Calculus of Cooking
Sweaty palms. Pencil slipping through my fingers. Thick air of uncertainty surrounds the room. Sounds of thirty pencils scribbling across crisp midterm papers. Time ticks away. Mr. Shapiro walks around the room, hands clasped behind him, through the rows of lined desks and chairs. He stays briefly a while looking over the shoulders of randomly selected students, taking a quick glance at their work. This only adds to the gravity as everyone quickly writes down their best solutions for the Intermediate Calculus Midterm exam. So much is at stake. A good score on this exam can mean ease on the final and a bad score means a series of worries for the remainder of the semester.
“Ha! You don’t know addition!” Mr. Shapiro announces to the world as he hovers over me. My heart pounds loudly as I cower down in my chair growing smaller, hoping he doesn’t hear my heart beating out of my chest. I look over my calculator, which reflects back “6 + 8 = 14”. I can’t believe he felt the need to shame me in front of the whole classroom. Thankfully, everyone is too busy to care. It appears to be Judgment Day where it’s every man for himself.
I gather a semblance of composure and re-attempt my exam. I’m just checking it over now. The “show your work” portion seems to be fairly easy, which is quite unlike Shapiro. Why would he give us a free pass like that? It can’t be this easy. Under pressure, I second guess myself. I cross-over my work and do it again postulating a difficult theorem. My gut feeling says my first attempt was right. My brain says it’s not supposed to be easy.
The bell startles me signifying the end of class. “Pencils Down! Pass them forward!” Shapiro commands. Papers rustle forward as I whisper a prayer to God and blow on my paper before I pass it down. “Alright guys. Get the hell out of here. Go F yourselves. What I really mean is: Go function yourselves.” Shapiro delivers his overused Calculus joke yet again with a big grin on his face.
I nibble on red cherry Twizzlers as I finally get the gumption to look over my work later at home. “Sixty-Five” written in big cherry Twizzler ink. It tastes awful and it’s difficult to chew down, but I still eat it. I turn over to the “show your work” portion worth a whopping thirty points. I see a red oval staring back at me with several comments. I wish Shapiro saw the work I had crossed out. It really was that easy, but I thought it was supposed to be difficult and re-imagined the question to be something else entirely. I’ll never do this to myself again!
I bite down hard on my red cherry Twizzlers as I hear instructions on how to make Chicken Mince from my Mother-in-law. I was able to find Twizzlers in Riyadh to my surprise. Living four months in this strange land made me jump at my familiar cherry twisty friends for solace and comfort. It tastes just as awful as I remember it. The fake medicinal cherry flavor unleashes inside my mouth as my teeth work tirelessly to tear the licorice apart. Waxy residue clings to my teeth as I wonder why Twizzlers still exist. It’s probably because people like me exist, who give in to buying this low calorie chewy cardboard.
“After you fry the onions, put in the ginger garlic paste. Put the mince in. Put the spices in. Put the tomatoes in and just fry it. That’s all.” Mother- in-law doles out the instructions.
“Is it really that easy?” I ask as I simultaneously chew realizing it’s probably not lady-like to do so.
“Yes. You can’t really mess up keema (mince).” Mother-in-law reassures me.
The Twizzlers keep me from speaking any further. Stakes are high. Mother-in-law is here on a visit for the first time. It’s four months into my marriage and I’m still getting the hang of cooking edible food. I get lucky from time to time, but not too often. Being able to cook delicious food is at the cornerstone of a Pakistani woman’s identity. I knew this all my life, but I wonder why I didn’t learn. Mother was too hesitant to share her kitchen. She wanted me to be a wonderful cook and then didn’t want me to cook because there are “far better endeavors in life”. She also did not want her kitchen to be anything less than spotless. Her kitchen was hers alone. In her mind, she did her children a favor by taking up sole responsibility of cooking, so that her children would not have to worry at all about cooking food.
For the first time, I had my very own kitchen, my personal domain to experiment and fail till I got it right. Ever since Mother-in-law’s arrival, failure was not an option. She kept coming in to take control over my territory. She cooked food for my husband and me that I could not fathom of cooking myself. I had to prove that I knew what I was doing.
I wait for my Mother-in-law to leave the kitchen but she hovers over my shoulder. I don’t perform well under surveillance.
“I got it. Thank you, Aunty”. I say after I clank my pot on the stove, ready to start. Despite my respectful insinuations, Mother-in-law hangs out in the kitchen to watch my every single move.
