I Can’t Visit My Mom—But I Still Love Cooking With Her

My mom and I didn't have much to talk about other than COVID-19 during our video chats, until I had a craving for Punjabi food.

A collection of photos of Raji Aujla and her family.

(Background illustration: iStock)

My mom and I each held a knob of ginger up to our smartphone cameras to compare sizes. My piece was smaller than hers, but she assured me that it was fine. I chopped the ginger and threw it into my potato mixture, glancing over at the screen to watch her tuck hers into a bit of dough to form a flattened dumpling, before slapping it onto a hot skillet. As always, she didn’t enjoy her own aloo parantha until she’d made one for everyone else—while 3,072 kilometres away, I mirrored her cookery as I prepared my own.

Aloo paranthay are the quintessential Punjabi brunch. The fragrance fills the kitchen as spices are mixed into potatoes, folded through unleavened dough, and cooked on a cast iron skillet with ghee. They’re best eaten fresh off the stove, each bite slathered with homemade yogurt and whipped makhan. Just thinking about the dish paralyzes me with a yearning for British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, where I grew up. It’s a food that makes even a 35-year-old grownup miss her mommy.

COVID-19 has prevented me from visiting her—I haven’t seen my family in close to a year. We are doing our best to stay connected by sending thoughtful gifts, new recipes, funny memes, encouraging messages, anything that makes us feel closer than we can be. And to my surprise, the pandemic has expanded my acceptance of technology, even inspired a newfound appreciation for it.

Traditionally, mindful, tactile experiences bring me an abundance of joy. They also helped me get through the blur of 2020, keeping me grounded as I scribbled with a fine point pen from Japan in a little journal from Tibet, its cover lined in a pistachio-coloured Himalyan Lokta sheet paper with a gold foil lotus print. A spoonful of tea from House of Waris Botanicals steeped in a cup nearby, while the music of Roysten Abel’s The Manganiyar Seduction filled the room.

In this state of being, my smartphone felt threatening. Too often, it has robbed my sacred moments of presence, somehow detaching me from my own self. I was resolute that screentime destroyed genuine human interaction. And yet, I wished my existence was live-broadcast for my mom, and hers live-broadcast for me. Was she taking care of herself? How was her spirit? And so my tech-enabled correspondence with her began to change as the pandemic continued to infiltrate our day-to-day routines.

There was not much to talk about—COVID numbers, lockdown blues, vaccine updates, why I’m still single—until I had a craving for Punjabi food. I began preparing traditional recipes, often spending weekend afternoons concocting the perfect Amritsari chole or egg curry. I’d ask my mom how to use kalonji seeds or how to make amb da achar (mango pickle), which I have yet to master. We shared recipes of baingan bharta: She cooked hers on the stovetop and I smoked mine in the oven. This evolved into video calls, so that she could make a visual determination as to whether my tarka was red enough.

One bright Sunday afternoon, she FaceTimed me. We made small talk, and she disclosed that potatoes were boiling for aloo paranthay. I asked her how many and quickly ran down to my pantry and grabbed five. Inspired by Jennifer Garner’s Pretend Cooking Show episode that featured her mom, I propped my MacBook on two ceramic canisters and we began cooking together. My mom listed the other ingredients: onion, green and red chilies, cilantro, salt, black pepper and the ginger that we held up to our cameras.

“Mom, do we need garam masala…?” Yes, of course. Mine was pre-mixed from Rick’s Good Eats, and I spooned in a generous amount. Hers was homemade, a mix of coriander, cumin, peppercorns, whole cloves, fennel, and cardamom seeds, dry-roasted before being ground together.

“And methi?” I asked.

“Well there’s cilantro already. It’s up to you.”

“I love kasoori methi, I’m going to add it.”

She went to her pantry and added methi too. “Mine is from my garden,” she smiled. We sat down—she in Vernon, B.C. and me in Toronto—and for the first time in months, ate a meal that we had prepared together. It was a truly special moment. My smartphone allowed for the sort of human connection that I had previously suspected it of destroying.

The amount of time I spent playing around with new recipes has made me appreciate how much my mom had always done for us in the kitchen, seemingly effortlessly. I sent her an Instant Pot and KitchenAid Custom Stand Mixer as a gesture of appreciation, dedicating a few video calls to helping her learn to use them. In no time, the teacher/student relationship reverted back to tradition. She quickly became an expert, with new recipes to share.

When COVID passes, I will never again take for granted being able to eat my mom’s food right beside her. But my craving isn’t for aloo parantha alone. It’s for everything that it symbolizes: The warmth of our home in the Okanagan, the sound of “Comedy Nights with Kapil” on TV, my little niece and nephews running around. The dish really represents being with my family. Our video cooking sessions are real, meaningful moments for my mom and I, a temporary escape from the reality of how long we’ve been forced apart.

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