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Two years ago, I made myself a meal I often think about. It was an iteration of a ragù recipe, one I had pretended to learn watching my friend Isacco cook for me in Schaerbeek, the Brussels neighborhood where we both then lived. Isacco’s ragù was one of my favorite meals in the world, but I hadn’t learned anything as he stood over his pot and enunciated every single word of the recipe with special emphasis. When Isacco gave me instructions, I nodded amicably like a trained tourist, but I wasn’t paying attention. I was instead looking outside, as Youcef, our 8-year-old neighbor, chased pigeons in the street.
As I heard the tomatoes sputter in Isacco’s pot, I regarded Schaerbeek’s sloping hills, walking up which my calves would tighten pleasurably, through which I had learned to claim this part of Brussels as a temporary home. I looked out at its Turkish bakeries filled with mountains of simit; a large Romanian church a short distance away that housed the city’s young and foreign on its steps. I often sat there, eating half kofte sandwiches and stuffing the remaining half into my bag. I told Isacco this, proud of my resourcefulness, but he scolded me, asking me to eat better. “Now, consider this ragù!” he said, sternly, demanding my attention back to his stove.
When I cooked the ragù at home in Delhi, I had been away from Brussels for almost five years, and it had become stripped of any original instructions, weakened by the pandemic’s disruption of lived lives and linear time. My life in Brussels, once a map drawn inside my head that I would trace before I went to bed, had been stamped out by the pandemic’s large, monstrous presence. Like the rumbling metro I took to work in the city’s center, the Moroccan cafés in which I studied, surrounded by older men watching National Geographic while they drank tea, the cues I had for Isacco’s recipe, any hints at fragrance, had long since faded away.
But I cooked the ragù anyway, adding carrots and celery to hot oil in a pan. I added red onion, lamb mince, Guntur Sannam chili powder, cumin, sour Indian tomatoes. Because I had them in the fridge, I dropped in cooked red kidney beans. I added some red wine from the fridge and drank the rest. I watched the pot with these things cooking, played music videos on my phone, and texted my sister. I remembered Isacco’s puritanism and was joyful to disobey it. I stirred the pot and congratulated myself, as if this was the point of cooking this dish, to disobey the process I had been taught—to infuriate the memory of my friend.
In two hours, the mince turned to its edible form: somewhat swampy but aromatic, but also nothing like it was supposed to be. But that didn’t matter; the world outside had ceased to exist, and I only had myself to feed. Despite its imperfections, I ate the ragù on pasta, in between bread, and once with white rice. I ate consistently and happily for three whole days.
The first time I cooked for myself was also in Belgium. It was in Leuven, a town outside Brussels where I rented my first flat in Europe. I had just moved into it with Chiara—then a new housemate, soon to be my best friend.
I had responded to Chiara’s post for a housemate on a university Facebook group, where we talked without stopping, moving quickly from polite questions about our origins to cheeky judgements of others in the group, arranging to live together in less than 15 minutes. She told me about her plans for the year—a holiday in Rome to visit her grandmother, a road trip through Armenia to see friends. “We’ll have fun!!!!” she typed to me, including me in her plans automatically, even though we hadn’t met.
In my first days in Leuven, with no one to bicker with on the street, nobody to turn into imaginative anecdotes, I wilted and shrank. Everything was so lacking in animation and friendliness that it froze me from within. In no time, first-world pleasures like boxed wine and IKEA visits had become as limp as they were imposing when I hadn’t known them in Delhi. I meandered in the town’s center, sitting under bleached, imperial churches, eating bags of fries and looking inside them for the things that my flashy, overpowering aspiration had promised, searching for the liberty that I thought lay in this continent of the free.
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But however I felt, I had Chiara. And even though we had just met, we had become belted together at the hip as people do when they fall in love. In our first months together, we talked for hours, and went to parties linking arms, making jokes, and leaving together, as people called us to stay. We thrilled to each other’s stories, telling about our friends using only first names, turning our parents into caricatures, pushing carts around the supermarket and making sweeping anthropological statements about everything we saw.
