I’ve Never Made This Before
ILLUSTRATION BY MAYA JAIN
When my boyfriend pitched the idea for vegan-junk-food nights, I said yes before he’d finished his sentence. Every Saturday, for a while, I went over to his, sat by the window overlooking a lively little lane in Norwich. A cold beer in hand, I made conversation, laughed, and stayed out of his way while he cooked something decadent and new. The first night, he transformed cashews into a silky vegan cheese that he poured over a tray full of nachos. I dipped my finger in the golden dairy alternative and widened my eyes as I met his shining ones. ‘Oh, my God,’ I said, shaking my head to convey my disbelief, ‘this is incredible.’
He made a vegan mac ’n’ cheese the following Saturday. I sat on the kitchen counter by the wall, out of his way, drinking a little glass of wine that I’d bought—my contribution to the night—and talking when I thought I wouldn’t be distracting him. He boiled the pasta and spread it across an oven tray, layered his vegan cheese, his pride and joy, in thick waves over the macaroni. He tasted it, then reached for a couple of spices, sprinkling them over the pasta like it was second nature. I watched in awe, the casual way in which he knew exactly how much of what to throw into the mix to elevate a simple recipe. He pushed the tray into the oven. When it was done, the edges were crisp and the gold was a shade deeper than before. He chopped jalepeños over it, then cut us a slab each. I thumped my fist on the counter as I took my first bite. ‘Damn, that’s good!’ I said.
Mid-week, I got a text from him. ‘Next weekend?’ it said, along with a link to a vegan sloppy joes recipe. I didn’t bother reading through the recipe, just the title, and replied with many exclamation marks and heart-eyed emojis.
That Saturday, he had to push the dinner by an hour, and then another, because of work. When he apologised I told him not to be silly, of course I didn’t mind waiting. I put on something stupid on Netflix to pass the time. Halfway through the episode of whatever dumb show it was that I was watching I wanted a snack, a packet of instant noodles I had in the kitchen cupboard. I decided it was a good idea, that it would ensure I wasn’t ravenous by the time I got to his, that I wouldn’t resent him, then, when I got there and found that he was still only halfway through making dinner.
But he was already plating the sloppiest joes I’d seen when I got there. He smiled at me when I entered his kitchen. ’It’s stunning,’ I told him, leaning over the counter to get a better look at the shredded seitan beaming at me in its meaty disguise from under ropes of ketchup and mustard. I tasted a piece and acted like I was physically hit by the power of its goodness.
‘You like it?’ he asked, his eyebrows raised. His tone was nonchalant but the sincerity of the question was difficult to ignore.
‘Are you joking? It’s excellent. It looks professional,’ I said. And I wasn’t lying. Although the truth was, full with nutrition-less noodles that sat like a stubborn brick in my stomach, it was an effort to swallow anything more.
Satisfied, he set his laptop up, started playing a movie we’d been meaning to watch since we started dating, and dug into his sandwich. I did too, I took a big bite and chewed it slowly, thoroughly, willing my appetite to grow before I had to swallow again. It didn’t. I picked at the pieces of fake meat that he had made from scratch and felt him glancing at my un-changing plate as his own quickly emptied. He asked me once if it really was okay and I nodded, and took another big bite to prove it. But when he asked the third time, pausing the movie and turning his whole body to face me with the question, I confessed that I’d had a little snack already, a packet of instant noodles.
‘Instant noodles?’ He said, and shook his head like he’d rather I had named any other food.
The conversation quickly spun into a fight, and then I left. As I walked home, arms crossed angrily over my chest and my eyebrows furrowed like a frustrated cartoon, I couldn’t understand how the night had gotten away from me like that. I understood that it was shitty to have arrived so full when he’d prepared a meal for us both, but I didn’t think it warranted that reaction or that fight, which ended with us not watching the film and me not spending the night as planned. In fact, I couldn’t even recall most of what was said in the heat of the moment, except one thing he had said to me, not angrily but very simply. ‘Making food for someone is a way of loving them. You wouldn’t understand because you don’t cook.’
But when I had the opportunity, I thought to myself as I got home, shook my coat off, and changed into my pyjamas. All my life we’d had cooks at home who came and left so quietly sometimes I never saw them. I had parents who had full work lives and no interest in the kitchen. And when I was surrounded by friends who loved to cook. When I left home for the first time, my best friend and flatmate cooked dinner for us both every night because it soothed her. My boyfriend at the time, who’d moved country to study the same year I had, would invite me over and make us fish and rice, his father’s voice walking him through Goan recipes over Whatsapp voice notes. I never had to cook. Every time I sat down to eat with all these people who cooked around me, for me, they would ask me how it was, and I said, ‘It’s great. It’s superb. Of course, it is.’ And I thought, isn’t that obvious? What a thing to ask.
