When the microwave oven was introduced in 1955 its inventors probably didn’t quite realise how popular it would become. Originally sold primarily to restaurants, it was only in 1967 that the microwave oven made its first home invasion. This practical kitchen appliance didn’t make an acquaintance with my family until the late 1970s, when my parents finally caved in and bought one. However, it never really took off the ground in our home, with Mommy worried that it would drive the electricity bill to the moon, and Daddy concerned that the food would never be as good as the one cooked on the stove. I wasn’t allowed to use it either, which meant the microwave was never promoted to the rank of an essential tool in the kitchen.
This attitude has remained with me to this day, which is why I don’t own a microwave oven anymore. Let me backtrack: in addition to my parents’ disdain for the microwave, I met several Indian housewives who changed my views on cooking and hospitality forever. During my initial years in India dating back to 1994, everywhere I went I was offered freshly cooked meals or snacks with chai or nimbu pani (lemonade). Everything made from scratch and nothing was re-heated or defrosted, which is how I learned to love pakoras and parathas. These women taught me that the best way to honour your guest is offer them something made with your hands, with care and good intentions. Opening a packet of store-bought cookies and serving them with a soft drink from a bottle was tantamount to a slap in the face. I had to double take on this the first couple of times because I was raised on Coca Cola, Oreos and Doritos! Ripping open a packet of something and reaching for a bottle opener was the most natural thing in the world to me, especially since Mommy only learned how to bake when she was in her 40s.
The landlady in Delhi who lived two floors above us taught me everything there was to know about preparing meals with with flour and fresh milk. She said all you need is one litre of milk per day (which she collected every morning from the Mother Dairy milk station around the corner) and you are set. With it you make a fresh batch of yoghurt, butter, and set aside enough for chai or any other milk-based drinks the family might crave for. With the various flours you have at home you can make all kinds of roti and never go hungry, no matter how simple or complex the meal is. The abundance of the gardens and farms in terms of fruits and vegetables were there long before refrigerators and microwaves were invented, so pay them homage and respect the bounty. This put me under incredible pressure because I wasn’t used to going through all that effort of cooking all the time, but as young expat wife so far away from my mother and mother-in-law, I was determined to learn.
To compound matters, I got involved with the German community in Delhi, many of the wives who seemed to whip up marvellous cakes out of thin air. I loved cooking, but baking was never my forte, and it made me feel incredibly insecure to keep up with all the other German cakes and my ultimate nemesis, the dratted cookies!
Long story short, microwaves never stayed long in my kitchen. I used it for defrosting most of the time, or re-heating something at an unusual hour. Otherwise I preferred to do things old school. Mommy taught me how to cook over a gas stove, claiming that if I learned the old fashioned way, I would be able to cook anywhere in the world and in any condition. She argued that there was nothing, absolutely nothing in Filipino cuisine that required a microwave nor would there ever be one! Then along came my mother-in-law who was another staunch anti-microwaver, a life philosophy that has been taken over her children and grandchild.
When I arrived in Berlin I “inherited” a microwave / convection oven from a friend who was moving away. Living alone for the first time I thought it was the best thing that could have been added to my kitchen. Boy was I wrong! It suddenly felt like a betrayal of all the years I had invested in heating things up on the stove, using a kettle to boil water, a toaster, and be incredibly nostalgic and make hot chocolate from scratch in a saucepan. Aside from the fact that the darn thing took up too much valuable space on my already limited kitchen counter, I was back to just using it to defrost the occasional item and heat up some cold rice. I didn’t hesitate for a moment to give the microwave away when someone needed a helping hand in setting up a new apartment and get a fresh start on life.
Cooking is therapeutic for me, and I find it very calming not just to the senses but to the soul. It is also a skill that has kept me sane during the worst storms these past years. My grandmother always said one should never to cook in a bad mood otherwise the food would never taste good – at worst it would turn out bitter or bland and give the family a stomachache. So I stick to that, and everything else I learned from the wonderful teachers I’ve had over the years. The older I get the more important it has become for me to feel grounded and rooted, and that begins with soul cooking.
Instead of a microwave I have cast iron pans that I treasure above any other item in the kitchen. With a cast iron pan you can cook and bake over an open fire, a gas stove, an electric stove or a glass stovetop. Pizza, bread, pies, scones, etc. the list is endless with how many things taste better made from scratch in a solid, authentic cast iron pan. I make popcorn in a large pot and adore watching it turn into a wonderful cloud of goodness instead of simply popping a bag in the microwave. In short, we have far too many electronic gadgets in our lives that have taken us away from the sensual pleasures of preparing food with time, care, and intention. Sure, it takes a few minutes longer to heat up milk or melt butter in a saucepan, so what? It’s the process that matters.
Shortcuts make us complacent, sloppy, lazy, and take us further and further away from the path, the origin, and ultimately, the authentic roots and heritage.