deal for the rest of the world. Coming from the rest of the world, I am stunned at the level of eschewal in society. Of course, I don’t expect people to worship the alternative milk aisle, but instead, I realise I’ve become more grateful than I thought I could be. It’s a strange side of my character I didn’t know I had—a side that’s so conscious and appreciative of the little things in life.

But let’s talk about something more important.

A child from an average household in a developing country wouldn’t need or want alternative milk.

I didn’t until I went vegan. Although I didn’t grow up vegetarian, my family thrived on vegetable nutrition at least 6 days of the week. Sundays were special—lamb days. Or chicken. Or eating out. You get the idea. 

But, milk was the beverage staple, just as rice was for meals. It was a habit I grew into as I got older, because that’s the way we’ve always done things. No questions asked. It also helps that most Indian foods are largely plant-based. Alternatives weren’t part of the culture, and so weren’t an available option anywhere.

Someone once told me that health-conscious dietary practices are first-world problems. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised it’s true. A family that survives on gruel twice a day wouldn’t bargain or complain about not getting almond milk. Any milk is blessing. 

And when you’re growing up in such an environment, you don’t always know or listen to your body. You’ll just shrug off the bloat from gluten and the gas from milk as just another bad day. Because you’ve never experienced gluten-free, vegan, or raw food habits.

Lack of awareness leads to lack of wants. Which may seem like a good idea, but it also leads to unhealthy practices and lifestyles. Which is the disappointing reality in many of our so-called under-developed countries.