Homegrown Cooking

In Food by Chelsea Bodoe

One of the earliest memories I have is playing “restaurant” in the plastic kitchen my parents bought for me. Brightly coloured plastic spoons would clang and clack against plastic pots as I whipped up the delicacy of the day. Of course, although no real ingredients were used, I took great care in pouring pretend broths, and chopping imaginary vegetables to make sure the meal was top quality. Whether it was soup, curry goat, dhal and rice, or an assortment of pastries, my parents would patiently sit at their table and wait for my imaginary meal. As I served them their meals, they’d dutifully eat every last drop and praise me for my culinary mastermind. I sat across from them and watched eagerly as they took exaggerated bites, my eyes flitting between them to judge whether what I had prepared-albeit imaginary-was delicious. 

As I grew older, my mother began to trust me in the kitchen and I transitioned into the position of her—in my opinion—very helpful sous chef. In our house, Sunday mornings were reserved for Trini breakfasts: tomatoes choka, boiled eddoes, baigan choka, and a piping hot sada roti. Amidst all the fragrant smells of vegetables and spices in her kitchen, what I remember most is my mother rolling out the sada roti dough, and watching it balloon up against the heat of the iron tawa. Often, I would be handed a small piece of this dough. I would watch my mother and flour the counter in the exact way she did before using my plastic rolling pin to slowly roll out my roti, often too thin. Sometimes we used cookie cutters to make fun shapes. Although the tawa was too hot for me to use, I would wait and watch excitedly as my mother declared that my roti was the next one to be made. It was on these mornings that my breakfasts were extra special, accompanied by star-and-heart-shaped sada roti. Sundays were the one day a week my family would all have breakfast together. I would take the opportunity to proudly show my dad my craftsmanship. If he was lucky, I’d offer him a corner of my roti, just to prove that it was as good as mom’s. 

As we sat down to eat, my mother would tell me stories about how she had a hot sada roti every morning for breakfast when she was growing up in Trinidad. Dressed in their school uniforms, she would line up in the crowd of her eleven brothers and sisters, waiting for my Grandma to hand her a hot sada roti covered in butter. Together all the siblings would all walk to school, taking late bites of their roti, often too hot against the heat of the island. But my mother wouldn’t have wanted any other breakfast. As she grew, the idea of making fun shaped sada roti with cookie cutters was passed on by her mother, who would make roti in shapes identical to the ones I nibbled on as my mother told me stories. She described how the melted butter would seep into the tender sada roti dough. On special occasions, Grandma would fill her roti with avocado or tomatoes choka. When I was old enough to finally appreciate avocados, I insisted that my mother do the same with my breakfast. 

As I grew up and moved out, my mother and I spent less time in the kitchen together. The appliances in my new apartment were different than the ones I had grown up with. They had buttons and settings that were unfamiliar. Suddenly the kitchen became an intimidating place and I realized that I might be doomed to a life of microwaveable meals. I did not have my mom anymore, I was on my own. Until I realized I wasn’t. 

It started with a single chicken breast. 

I remember that phone call clearly, me almost in tears as I phoned my mother unsure of how long to bake the chicken breast for and under what heat. Silly, now that I think about it but yet again my mother had become my safety blanket and guide in the kitchen. The phone calls didn’t stop there. I asked about pasta, and vegetables, and other proteins. The first time I baked cookies, my mother was preemptively called. Every Sunday my mother and I would chat, with me writing down the exact instructions of how to prepare each intended meal. After I’d prepared the meal, she would receive a photo of what I had done. “Looks great, you have to make this for me when you’re home,” her texts would read. In a way, we were still cooking together, just remotely. When I was home for the holidays, however, we made everything together. At Christmas, the table would be littered with flour from the sponge cake batter and homemade bread mixed with the scent of the ham baking in the oven. At Easter, I would help my mom dice onions to throw into the saltfish and salmon we ate yearly. 

The wonderful thing about cooking is that there is infinite room for learning, and this learning doesn’t always have to happen in one direction. I love my mom’s home cooking, but as I moved out, I found a particular love for new foods and trying new recipes—so much so, that I started my very own food blog.  One of my first weekends back from university, my mother’s eyes lit up in anticipation when I said I would be cooking dinner for the family. What followed were endless ricotta-spinach lasagnas, stuffed chicken breasts, and a host of other delicious dishes that I’m now forced to cook each time I return home. This resulted in one of the best presents I’ve ever received: a homemade spice rack that has moved around the country with me, containing both Trinidadian and Western spices.

The longer I stayed away from home and the farther I went, the more I suddenly missed my mom’s Trinidadian home cooking. They had turned into treat foods I had once a year when I visited for Christmas. However, these were the dishes of my childhood—the dishes I had never dared to make for fear they would not live up to the quality of my mother’s food. My resolve to try these dishes finally came about when I moved across the country. The flavours of my mother’s cooking were not only delicious, but they reminded me of home. 

From then on, each time I visited home, my mother and I played together in the kitchen just like when I was young. But instead of handing me small pieces of sada roti dough and cookie cutters, I was being told exactly how to cook the goat and how much curry to add, as my mother sat on the sidelines watching. Just as she had, I versed myself in how to tell when dough has risen just enough, by the feel of it, and how tender meat had to be in order to be taken off the stove. Suddenly I was cooking beautiful versions of my mother’s home dishes. More so, we were cooking together just as I had when I was young. 

When I returned to my corner of the country, the phone calls turned to FaceTime calls, and my mother watched me season all my meats. She sent me a care package with Trini spices, that I still use to this day. Together, we cooked the foods of my childhood collaboratively, despite being over 2000km apart. Cooking continued to grow into an experience that my mother and I shared. 

It has now been years since I moved out of my parents’ house. I share my life with my fiance in a beautiful part of the country, a plane ride away from my mother. My kitchen has become my favourite room in the house. It is there I create and experiment with flavours. One of my favourite past times now is to host dinner parties and cook for others. In many ways, I am very much the same child that was clinging and clanging plastic pots together, just now with real ingredients. Of course, at the centre of it all, my mother still receives a picture of everything I make, and the response to each picture is the same:

 “Can’t wait til you’re home. You’ll be doing all the cooking.”

To share food with someone is a cultural and intimate experience, but I would argue that it is the act of cooking that is the great amalgamator. In the kitchen, amidst the flour and chana and sizzling of the hot oil, there were no differences between my mother and I. There was no teacher and no student—there were simply two people brought together in their love of each other, their heritage, and good food.