I had Chiara, and she was always cooking. We went diving inside dumpsters to find expensive chocolate that she turned into frosting; we met Italians on street corners from whom she managed to source bottles of sundried tomatoes and olive oil. Our shelves were always full, unlike the other students we knew. We had tall, slim bottles of oil that she was precious with, good tomatoes that she used more freely, pistachios no one was allowed to touch, and grains, her absolute penchant, that she turned into majestic salads, colorful and entirely out of place in my otherwise greasy life. While I still remember everything she cooked for us in those initial months—a sandwich with provolone and sundried tomatoes, a pasta with yogurt, and small green beans—I was disappointed in the fervor, the emotional wringing, that surrounded our kitchen. I had expected a carefree life, answerable to no one. I desired the hardened emancipation and uncaring banter that I thought defined the lives of young white people in these frozen, faraway places I had dreamed of.
When Chiara and I met on Facebook, I scanned her photos—of her friends leaning against one another, sitting on the street drinking from cans in London, of European teenagers scouring cities that we thought so grand, so universal in the metaphors of their youth. “These guys have it all, dude” I wrote to Vans, my best friend back home, with a link to Chiara’s photos. They lived much like we did in Delhi, but with special sheen. I painted them with the coated appeal, that particular authority that I attributed to whiteness through my young life.
When we met, I was also—as Chiara was quick to note and I hardened to admit—a dependent, high-functioning drinker. I spent most of the days between bottles of beer, glasses of dusty-tasting wine from boxes, and eventually, shots of vodka with new colleagues at the bar where I worked. Before I left Delhi to move to the Northern hemisphere, I had just lost a friend—a beautiful boy who existed with the vigor of those who live to fight the sadness in their bones. He was a loud talker, an enthusiastic hugger, an awestruck storyteller. And one autumn morning, as if making a cataclysmic joke, he had taken his own life.
Like my friend, many of the boys I grew up with were fledgling addicts. They depended on frequent escapes to battle familial pressures, seeking the anonymity that came from burying ourselves in the city’s destructive nooks. My own drinking was limp compared to the boys I knew but it was still persistent. It awakened now and then on crutches, becoming lively and lit up when stoked. When my friend died, it made me feel dispossessed. I needed to get away, not to get better, but to be wrecked as usual. I needed to get away, to be without surveillance. I needed to wring free of love, concern, and scrutiny, of anything that kept me moderately afloat.
When I arrived in Europe, it seemed logical to forget, to drown in drink, to get high when the opportunity presented itself. Wasn’t this the point of this place? I thought. Supposed emancipation? No parental concern? Wasn’t this where people lived footloose from societal rules?
To nurse my stewing addiction, I found people who cared little about me and saw me as a number at the table. I tolerated their bad quality chat and racialized mockery, and I surrounded myself with them. Chiara hated these people, and was constantly enraged at them being my primary company. She would cycle through the large, open bars where we sat, shouting “Vive la France!” or singing the Dutch national anthem to provoke comical inter-European rivalry. She pushed casseroles into my bag, roaring at me about when I would be home, knocking at the tables of my companions with her bike handles and long, green coat.
Like Chiara, I hated these people. But I was safer with them, I thought. I could hide here, I could be half a person. Since half of me was always filled with drink.
Every time I returned to our flat, Chiara would be at the door, cradling a meal like an American housewife. She filled it with people that would soon be our friends—Neapolitan couch-surfers playing loud classic love songs on a plastic synthesizer; a duo of tall, poetic boys from Galway who had what they considered an embarrassing obsession with daal. I would wait by the door, sniffing the air when she buzzed me in. “Try this,” she would say, pushing a ladle filled with roasted vegetables, stewy sauces, and buttery bits of bread into my mouth before I entered. “Good, no?” she would ask, and I would nod. It always was, but I didn’t want it. I wanted to be alone, unwanted, uncared for, but here was Chiara in her big maternal apron and her Doc Martens in the kitchen, always waving a scent over the stove, never leaving me alone.
