ome of my earliest childhood memories revolve around my grandmother’s kitchen in India. In her kitchen, food was not just a source of nourishment and a trigger for the tastebuds, but an act of care. My memories of the days and weeks that led up to her death have faded; but certain tastes and smells still trigger a nostalgia for her food, made with great love, intuition, authority, and joy.
My grandmother’s food was also the bearer of memories, with secret recipes and techniques passed on from mothers and grandmothers to daughters and granddaughters, creating an intimate bond through shared knowledge and teaching. During festivals, my mother and aunts would gather in her kitchen which came alive then with the sizzle of mustard seeds in hot oil, the smell of whole spices, or sloshing of rice pudding in huge pans. The kitchen became a site for female intimacy, to share stories and gossip, laughter and complaints.
This early joyful encounter with food and the kitchen, however, began to change in my adolescence. Even before I came into my own queerness, the space I had known as comforting, as a child, became alienating in its oppressive heteronormativity. I began associating food with “happy” homemakers slaving over a hot stove to prepare intricate meals for loved ones. I still associated food with an act of care, but I had also begun to notice how binary gender anchored who cared for whom, who provided the labour, and who received care.
Ensconced in these strict binaries, the space of the kitchen began to feel less and less like a place where I belonged. And so I withdrew. Over time, my relationship with food and cooking became perfunctory, if not joyless.
It took another queer South Asian woman — a fictional woman in a Sri Lankan diasporic novel — to introduce me to the possibility and the joys of a “queer kitchen.” My use of the word queer extends beyond a focus on sexuality alone to a rejection or subversion of normative structures and practices. The queer kitchen makes possible alternate forms of caring and community, including food and cooking as an act of self care, in a departure from the heteronormative care practices of the South Asian culinary imagination.
At the start of Mary Anne Mohanraj’s 2006 intergenerational novel, Bodies in Motion, we briefly meet the 17-year-old Mangai who is marked as a queer subject from the very start. There’s little we know about her, at that stage, except that her first queer encounter takes place in the space of the kitchen.
But Mangai returns in the epilogue of the novel — at 65, in another city, and in another kitchen — to meticulously cook an elaborate meal “enough to feed a man four times her size.” The vivid description of how this meal of rice, fish, leeks, potatoes and eggs is prepared evoked the same sights and smells that had become familiar to me in my grandmother’s kitchen: overpowering cumin, delicate saffron, whole spices ground in a mortar and pestle.
But the similarities end there. Mangai clearly takes great pleasure in cooking and it is an act of care directed towards her own self. As an openly queer woman belonging to a minority ethnic group in a country torn apart by civil strife, Mangai’s body was the site of both xenophobic and homophobic acts of violence. The elaborate meals she prepares are meant to sustain and nourish her body as she recovers from this violence. Unlike the intergenerational handing down of food memories and recipes in my grandmother’s kitchen almost as a rite of passage, Mangai’s cooking is a queer pleasure that does not care about reproducing culinary subjects in the next generation. Each time she cooks, a crowd of young girls gather outside her window to watch and learn. Mangai lets them be, but she has no interest in teaching them how to cook, nor are they invited to share her meals. Her cooking is about making herself happy and not about making others happy.
In claiming the labour and care of her own food for herself alone, Mangai subverts the norms of the South Asian kitchen. Her cooking thus becomes a queer practice and her kitchen becomes a site of queer pleasure. This reimagination of the figure of the cook and the subversion of the heteronormative imaginary of the kitchen brought back to me the joys of cooking and food. This was, once again, a space where I felt like I belonged.
This is not to say that Mangai’s solitary kitchen is the only queer possibility we can hope for. For me, the queer kitchen is a space for forming other kinds of communities of care outside of oppressive heteronormative structures of family and kinship. Here, happiness is not necessarily — and not only — derived from the joys of cooking for a partner, parent, or child but is open to reimagination and reinterpretation. Once again, food signals to me a sense of sharing and intimacy; but I needed Mangai’s solitary resilient queer kitchen to help me get there.