My mother-in-law is a goddess in the kitchen.
Her kitchen is a grass-thatched clay house with several fireplaces and cooking stoves. This is where she prepares all of the delicious Kenyan dishes for the family.
In the evenings, I like to sit there. Everything is flickering in the orange light of the flames, while the things in the pots are sizzling and unfurling their scents.
A lot is defined through cooking in Kenya. It represents the cook’s care for someone, her skills and her effort to make the eaters happy.
They say you are only ready to marry if you can make perfectly round chapati.
One evening, it was already late and I offered my help cooking dinner.
I would consider myself being a below-average cook, even when I am standing at a gas stove in Germany, preparing pasta or something else less exotic than chapati. But I like to help if I am given instructions. And I know how to make chapati, because I learned it from my mother-in-law and I have done it many times since then.
However, that night, it didn’t work out. We were late and I wanted to be quick. So the dough turned out to be too sticky and the chapati I rolled had the shape of the map of Africa instead of being perfectly round.
When my mother-in-law saw what I had produced, her aghast look caught my eye.
After she had fried the “chapati” I had made, she actually cut them into pieces, so that the mess was not that visible anymore.
We all ate, and apparently it could not have been that bad, because today we are all laughing about the episode. In the next morning, I sat in the kitchen again and she told me what my mistake was:
You didn’t take your time. Whether we come home late or early, whether we start cooking when it is still light or when it is dark for several hours already—you have to take your time for cooking. The men might sit in the house waiting for dinner, but if you don’t take your time, there will be a disaster like yesterday.
I took her advice to heart. Nowadays, whenever I cook, before I even start rinsing the veggies, I take a deep breath and set my mind into total relaxation mode.
It’s not always easy, especially when I am very hungry myself, but I realized that time is the most important ingredient you need when you attempt to cook delicious food.
I make chapati very slowly nowadays, but they are perfectly round and so neat that even my father-in-law would like them.
In order to make delicious food with time:
I don’t cook when hungry. I eat some fruit or nuts before I start, so that I am not stressing myself.
I start early, especially when I am cooking for others.
I put out and prepare all ingredients first. There is nothing more hectic than quickly chopping some garlic or ginger which should actually already be in the sizzling pot.
I focus on what I do. I recognize every single cut and every single stir.
And nowadays, I don’t only use a good amount of time when cooking, I have also started to take more time when eating—smelling the food, looking at its colours and consciously chewing and tasting every bite.
Simply by adding some time, as if it were a spice that is always part of the recipe, my relationship to food has become more mindful.
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Editor: Emma Ruffin
Photo: James Southorn/Flickr