The way I usually apologised after a fight, the way I liked to make up, was by buying some flowers and making my eyes really big when he opened the door. But I knew that wouldn’t cut it this time. Instead I sent him a message a couple of days after we fought, saying that I was sorry, and that I had an Indian recipe I would like to try the coming Saturday. ‘It might be a disaster,’ I warned, ‘but it’s vegan!’
We decided I would cook at his house, but I was so self conscious that I chopped the onions, garlic, and ginger in my own kitchen first. The onions made my eyes water and I was grateful to be doing it privately. I crushed the garlic with the flat side of the knife before peeling them, the way I’d seen him do it, and struggled with the ginger’s skin, removing whole chunks of it as I peeled. I packed everything in little boxes and made sure I had all the ingredients I needed with me in a big Tesco’s bag that I then lugged to his. Thank God, I remember thinking when I’d gone grocery shopping earlier that morning, staring at isles of masalas and herbs in the ‘ethnic’ section of the big Sainsbury’s in my neighbourhood, Thank God everything is so clearly labeled. I scrolled through the ingredients list and picked out a packet labeled ‘Kasuri Methi’, ‘Coriander’, even double checked that I had the right red kidney beans. I had barely a clue what any of the ingredients looked like.
I couldn’t talk to him, couldn’t pay attention to anything he was saying because I was so certain that the moment I looked away from the cooking onions, they would burn. I ran between the stove and my laptop, propped up in the corner with the recipe that I’d zoomed into so that it felt like the instructions were being shouted at me, loud and clear. I was shy when the smell of garlic and ginger and the chillies that I struggled to slice wafted and filled the kitchen. My boyfriend, smoking out the window, said it smelled delicious.
‘It’s just the garlic,’ I said, and shrugged, pretending not to be utterly comforted by his simple reassurance.
The powdered spiced were in little jars, all clearly labelled, and I measured them as the recipe specified and threw them into the pot, trusting the recipe to know what it was doing. I couldn’t tell the difference between the cumin and the the coriander powder, and was surprised that turmeric wasn’t a more prominent ingredient, the one Indian spice that I did recognise from my own kitchen back home. I was afraid of the salt, and was careful not to put even a pinch more than the recipe called for.
I tried to dice the tomatoes, but mostly I just squished them under my knife, and then panicked when they didn’t form a thick paste along with the onions like in the picture posted alongside the recipe online. But his voice was calm and, following his lead, I acted as though it wasn’t the end of the world. He blended some of them, along with a handful of kidney beans, and then sat back down when I seemed calm again. ‘You’re the boss,’ he said, and opened another beer for us both.
I stirred in the kidney beans, and watched them closely, not sure what they were supposed to look like when they were ready. I asked him to taste it and he nodded. He dipped a teaspoon in and looked up thoughtfully after. I said, ‘I think all the flavours aren’t totally coming through.’
He said, ‘So then what do you think you need more of?’
I had no idea. ‘Chilli powder?’
I hadn’t ever thought about why people salt their food. It was that night that I discovered salt brings out all the flavours. I sprinkled in another spoonful then looked at the jar with a whole new appreciation. Humble salt. What a revelation.
Finally, after I’d thrown in a handful of roughly chopped coriander and googled whether or not you could could cook the stems I said, ‘I think it’s done.’
He said, ‘Try it.’
So I did. I nodded slowly.
‘Does it taste alright?’
‘I think so.’
I gave us both a small helping of rice and ladled a bit of rajma on top. ‘Now, you know I’ve never made this before. If you don’t like,’ I said over and over again, ‘you don’t have to finish it.’
He took his first bite and gave me the biggest smile. He said he loved it and took two more helpings afterwards.
As I watched him, I felt strange, like I was growing a new limb, or another tongue He kissed my head and said, ‘It’s got this incredible freshness to it. And the flavours all come through perfectly. This is fantastic, Rabia,’ he said, and the feeling grew. I felt closer to him after cooking for him, cooking him something that had given me comfort my whole life, and it felt like learning a new language.
When I left, I googled all kinds of Indian recipes, saved them on different platforms, and thought about all the foods I loved from back home in India. I felt immediately addicted to the practice, and wanted to perfect this new way I’d discovered of loving.
Rabia Kapoor is a writer from Mumbai. She is currently putting in her ten thousand hours to master the craft.