Learning to Write from Cauliflower

When my husband and I got married, I was a spice-o-phobe. (No, really. It's a word.)  It became a standing question for parties and holiday celebrations with his family : Who's bringing the lasagna for J.A.?

They were cool like that. They even made sure it was vegetarian.

But then my husband and I became sick with the flu at the same time, and his mother brought rice and spiced spinach. I was sort of stuck; it seemed ungracious to ask where the lasagna was.  I spooned an enormous pile of rice onto my plate and a minuscule amount of spinach. Like seriously the size of a quarter. I mixed it in, until basically it looked like green-flakes on a plate of rice. I took a tentative bite.

Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap.

Not the spice. The taste. It was fabulous. And so began my love affair with Indian/Pakistani food.

Eventually, my mother-in-law taught me to make assorted vegetarian dishes--lentils, squash, spinach, cauliflower--while I tried to get her to commit the recipes to writing. I would stand poised with a pen and index card saying things like, "But how much turmeric?"  To which she would point on her finger, with her thumb.  An inch?  I should use an inch of turmeric? A square inch?  A thin inch?  HOW DO YOU MEASURE AN INCH OF POWDER???

It became clear that this was not an exact science. And that I would be expected to conduct my own experiments and serve them to my husband's family. Do you know what else is a word?  Disaster.


The cauliflower. It turned out perfectly, every time. My mother-in-law would tell people that my aloo gobi was better than her aloo gobi. Which, if you know anything about South Asian familial structure, is kind of a completely big deal.

So what has the writer in me learned from making aloo gobi? 

1.  There are no shortcuts.   Many Indian/Pakistani recipes start with a browned onion. Fine. Even I could brown an onion. Except that I couldn't. I would cook it until it turned some sort of good enough golden color, and then add the other ingredients. But golden is not brown. When I watched my mother-in-law brown her onion slices, they were not golden. She cooked them until they formed a brown clump in the bottom of the pan. A dark brown clump.

A lot of us have some part of writing we don't completely love.  Maybe it's setting or dialogue or transitions or chapter openings. Or the dreaded query letter.  Or the we-shall-not-speak-of-it-ever-again synopsis. Whatever. Take the time to do it right. There is no" good enough." Because if it's not actually done, you probably won't like the result.

2.  Trust yourself to know when to break the rules.

In addition to a browned onion, aloo gobi also calls for a chunk of raw ginger. (Up to the top knuckle of your pinkie finger, if you must know.)  But here's the thing. I can't stand actual ginger. Not the taste or the texture or the smell. Once, when my mother-in-law and I were alone in the car and she was reiterating how good my aloo gobi was, I experienced a not particularly well thought out need to confess. "The truth is," I said, "I don't actually use ginger. I use ginger powder." She was quiet long enough for me to regret every spirit of full disclosure I'd ever had. You know, in my life.  And then she said, "That's fine. You can use powder."  (That noise? Me, and the enormous "whew.")

Adjectives, adverbs, fragments, whatever. Know the rules, but when breaking them works, sometimes it just works.  Embrace your inner powdered-ginger-loving self.

3.  Experiment.  Recently, I was making aloo gobi, and the tomato (which I had just purchased from the store, thank you very much slacking produce department) was rotten.  I had already added everything  else to the pot and didn't want to waste the ingredients. I stood there for a full five minutes, looking back and forth between the stove and the jar of pasta sauce I'd retrieved from the pantry. The sauce was (mostly) tomatoes. But it was flavored, in an Italiany way. Still, it was all I had, and in it went. And you know what? It was actually good. Different, but definitely good.

Maybe you feel wedded to first person pov. Maybe you hate short stories. We all have our comfort zones but every now and then  it's good to try new things.

You have my permission to throw it in the garbage before your mother-in-law arrives, if necessary.


  1. Cath, I'd have to show you. :)

  2. I'm not the recipe kind either. Drives my wife crazy. It's how I learned from my mom - like with her pasta sauce. You make a small pile in your hand then grind it between your fingers to add it. But you have to cup your hand just so and the pile looks like, well, I'd have to show you.

    Have missed you.

  3. Sarah, that sounds exactly right! Since I AM the recipe type (lack of confidence in my cooking intuition) it does present a challenge.

    I've missed you, too. It's nice to be back, no matter how tentatively. :)

  4. I love this post. I didn't try Indian food until I was in my 20's because I fear most foods and I was a very allergic child and grew into being a picky adult.

    A friend of mine was visiting and she insisted we go to an Indian restaurant. She's a world traveler, very brave, doesn't take no for an answer.

    I have never cleaned a plate so thoroughly as that day and I felt like I had been reborn. With the exception of lamb I will eat anything with curry on it possibly including dirt.

    There's something magical about all those spices. You can put them on ordinary stuff and the food turns into some kind of magical exotic food extravaganza despite the ham-fisted cook who is in charge of it. Amazing.

  5. I know, Wendy--didn't you kick yourself afterwards for the hesitation?? My husband's fav food is, oddly, Italian, so I am the one always pushing for Indian food.

    Love the "despite the ham-fisted cook" part. Exactly. :)

    Thanks for reading.

  6. It surprises people to learn that I was a picky eater throughout my formative years, and wouldn't try anything new. I drove my parents CRAZY.

    But my brother was a restaurateur, and it was inevitable that I would work at his first successful restaurant — the vegetarian Sanford's Second Story — while working my way through university. And slowly, slowly, I grew to love food, and became (almost wildly) adventurous... And I love Asian foods — Cantonese, Szechuan, Vietnamese, Korean, Indian, Thai... well, it's a very long list. I have a high tolerance for heat.

    If things had worked out differently for me, I think I would still be writing about food and wine now. (I worked in the restaurant industry for a decade, and had four terrific years as a food and wine columnist).

    But despite all that understanding and well developed palate, I moved to vegetarianism over my concerns for sustainability and social justice. The problem is that I never learned to cook vegetarian very well (although I'm tolerably proficient at some pastas).

    Fortunately, I married a great cook. She's the most intuitive chef I've ever known and — just like your mother-in-law — she seldom uses a recipe, relying on her nose and her instinct to guide her.

    I'm a lucky man, and I've even learned to do a few dishes better than Kristina. But not many.

    I like to think about meeting writing friends, and cooking for each other. I'd love to try your aloo gobi. And I make the world's best vegetarian lasagna.

  7. I know exactly how big a deal an aloo-gobi better than your mum-in-law's is. I can't manage it even though I've practically grown up with the recipe! Lovely analogy with writing.

  8. Richard, I also became a vegetarian for animal rights reasons, but now it's morphed into a fierce belief in its health benefits as well.

    You're lucky to have married a woman who cooks so well--it's good to have one person in every family. My husband and I have high hopes for our oldest son. :)

  9. Thanks, Damyanti. It's nice to see you here!

  10. You know for some peculiar reason, after reading this I am extraordinarily hungry. Great post! I love spicy food and I always have. Although there are a few dishes that are just too spicy, even for me. Memories of a Hunan dish in a San Francisco restaurant and sweat dripping down my face when I tried to stuff it in. Painful.

  11. Cat! I just tweeted you. That means I'll be on G+ SOON!!! :)

  12. Wooo hoooo! Yay! Seriously, I can walk you through the learning curve, and then it's really fun there, and helpful.

  13. Perfect! (I feel like I'm cheating on blogger by talking about it here. ;))

  14. No such thing as a "Muslim Feminist" dear. Try again.