“We grew up in households where food was important. We grew up in households where the kitchen was the centre of our universes. The main family thoroughfare happened in our kitchens.” — The Time Machine
Last Sunday, writer Nikesh Shukla cooked Gujarati food on a stage in London while behind him, readers performed his novella, The Time Machine. The 34 pages Shukla penned are an ode to his mother, whose death awakened a new, sharper hunger in the author and his family members. Together, they sought to recreate her recipes one by one. Shukla’s attempts at recalling his mother’s recipes — of memorializing her as a person — are documented in The Time Machine. Proceeds of the sale of the novella benefit The Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation. I asked Shukla, creator and host of The Subaltern Podcast, about his mother, The Time Machine and cooking.
Describe your mother using 10 words.
A mother. A woman. A hypochondriac. A soldier. Very missed.
Of the dishes you learned to make after your mother died — which one is your go-to?
Khichdi — it tastes like getting better when you’re ill. It tastes like being looked after, being in a warm cocoon of love and healing and safety and deliciousness wrapped up in a lentil and rice explosion. Plus, it is very easy to make.
The one dish your mother made that you have tried and failed to replicate.
My mum used to make roasted Indian-style tandoori chicken, every Christmas. It was a treat and it was made once a year. So while the food I try and replicate is about the every day, the sense of smell and taste being intrinsic with who I am, this is coded into my DNA, this dish, as the treat. And I’ve never been able to master it.
The one dish you want your future kids to be able to make when you die.
Dhalbhattshaakrotli — remember when that was four words and four components of a dish? Now it’s one — a thali of wonder and delight and diversity. Of all the shaaks and dhals, of all the ways to make a rotli, of all the bhatts and pilaus — learn the basics and the rest will follow.
Complete this sentence. Death is ______. Cancer is ______.
Your novella, The Time Machine, was unsparingly personal. How do you deal with the fear of revealing your intimate family workings?
They’re not big readers so I don’t think they’d really notice. Actually, that’s unfair — I’m recording the daily workings of my family for my people because my family is unique and it’s universal and it’s very Gujarati and it’s very desi and it’s very warm, and if I write down a secret history of us, that’s forever, we’re documented and our people can find us.
Ten ingredients you can’t live without in the kitchen.
Confidence. Does that count? Confidence, cumin seeds, garlic and ginger, fresh chillies, turmeric, garam masala, fenugreek, ground cumin and coriander
I cried while I read through The Time Machine. Ugly cried, to be honest. What were some of the most surprising reactions to it that you discovered?
I’ve always written comedy. And this was the first time I’ve sat down to write something serious. And it’s about one of the most serious things you can write about — the loss of a parent. So I think the most surprising reaction was my own — in an effort to challenge myself as a writer and go out of my comfort zone, I felt fine being emotionally manipulative, tugging tugging tugging away at that piece of all of us that has a memory of the kitchen, the food, the parent, and whatever that means to them, positive, negative or omnipresent.
You wrote in The Time Machine that you worried that Indian food to you would become restaurant food. Do you think that’s what it is to a lot of people?
Yeah. I worry that people who think of Indian food think of curries and of chicken tikka masalas and big naans and food colouring and waiters in shiny waistcoats and the ting-ting-ting of soporific sitar. But that’s such a tiny part of the cuisine. India is vast. Vast enough to be a continent of its own right. It has its diverse variations and machinations. Rotis in the Punjab are not the rotis in Gujarat are not the rotis in South India, and even to call it South India is to do it a disservice. Indian food is vast and diverse and the only way to experience it properly is to keep your friendship group mixed up.
One major misconception South Asians have about cooking South Asian food?
That everything needs more salt.
One major misconception non-South Asians have about cooking South Asian food?
That it’s all too spicy for you.
There’s an obvious gender-divide in South Asian culture when it comes to cooking. How can we change that?
Print this off and stick it on the fridge: ‘Dear male, it’s 2014. You’re allowed to feed your family too.’
Would 12-year-old Nikesh have imagined that the Nikesh of today could cook his mother’s food?
That supposes I’ve succeeded in learning to cook like my mum. I haven’t. I haven’t even learned to cook like how I like. I’m still learning. I hope 12-year-old Nikesh wouldn’t have thought learning to cook was something he’d never do in a million years. Either way, prying 12-year-old Nikesh away from his Spider-Man comics would have been a struggle in itself.
The one piece of advice you would give desi kids our age.
Call your mum. She misses you.