I cried the first time I cooked Afghan food by myself. I cooked for one friend and it was a failure.
As I carefully stuffed the potato and leek mixture, inadequately seasoned, and folded the egg roll wrapper – I cried. I was angry and sad – the dingy blue kitchen was too empty. It was mine, and I was proud of it, but it wasn’t enough.
The one person beside me wasn’t enough. Neither was the rat that would appear only to me. His name was Snuffleupagus, but that’s another story.
My parents were upset and I was in my first apartment. I was blindly reeling and rolling into a lonely future, fighting for freedom, feeling desperately claustrophobic with my huge family, aunts and uncles calling every moment of the day, trying to get me to come home, just come home.
I wanted freedom but damn, it was lonely.
I thought then that Afghan food should be cooked the way it is eaten. With too many people in the kitchen, too many people in the house, enough food for everyone and probably enough to take home. Laughter, screaming children and perhaps some gossip and criticism. Too many women in the kitchen, pushing and poking, mentally judging the hostess’ food. A few children at the table, stacking the plates with forks, spoons and napkins, pouring coke into plastic cups. Too much noise, not enough help and depending on the family, too many lazy men sitting in the corner (Not mine though).
In my lonely little kitchen, I cooked and attempted to fry the bolani. The bolani fell apart as I fried it, stuck to the bottom of the pan. I over-salted the yogurt, meant as a dipping sauce.
It was nasty and I was heart-broken. These two lives just wouldn’t mesh. My yellow and brown afghan kitchen and my blue american kitchen. True to my melodramatic ways, I thought it was the end, seeing this lonely little kitchen as my future.
Sometimes I’m a bit too dramatic.
My parents calmed down. It took a while but they did. They made peace with my having my own kitchen. While they were calming down, my mom cooked food for me. She often left it at the door of the apartment, rarely coming in. I wonder what she thought, cooking for me in her kitchen. I know she was angry with me, but the food, elaborate dishes, more than I could possibly finish, what did she want to say?
I calmed down too. I found my way back into the family, I guess I never really left. I learned how to cook from my mom. I called her often while in my kitchen in DC. Why is the ‘aush’ green?! Too much cilantro, don’t worry. Why is the bolani sticking? Get a better pan.
It’s been years since that first attempt. I’ve cooked for myself and cooked for others. I’ve learned how to cook on my own, smaller portions when necessary, larger when my family comes over. I’ve moved out on my own, moved back in, moved out again but back into the family apartment in Kabul and then moved back in with my parents again. Back and forth, back and forth.
I’m still getting used to new kitchens, and sometimes I’m upset that I didn’t just stick to one kitchen, but oh well.
I like to cook, even in Kabul though my servants often kick me out of the kitchen. The lack of utensils in Kabul is bewildering, that and I don’t know where anything is. Nor can I buy egg roll wrappers for the bolani. Who knew they made the dough themselves? I like to sit in others’ kitchens in Kabul, knowing that if they let you hang out there – you really are family. Chatting and laughing, taste testing, washing dishes when necessary. Even if it’s just two people, it’s still fun.
I like to have people over for dinner, welcoming them, forcing them to take food home. There is so much love in cooking, so much worry; will the food come out okay? Will I make anyone sick? Too much salt? Too little? The kitchen is where I mentally assess each guest; will they eat this? Are they vegetarians, do they only eat halal? Will I have enough food? Will they think I didn’t cook enough? Will they know that I tried my best? That I want them to feel welcome?
I’ve made peace with the kitchens in my life; the warmth and the heat come, no matter the size. I’ve made peace with my need for solitude and my need for my family. They’re meshing. I think my parents and their generation have made peace with us, this generation who are so achingly different yet familiar, new versions of their own mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.
We’re often in the kitchen together these days. My mother, aunts, cousins and myself, grumbling why the younger generation won’t stack plates and pour soda (why am I, at 29, still doing it?!).
Then we’re done cooking and we send one out of the kitchen and into the living room to say, “Naan tayar ast (The food is ready).”
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