Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Home is Where the Kitchen is:

There was no road going from Korzok towards Leh, back in 2002. We bumped along the plains in a jeep for miles. The Changthang region, stretching to Tibet, was home to the nomadic Changpa tribe who reared Pashmina goats and supplied its wool to Kashmir. They lived in tents and along the way, in one such tent, we had stopped for some hot butter tea. The space for cooking was right in the middle of the tent, with an opening which was used by the chimney to direct the smoke out. Everything else revolved around this space.

Subsequent travels to Ladakh revealed the importance of the kitchen in a home. Larger than most rooms and also the most adorned, this is a space for cooking and entertaining people over unending cups of butter tea poured from bottomless flasks, khambir and tsampa with sour curd. The low tables are strictly not meant for sitting, for which one can use the mattresses kept on the floor around the wall. In some homes, the fire at the centre of the kitchen still burns; in most others, the cooking gas stoves are taking over the corner spaces. Like men in the North-East, I have seen Ladakhi men helping out in the kitchen. The kitchens in Nagaland houses are also big, if not as big as the Ladakhi ones. Here, everything happen around the fireplace where the fire burns throughout the day - warming water, making tea, cooking food, skinning chicken or ducks, eating, friendly chats with neighbours etc. The smoke from the fire dries the meat hung above it and also lends a flavor to it.

traditional kitchen in a village in Nagaland 

In our childhood homes, the central aangan was the space where most activities took place; but for me, it was the kitchen area which was always filled with laughter, gossip, stories, wonderful smells, and always something to eat. We would run around in the mohalla and into anybody’s home heading straight to the kitchen where some kakima or chachi would hand out home-made namkeens or mithais. Before cooking gas came to our town, we used to prepare food on chulhas or kerosene stoves. The process of preparing the chulha every morning was elaborate and so was the process of dowsing the fire after cooking. Each day, after dowsing the fire and removing the half burnt coal pieces, the chulha was given a wipe with a thin layer of wet mud. The smell that arose from that still warm chulha was divine. Children were strictly forbidden to go anywhere near the stove or chulha, as accidents occurred often. Like the time when our nanny’s sari had caught fire. It was because of my quick thinking friend who poured a bucket of water over her, that she escaped with some minor burns.

Most kitchens in rural homes that I have visited across states are clean, organized and dark making it a cozy, mysterious place – for me. The shafts of light that filter in through the roof or wall, add to the charm especially when the shafts of light get patterned with the smoke arising from the stove or are speckled with golden-white dust. In the plains, it’s the women who work in the kitchen, methodically and efficiently. Men come in only to eat. Here kitchens are smaller than other rooms and situated in one corner or outside of the house, from where women have to trudge constantly with tea, water, food etc. for the rest of the household. Modern houses seem to follow this pattern with smaller corner kitchens disconnected from the rest.

Food and its spaces in a home bind people like in the mountain communities; and perhaps that’s why we, in the plains, now constantly struggle with our relationships, both inside the house and out.

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