Kitchen Chats and Spilling Tea
Any good kitchen catch-up in Verulam starts with a simple premise: “The kettle is boiling – you want some tea?” This is a purely performative question as, usually, everyone gets tea, puri patha and some tennis biscuits.
Families build their relationships on shared intimacies, arguments and tea. Everyone’s tea says something about them and the way your tea is made is of utmost importance. (Milk, 1 sugar, please.) The standard is about three or four spoons of sugar – bougie aunties would ask for honey. Remembering exactly how at least five people want their tea at any given time is a talent. The tea itself is limited to normal tea. Not Joko or Five Roses but normal tea. Sometimes masala, sometimes rooibos, sometimes elachi. I learnt the hard way that uncles don’t appreciate a loskop laanie making their tea, after I got order after order confused, mixed up – or worst of all – spilt! Eventually, I got sent to deliver tea less and less at family events until my allotted duty was doing dishes and peeling vegetables.
While women and children are relegated to the kitchen, the men go outside, or sit on plush couches waiting for their tea – doing their greetings and catch-ups – not unlike the women in the kitchen. The gendered division of kitchen chats is clearly a foolish one – the men gossip as do the women. When I was younger, I liked hanging out with my dad which caused problems with the ‘order’ of the situation, and as puberty did its thing, I was stewarded by my dad to stick to my mum. But, I learnt that the conversations across the divide were even juicier in the kitchen than in the backyard or lounge.
I’ve heard women bond over husbands who drink one too many bottles, the best way to cook crab and what to do with pestering mother-in-laws. And in and amongst these conversations you see women letting loose – laughing loudly, being raw. My mom, an expert in kitchen chats explained how these gatherings make the cooking load lighter for everyone. “You know we cook for a lot of people! The men they come and go but I like it more when it’s just the ladies. It would be very limited gossiping if the guys were there!”
She relayed this one story: “We were at an aunty’s place having a braai and at the end we all put sambrani on the coals and we all waved our hair over the coals like mad things. Then someone said ‘No, I have such a possessive husband, he checks my clothes after work and doesn’t want I must talk to other men’ and she was saying how lucky I was. It was a serious moment in all the fun things – and that’s how it goes.”
In Verulam, an 85-year old aunty will reminisce, sharing her style of making pudina chutney with a 25-year-old newly married and nervous cook as a small child goes to pick some curry leaves for the potato curry. Generations of women take up space in a way that’s premised on openness. Sometimes solidarity and survival depend on these times when aunties can fill up the room.
The size of the kitchen of course varies, as does its components. My aya, new-monied as the local vegetarian butcher’s wife, has an equally new money kitchen (‘cuz we never really had that old money, as Migos rightly said). There’s the corner, by the oven and small sink, where vegetables and meat are washed and piping hot tea is often spilt. Another family member’s kitchen, where dangerous levels of tea is spilt, is smaller and always smells faintly of fried onions and chilli. It’s been the headquarters for many a family wedding, braai or birthday party.
As the smells whir around the kitchen – everyone has their task and picks at the cooking food. Deep fried green bananas coated in garam masala are my favourite savoury treats – crunchy outsides hide a firm spicy centre. I learnt the secret to soft roti is copious amounts of ghee and that steaming fish through a banana leaf will give it that extra goodness. “It’s like training, too” my mum says. “I find that enjoyable because you’re socialising and learning. And so family traditions have been shared. Like Aya used to share her recipes from her little notebook to us. She learnt from other Indian women – not necessarily family, sometimes friends. For Diwali Aya shared how to make sweetmeats – gulab jamun, burfee, jalebi.”
And in these communal feminine spaces, women both uplift and denigrate each other. It’s not a romantic space of feminine subversion of patriarchal norms – often times women swop better ways to be a wife. Sometimes the in-group enforce values that exclude Indian women expressing themselves in any which way they want, and need to.
There’s a dance I perform when I’m in these spaces. It involves a complex set of moves where being me, a feminine person, feels comfortable. When I had long hair, no facial piercings, lighter skin (the peak of my femininity, no doubt) I was made to feel the most comfortable, the most in-the-know and the least gossiped about. These days, when I dress in what is perceived to be a more masculine way and show no interest in how Indian feminine identity is constructed then I too get gossiped about, or policed and punished.
“Yes, no aunty I don’t want to get married.”
“oh yes, not now maybe because you are studying but”
“no aunty, never”
“Charmaine, you must speak to your daughter!”
These spaces were the primary way I learnt how women show care for each other – and how that care can sometimes seem hardened. But it is kind, in its own way.
Youlendree Appasamy is an MA student at Wits University and freelance writer. They like people-watching at malls and green mangos with chilli powder.