Today I cooked properly in my new kitchen for the first time, I’m making a lemon olive oil cake to take into school tomorrow. Since I’ve moved to Chicago cooking has been this wonderful stress relief for me and it’s also something new to me. I never cooked very much in the UK and it’s been really eye-opening to come here and try out so many things.
My earliest childhood memories are of watching cooking shows with my mother, mostly on the BBC. Deliah Smith, Madhur Jaffrey, Keith Floyd, The Two Fat Ladies, Rick Stein were some of our most loved when I was very small. It would be like a ritual for us, she would have tea and I would have some sort of treat I had got during the grocery shopping and we’d sit for an hour and watch two cooking shows on BBC2. Even when we stopped getting along, we would still watch the cooking shows together, albeit in a slightly awkward silence.
My mum cooks all the time, but she hated when I did because I did not inherit her skills at organisation and cleaning up after myself. So it led to me having almost 33 years of cookery knowledge in my head that I very rarely used. But she would experiment with recipes we’d see on the TV. She went through a phase of risotto, she learned how to make really awesome moussaka, she recently learned aubergine parmigiana from Mary Berry and was gushing about it to me when I went home to visit recently. I think my mum loves to cook, and I think she gets a real sense of happiness to have her whole family over eating dinner.
That’s a feeling I really understand because cooking for other people is something that gives me such great joy. Last year I did Ramadan for the first time in 10 years, if not more, and I had an Iftar Party, where I invited a bunch of my friends over to breakfast with me. None of them were fasting, but I cooked a whole load of food my mum would make for our family back home to share with them. I couldn’t eat it, apparently, I share my mum’s view of if you cook then you don’t want to eat any of the food when everyone else is. We also cooked Thanksgiving Dinner in 2016, and again it was really awesome, if not incredibly tiring cooking for 2 days straight. But there’s nothing really like feeding people who mean a lot to you some tasty food.
I’ve started a new tradition for birthdays in Chicago where I make a three-course dinner for the birthday person and in that menu, I try to do something I’ve never cooked before. I made an entirely vegan Mille Feuille for my aunt last year from scratch. I think the 33 years of absorbing knowledge from watching cooking shows with my mother means that I can logically think out flavours and processes in food without a recipe. I make up my own a lot of the time. I’ve learned that I like to have the basic ingredients and maybe a process in front of me but I end up deviating from the method a lot. I approach cooking a lot like I do painting, it’s an artform and it’s all about balance and detail.
Cooking is also a massive anxiety release for me, I get lost in the process of making cookies or a cake. A week or so before I left for the UK last year I made two massive pasty pie things and for about three hours I was zoned out completely in my work. As someone who finds it very hard to switch off this is essential for me, and it’s kind of cool because in the end everyone gets something tasty and I feel a lot calmer about life. Cooking helps me focus, it makes me feel good and it weirdly relaxes me. Even when the food I cook turns out to be terrible, and it does happen, I still feel pretty good about trying and taking a risk.
I wrote this because having my own apartment means I have my own kitchen space and I’ve almost finished setting it up. I have a little prep area, where I made my cake today, and it’s wonderful to cook in a space that is your own. You can go at your own pace, you can clean as and when you please. Making this cake is sort of my way of officially feeling like I’ve moved in and I hope it tastes good tomorrow, and I’m excited to get to share it with my awesome friends at work.
Maryam Hassan is a 32 year old Photographer, Montessori Teacher, Wearer of Yellow from London who transplanted herself to Chicago in 2015. She likes punk music, hash browns, animal facts and mangoes.
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