The Alchemy of Cooking

Adding cream to my curry
Adding cream to my curry

1) a power or process of transforming something common into something special
2) an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting (definition from Merriam-Webster)

I ’ve always loved the almost alchemical process of cooking and baking, but it really hit me just how much I love it while I prepared the marinade for Chicken Tikka Masala last night.

I posted this on Facebook as I was making it:

This is something so very peaceful and comforting about the alchemy of cooking. You start off with a bunch of odd bits and pieces of things and start to change their chemistry by stirring, grating, chopping, mixing, etc and pretty soon, the aromas start to soothe or seduce you, tantalize you with memories, tell you a story… Before you know it, you’re lost in it and the ingredients have morphed into something altogether alien from the jars and bags of stuff you had piled on the table. Further alchemy happens when you sit at a table with friends or family and the odds and ends you threw together are nourishing and perpetuating the joy you felt in making it. That’s what I love about it. Now the chicken is marinating in this and tomorrow night sometime, when I get home from San Diego, I’ll do more things to it and it will become something even more than what it is now – Chicken Tikka Masala”

This afternoon as I began to make the sauce, I was again struck by the alchemy of it.  I know some people cook because they have to, and some hate it.  I adore it and that was instilled in me at a very young age by my Grandma Lupe.  She would have loved the process of making this dish.  A fabulous Mexican cook, she loved to push the boundaries, cook out of her comfort zone and try new things.  I grew up watching Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet with her and nothing made her happier than new kitchen gadgets or a new recipe.  I can’t count the times we found recipes together in a newspaper or cookbook and set about trying it.

I remember one year, with a plethora of guayabas (guavas) on the trees in the backyard, we tried making a guava cake.  The recipe and common sense neglected to tell us that we needed to strain, so the end result was a delicious, pink and completely inedible cake full of seeds.  How we laughed that day in spite of our failure.

She encouraged me to try new things, to create my own concoctions which we called “cochinadas”.  We learned together and had so much quality time in that little kitchen with the creaky floors on Goodwin Avenue.  My Auntie Jessie was always there too, and her little laugh and the focused, intense look she’d have when measuring or reading a recipe, I see now on my granddaughter Jasmine’s face.  It is amazing how cooking brings a family together.  Food, the passion for it and the joy in sharing it: to me that is what makes a house a home.

My house smells like curry, papadums and warm naan bread; nothing like the smells of the house on Goodwin, but I feel my grandmother’s spirit here with me, looking over my shoulder and smiling that I’m still in love with cooking and enjoying the happy laughter that comes from my family and friends as they eat.

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