One day, I returned to our flat to a kitchen scant of Chiara. I was especially sour from drink, shrunk from being bullied by the people I was out with that night. I opened our cabinet and ate rapidly from a jar of pesto that Chiara had cooked for our friends. I spooned it into my mouth, I smothered crackers with it. I finished it quickly, relishing its fattiness, greedy with spite. When Chiara found me in the kitchen, we erupted into our first big fight. That night, she was inconsolable. By bringing my drinking inside our kitchen, I had broken her spirit, her keenness to build a home for us. And I had done it because I thought a home wasn’t what I wanted, that all I wanted was to be forgotten, to be entirely ignored. That night, we were equally aghast at one another, united in uncanny affection, but also in mutual confirmation. In that moment, neither of us got what we imagined we would from the other when we first met.
The next morning, I cleaned, and left for my bar job as Chiara shouted from the shower, telling me she was leaving for Rome. When I returned that day, anything I had neatened was reversed into dynamic disarray, but with no sign of Chiara. The blandness of our cheap IKEA furniture, the poor views we had outside our windows—without her, all of this suddenly stood out.
When I walked into the kitchen, bare for nourishment, I picked up a pink Post-it that had fluttered to the floor. sry it said, and I walked to where it had been stuck to the fridge door. Lined on the door were more yellow and pink Post-its with messages for me to read. I opened the fridge and saw that Chiara had stacked small boxes with little things, all half- prepared. Small aubergines salted and dried; a jar of chunky marinara; thin slivers of pink pork, marinated, ready to be put in the pan and in between bread for a snack. I made myself a cup of hot water and lemon, and heated a couple of pork slices, smoking half a cigarette as I ate them from the pan. I removed the Post-it that Chiara had stuck on the fridge, and read them in her voice. Don’t Be A Dickhead they said. Just Cook For Urself.
A year ago, at my paternal grandmother’s funeral, people praised her cooking. In crowded rooms on a summer day, relatives described her hospitality in the kitchen. Men came to announce their validation for her cooking as she lay in an icebox, dressed as a bride, bereft of her own identity even in death. “What sambhar! What daal!” they crowed as she lay there in her blue silk sari, sucked of life. “What sweets she would make for us all!”
The praises were especially perplexing to me because they were untrue. My grandmother was a terrible cook, disinterested and mischievous. She cooked because she had to, often dishing out swampy rice and burned vegetables, leading us to depend on nearby dhabas for food, birthing in everyone in my family a huge reliance on toast and eggs, on fried rice from the Masala-Chinese stall outside our house. I remembered my grandmother from the times she stole sweets she was forbidden, the time I emptied her pillowcase to find scores of toffee wrappers stuck between its layers, the grime sticking to the sheets. I thought of her in the kitchen, at the onset of her dementia, staring at the fire on the stove, watching its colors change as her brain turned to dusty grain. I wondered then why these others couldn’t admit to her poor housekeeping. To them, if a woman did not decorate the world with cuisine, did she not exist?
The cuisines of dominant-caste Hindus, like the families I am born to, depend on the labor of women to keep their cuisines afloat. They are made up of rituals so obscure, recipes so complicated, that they act as a maze in which the oppression they espouse becomes codified as culture, and the abundant appetites of dominant-caste men and families become the normalized, nationalized ways in which to eat. In these cuisines, deviance from method and hierarchy is often punished, with the knowledge that even fleeting disruption will illuminate the discrepant cruelties that are held sacrosanct within caste-owned food. When these foods are documented, labor in the kitchen is romanticized. To put a meal together requires the work of several women, farmers, porters, workers, many of whom go hungry because of the hierarchies in cuisine. This hunger is often neglected and ignored.
