Cooking With My Avah: Creating A Bond With Food

Photo Credit: Adarsh Sunil Jogani/Shutterstock


When you live far away from your relatives, it can be especially hard to form close bonds with them. The distance creates, well, distance, both in the lack of similar experiences to connect over and the lack of actual shared experiences. Add to this issue the fact that it can be quite expensive to travel between continents, so visits are few and far between. You have to put in work if you want to create deep, meaningful bonds when you face these kinds of obstacles. I’ve been lucky enough to create such a bond with my maternal grandmother.

My grandmother is a traditional Indian woman who was raised under apartheid in South Africa. I'm a half-Indian modern woman raised in the United States. Though it seems like we could not be more different in a lot of ways, we have always been very close. My grandmother took an interest in me in a way that no one in my life ever has. And I, in turn, took a similar interest in her. Growing up before the internet, I made sure to keep in contact with my grandma, or “Avah,” as I call her, the Telugu word for grandmother, by writing letters. Even after we had the internet, I’d continue to write letters to my technologically impaired Avah, who I once found hiding behind a door because she heard the male America Online voice say “goodbye.”

When Avah would visit, she would stay for months at a time. As a kid, we had a home with an in-law suite on the bottom floor, which was perfect for her. She had her own bedroom complete with an adjoining kitchen, where she would spend hours puttering about, cooking. Now, everyone thinks their grandmother is the best cook in the world, but I truly believe my Avah could give all the other grandmas around a serious run for their money. No one in my family can cook like my Avah. She spends hours upon hours working on her culinary creations, sometimes spending a whole day preparing that night’s meal. The care she puts into her food is unmatched and nearly impossible to replicate — believe me, many have tried.

I first was able to meet my Avah when I was 2 years old. I don’t have a lot of clear memories from that visit, but there is one image that has remained firm in my brain for pretty much my whole life. I can remember standing in the kitchen with my Avah while she prepared some of her carefully crafted treats as I stood on my tiptoes, peeking over the counter to watch her work. Because Avah spends so much time in the kitchen every time I see her, to me, she always smells of spices. To this day, the right combination of curry powder and cumin can bring tears to my eyes as I think about how much I miss her.

Because Avah spends so much time in the kitchen every time I see her, to me, she always smells of spices. To this day, the right combination of curry powder and cumin can bring tears to my eyes as I think about how much I miss her.

When I was nine, Avah was staying with us for one of her typical monthslong visits. She spent her days contentedly in the in-law suite, knitting me clothes for my dolls and cooking. She taught me how to knit during that trip, but that’s not the skill that changed my life. Avah decided that this was the time she would teach me how to cook.

I’ll always remember Avah showing me how to make her famous rotis, an Indian tortilla of sorts. She showed me how she diligently made the dough and rolled it out. Then, we put the roti in a heated pan and rotated it using our hands, moving quickly to avoid getting burned. “Indian women don’t use tools in the kitchen most of the time,” she told me. “We use our hands as much as we can.”

Avah showed me how to flavor food with spices and which ones complemented each other in different ways. She was always very patient and so generous with praise. She has this special little laugh she’ll do when something tickles her, and I’ll always remember the way she’d chuckle when I’d follow her instructions just right and wind up with a tasty creation of my own. She’d smile at me, her eyes lit up with pride, and I’d feel more accomplished than I ever had in my young life.

Now that I’m older, I still love cooking. And I’m pretty good at it too, if I do say so myself. I consider myself lucky because when I do cook, I get to think of my Avah, the lessons she taught me, and the memories we’ve shared in the kitchen. I can even cook some of her specialties without a recipe, I just take out my spices and start blending until it tastes just right, the way Avah would make it. I always make sure to tell Avah about it during our next phone call and she’s always happy to hear that I’m still cooking. I may not be as great a cook as my Avah — no one is — but I’ll always be grateful I got to learn from the best.

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