Food & Drinks, Life

Learning how not to cook from my mother

What size spoon did she use to scoop out the tomato paste? When am I supposed to add the tomato paste?

“It’s actually a very simple dish you can prepare very quickly,” my mother says while she scoops out a cup of rice into a large pot and then pours half a cup of water over it. (Or was it the other way around?) Sniffling and tearing up through burning eyes, I dice the large onions that will serve as the base for the meal.

She takes the cutting board from me before I am finished dicing, and scrapes the diced onions into a saucepan hot with olive oil.

“You need onions for every meal. Onions and garlic. And cumin. And of course salt and pepper.”

I ask her, how much salt and pepper? And is it a teaspoon of cumin? What constitutes a “large” onion? How many cloves of garlic?

“Just a bit of salt and pepper. And enough cumin so that when you add it to the onion and garlic you can smell it distinctly,” she says while she’s already moved on to the next task, scooping out tomato paste into the saucepan.

“And then you add the tomato paste,” she says, banging the spoon against the saucepan as she tries to get every bit of tomato into the pan.

She moves on to adding water and chicken broth into the mixture.

“Chicken broth will give it a rich taste. But if you don’t want it to be too salty even it out with water.”

But what about the onion and garlic? How big are they supposed to be? And what size spoon did she use to scoop out the tomato paste? When am I supposed to add the tomato paste? Do I add the chicken broth or the water first? Do I cover the pan to let them boil?

She takes out a whole chicken to clean and trim the fat.

I mumble something about American households eating a disproportionate amount of meat compared to the rest of the world.

“What do you want me to feed your dad and brother then? Did you know, when I was single and living in Paris, I would have soup for dinner every day. I love soup. And it didn’t even need to have meat in it. That’s why I used to be so thin.”

I love hearing my mother talk about this time. While the onion-garlic-tomato-chicken broth mixture boiled, sometimes with a lid on top of the saucepan and sometimes without, I turn my attention away and ask my mother about being an international nursing student in 1970s Paris.

“You would walk with your bread basket to the local bakery,” she reminisced, smiling. “And pick up baguettes and cheese for breakfast.”

I remembered marveling at the blurry sepia photographs I stumbled upon of my mother wearing an elegant plaid coat and brown leather boots, looking over the Seine during a Parisian fall, smiling her full toothed smile that people say I’ve adopted from her.

“We lived in an international house so we would have dinners and people would make food from back home. My closest friends were these Kenyan nursing students,” she explains while she seasons the chicken, stuffing salt into the skin.

I watch her gloveless hands season the chicken rapidly and then place it in the oven. She washes a few large dishes and her hands before retiring to the living room couch while she waits for the chicken to bake.

“I was very fluent in French,” she names off some French words she used often legs outstretched on the sofa in her standard post-cooking exhaustion pose.

“Okay, so do you know how to make tomato pea stew with chicken now?”


Five years later, in my own home with my own kitchen with my own utensils and groceries that I bought,  I try to remember the steps in making tomato pea stew.

How many cloves of garlic? Is this onion too big? I don’t have any cumin – is that going to be a problem?

Eventually, I give up and end up going through my Pinterest dinner board for a recipe that I’ve made before: one pot chicken and potatoes.

1 large yellow onion (about 1 cup)
3 cloves of garlic
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cumin

The recipe is precise. I have all the ingredients. It is quick. It is easy. I could be done in no time. The kitchen is quiet.

I call my mother.

“Mama, for tomato and pea stew, how much cumin should I add?”