As at my grandmother’s funeral, the passing of my other grandparents led my distant relatives to question my fertility and familial abilities. The passing of a generation awakens the need for another one, and at every funeral or wedding, I was interrogated by assemblies of aunts and uncles about plans to create a family into which these people could insert legacies of exclusion. I had lived abroad, I worked the job I desired. Now what else did I want? they asked. How many children? When would I have them? Most importantly, what will I have them eat?
In the summer of 2022, one year after my grandmother died, I moved into a flat by myself in the neighborhood I grew up in. In India, I hadn’t yet lived on my own. I had been raised in a family and community woven together like tight bamboo. Nothing—the pitch of my voice, my dialect, my opinions, my appetite—was formed without other people, some welcome, others invasive presences in my life. In the last few years, I desired solitude almost constantly, even though I was the kind of person never found alone. “I wish I could be underwater,” I wrote several times in my journal during the pandemic, weighed down by the incessant communication that defined our times in isolation. I became fatigued by my performances for those that I loved, the expectations of my family, the needs of my friends. I wanted to be shrouded in quiet, to be able to hear myself think.
When I moved in, it was daunting to have a flat that reeked of me. My books, three jars of honey in the condiment cabinet, my shelves painted a messy blue with no one to combat my choices or tell me otherwise. In my first month there, I was overwhelmed by everything my flat lacked: shadows of my dog who had just died, my father darting across rooms and dusting furniture in a sleepless haze, my sister sitting with bad posture, eating fruit from a bowl on her belly on the couch. I wilted here too, under the tedious expanse of myself, my naive dreams laid bare in this brightly lit flat.
And then I had to cook—in this place, on my own. There was no one else’s appetite or desires to determine, nobody with demands to concede to or disobey. Just myself, searching inside me for what I wanted to eat. Unlike outside in Delhi, where I always knew what kebab I wanted and which samosa stall had fresher oil, my palate had little identity in domestic spaces. I was raised to eat in alliance with other people, nodding along if someone offered me toast and butter, reaching my arms out when I sensed raw mangoes being salted in the kitchen, agreeing casually when asked if I wanted a second garlic naan.
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A week after I moved into my flat, I bought the book Real Fast Food by Nigel Slater. Even though he was beloved in Britain, I was only mildly familiar with Slater’s work. In the subcontinent, after all, it was only the shouting white male cooks who made their way to our bookshelves and screens. For decades, we made way for the schmuckery of these men, consuming them in post-colonial malaise. But when Real Fast Food arrived, I read it like a short novel, sitting on the divan and weeping stupidly at words like “haricot” and “warm tomato salad.” I was used to cookbooks consisting of mountains of ingredients, of meals being large affairs. When I cooked Indian food, the smallest number I cooked for was four. But the book suggested that I could cook for myself. Meals for one. It advocated gentle ease as a way of making myself a meal.
After I got Real Fast Food, I stocked my cabinet with what it needed: tomatoes, beans, salt, meat, and some basic spices, perhaps considered lavish for a British pantry, but automatic in mine. As I stuck postcards around and brought out my grandfather’s things, Real Fast Food proved to be a suitable companion; I could get into the kitchen and spend 20 minutes there. Then I could paint walls and unpack crockery, I could set up lamps and stack shelves. The meals I cooked were short respites from the larger ordeal of setting up the house. It seemed fitting that in this house full of me, I had this book. With it, I shared what I didn’t with my family. A devotion to warm fat on crusty bread, a deep obsession with vinegar, and buttered, fried beans.
In Delhi, an “akeli ladki,” or a woman alone, is called a “khuli tijori,” an open casket of jewels. This phrase, often used when talking about sexual assault and murder, works in the favor of the person who steals from the tijori. What kind of fool, the metaphor seems to suggest, would leave a mountain of diamonds untaken? If there is an uncloaked opportunity lying around, what fault is it of men when they collect the loot?