“Maybe you can rest, Aunty. I will handle the kitchen.” I continue.
“Oh. You sure you know what you are doing?” Mother-in-law asks.
“You said it was easy. I just can’t cook while someone else watches me.” I finally reveal.
“Well, I’ll remember that next time when you watch me cook.” Mother-in-law retorts and leaves the kitchen.
I watch her for learning purposes. I thought she knew that. I recover from her remarks and assemble my ingredients and tools. I am grateful that keema is a one pot dish. I stare at the mince chicken all defrosted and drained in a sieve. Are you really that easy? It’s time to find out.
I cut the onions and drop them in the pot with oil. As the onions fry, I cut the tomatoes. I recall the simple steps. Just put the ginger and garlic paste in when the onions turn a golden brown color. Next comes the mince. It wobbles in the sieve as I drop it in the pot. I break up the mince with the help of a spatula. Is this a good time to put the spices in? She forgot to tell me that part. I continue to cook until the mince transforms from a pink to a white hue. I add in salt, red pepper, turmeric, coriander powder, and cumin seed powder. I am the conductor of an orchestra guiding the spices to add layers to this musical symphony. I’m unsure of when to add the tomatoes. I continue to cook the mince and prod around the pot with a spatula. This will make sure the spices really get into every single individual ball of mince. No ball of mince left behind. I make sure I touch each one with my magical spatula.
The mince turns a brown color. It looks done, but it’s probably not. I forgot the tomatoes. I add in the cut tomatoes and I prod around some more. It’s time to make sure the tomatoes unleash their juicy flavor inside the mince. My gut says this mince treads a fine line between cooked and overcooked. I continue to cook it anyway. I’m on to my Mother-in-law. There’s definitely some caveat. It can’t be as easy as she portrayed it. Pakistani cooking is complicated after all.
Just when the mince starts to smell funny, Mother-in-law pops in the kitchen.
“What’s that burning smell?” She asks as she hovers over my shoulder. “Turn off the flame. The keema is burning. Were you paying attention? Did you stop watching the pot?”
“Yes, I was here all along.” I answer her.
“You let it burn while you were standing over it?” Her eyes widen as she puts her hand over her parted mouth.
We sit down for dinner with brown-black mince garnished with fresh green coriander and garam masala camouflaged in the bits. My Mother-in-law exclaims I cooked today, freeing herself from responsibility. “This is some well roasted keema.” My husband chimes in. I taste the results of my hard work. It doesn’t quite taste like mince. There’s no juicy flavor or any hint of spice or any uniformity of the mince melting away in my mouth. It’s chewy and industrial. I failed to trust my gut instinct yet again and complicated the process. Amazing how some lessons repeat in my life as if I never learned in the first place. I need something sweet. I think I’ll wash it down with some Twizzlers.
This recipe is very forgiving. Take my word for it. It’s simple with no caveats. If you must make it complicated and think it can’t be that easy, I do have some suggestions. I make mince when I am short on time and can’t come up with anything else to cook on short notice. It has helped me even when I ran out of my fancy spices. I will give you a pared down version and also a fancy version. Keema helps me remember life is simple and beautiful. No need to second guess or make it complicated. Just enjoy the simplicity. The only danger is not trusting your intuition.
- Chicken Mince- 500 g
- Onions- 1 chopped
- Ginger paste-1 tsp
- Garlic paste- 1 tsp
- Salt- 1 tsp
- Red pepper powder- 1 tsp
- Turmeric powder- ¼ tsp
- Coriander powder- 1 tsp
- Cumin seed powder- 1 tsp
- Tomatoes- 2 chopped
- Coriander- for garnishing
- Turn the flame on under a stockpot to medium heat. Add in about ¼ cup of oil.
- Put in the thinly sliced onion. Cook them until they become golden brown.
- Put in 1 tsp each ginger and garlic pastes. Cook until they incorporate into the onions.
- Add in the chicken mince and cook until the pink color turns white.
- Add in 1 tsp salt, ¼ tsp turmeric, and 1 tsp red pepper. Mix these spices in.
- Cook until there is no water left over from the mince.
- Add in the 2 chopped tomatoes. Let the tomatoes absolve into the mince. When the oil can be seen separately from the mince, it’s as good as done. Coriander and green pepper can be added to garnish.
If you must add more steps and feel a bit fancy, read on ahead.
- Add in 1 tsp coriander powder and 1 tsp cumin seed powder.
- Garnish with coriander and garam masala.