When I was 10 years old, I heard about the man who shot a woman in the head because she wouldn’t serve him a drink. It was a story I would remember for the rest of my life, but I remember watching the news with my father sometime in early 2001, as he ate a plate of rajma chawal on the cold floor, occasionally burying his head in his hands. The man, Manu Sharma, who was rich and powerful, had killed bartender and model Jessica Lal when she refused to bring him a drink after hours. To the man with the gun, it was a breach of the natural order he was raised on: A woman had denied him hospitality and refused to yield to his pleasure. And for this, he thought, she must die.
A decade after she was murdered, her case resurfaced, and gossip about Jessica Lal crowded our screens. What was she doing in the bar? Why did she work a job like that? Was she married? Why not? And why didn’t she just serve him that drink?
Like many women, I inhabited the city on my own as Jessica Lal did. I stood on street corners eating kebab rolls and throwing their foil wrappers at lingering boys who asked to join me. When my friends and I went to drink around our university campus we carried big sweatshirts to wear over our clothes, the angrier ones of us lining the sides of the couches we sat on, ready to fight off any incoming threats.
One day, in my first year at university, I sat in a restaurant eating a brownie with my friend. Near us, two men took out a small knife to brandish at a woman who refused to take a photograph with them. “Husband hai kya?” they asked her, smiling, as they played with her long hair and tried to hold her hand as she ate a piece of cake. “Do you have a husband?” When she replied that she did not, one man become dumbstruck and childlike. “Then what’s the problem?” he said, his weapon flailing around in his left hand. “If you don’t belong to anybody, why can’t you belong to me?”
Even as I had seen many women threatened in the same way, I remember this one clearly. She stood her ground, and caught my eye across the café as a measure of stealthy security. Both of us knew that one moment of provocation, one raised voice, could cost her life. When the men finally left, the woman ordered another piece of red velvet cheesecake. She sliced it slowly and licked the frosting on the back of her spoon. She took a picture of it with her phone. And then one of herself, her phone flipped so her camera flickered in the light, her painted nails coyly covering her mouth. When she got up to leave, she stopped at the table where my friend and I sat, and flipped her hair before she looked our way. “Kitni variety hain a aaj kal?” she said, throwing one look at our single dismal brownie. “Isn’t there so much variety of cakes nowadays?”
As soon as she walked out the door, my friend and I, embarrassed, ordered two more pieces of cake. One rainbow-colored affair with frosting and a sprinkled donut with custard bursting out of its rims.
These days, I think about the various meals for one that I have watched women eat in my lifetime. I have cheered silently watching young students strut to cigarette stalls and ask for their preferred brand, rattling their bangles at the vendor to get his attention if he dared entertain the gangs of smirking boys smoking raspberry-flavored straights near them. I think about women bolting inside the Delhi Metro’s women’s compartment, and opening up boxes of parathas, or snacks stored away from tea-time at work. I watch them sigh into their boxes, as they eat in the solace of safe transit in the city; preparing for the several duties that will face them when they arrive home.
I also think about katoris filled with forbidden things, like pickles during a menstrual cycle, and sweets stolen during times of mourning, when widows are disallowed any inkling of pleasure. I think often of Annu Aunty, a momo vendor in Delhi’s Taimur Nagar, who I spent a week with when I interviewed her for work one winter. Like most people, I defined her through the labor she performed, her ability to churn out thousands of momos a day for the students who flocked to her stall.
What I didn’t write about was Annu Aunty’s evening snack, which she ate every day when she finished work. I left out what she made for herself, for her own pleasure: a chutney-cheese sandwich, heavily buttered and fried in a pan, which she ate at her window, near a sea buckthorn plant from her native Nepal.
One day during the pandemic I walked under my building to smoke a cigarette when I spotted Vimla Aunty, my 75-year-old neighbor, shuffling in a corner, hiding behind a tree. I stubbed my cigarette so I could chat to her, noticing that she ate hurriedly from a small bowl, as she came out of her hiding and sat on the bench close to where we stood. When I asked her what was in her bowl, she grinned, bringing it under a street light, showing me the large scoop of ice cream she ate topped with peanuts and thick waves of chocolate sauce. “Chocolate ice cream” she said to me in whispers, even though no one was around. “Unkay Bina,” she added, giggling. “Chocolate ice cream, without my husband. Chocolate ice cream. Only for me.”
I don’t like to give my current position of oneness a sitcom-like gleam. I do not consider it so permanent as to be radical and I don’t think of it as so fleeting to entirely dismiss it altogether. I cannot pretend that emancipation is what I desire, or that in our worlds, it is possible at all. More than anything, I like to regard it, to look at it from the outside. To recognize it, to exercise my right to sometimes think, cook, and eat alone. Besides, how alone am I when I cook for myself? When I make a peanut-chili oil and drizzle it on noodles like my cousin Arya, or when I add dahi to my qeema like my friend Dr. Masoodi, thinking of her feeding the birds as she cooked. I like it this way, when the economy of the kitchen belongs to other people. A hot sauce left by my best friend Vani when she discovered an endless penchant for fermenting; a 25g jar of honey made by an artistic man I have a crush on, which I refuse to let anybody else eat.
The kitchen is a memory keeper, crowded with recipes and prompts from the people of my life. But what is mine is the choice to get it right or fuck it up. When I cook for myself, I am “underwater” in a way. I am genderless, childless, a person without any hinges. I am, fleetingly, nobody, or whoever I want to be.
By now, I have cooked for myself several times. What I cook most is fried rice with eggs, green onions, and a mixture of dark and light soy sauce. I like the idea of bringing something sad out of the fridge and giving it new life. I cook my eggs separately, and don’t skimp on the oil, submerging the voice in my head that always tells me I don’t deserve to eat. I often cook very quickly, almost manically. I eat quickly too, sometimes as I cook, spooning the crusty bits of rice out of the hot wok with a spoon. Sometimes I stand back and inspect the incongruency of my process, like an artist looking at a canvas, amazed and satisfied with all this sudden disarray. I imagine someone lofty calling my kitchen a crime scene, and it makes me laugh. But it doesn’t matter; I have only myself to feed. The world outside has come back to life. But here, it is still just me.
I find that domesticity, because it is stored in the bodies of women, is often considered an instinct. It is thought of as something supernatural, automatic, and easy to perform. But it is an education, I thought, as I stacked boxes in correct order and distanced my potatoes from my onions, so they wouldn’t sprout and rot. It is, among many things, labor, and memorialization. It is hard work, lived and learned.
Now, when I cook, it is after I have read Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires, which teaches me to focus on my gestures. I avoid the need to text her every time I am moved by how she recalls action. Instead, I slice a malta orange. I watch my hand dip into the cut-glass box with chaat masala I stole from my mother and watch the masala emerge, tucked into a small steel spoon. I watch myself take the cluster off a head of garlic, I watch myself heat butter and mix honey in with it to put on toast. I watch myself.
In these gestures, a new person emerges, a person that understands sensory preferences, who can witness herself move. I have never known this person. I like her. I tell her about how I always thought that pleasure belonged to someone else.
Recently, I witnessed one of my favorite meals for one, cooked by my aunt in her flat. She lives alone, escaping the years of matchmaking that she went through when we were children and she was a young woman, when we lived together. When mustachioed uncles would come to the house as potential suitors for her, my sister and I, in our practiced routine—me crying uncontrollably, her glaring at them with her hands on her hips—would drive them away. Through our theatrics and her determination, my aunt got what she wanted, and what no one else understood: to grow older by herself, and to be completely, and entirely on her own.
In her meal for herself in her flat, I watched her blacken daal and add cut cabbage. I saw her pour an unmeasured amount of rasam powder into a pot of simmering water, nowhere close to a boil. Unlike me, who used everything I did to politically posture, my aunt—the first queer, opinionated person I knew—had no interest in curated rebellion. But here she was, cooking in a bizarre sequence, disobeying every culinary and societal rule that either of us knew.
“You don’t have to, like, burn it, you know” I said lazily from the couch as she cooked.
“Oh no?” she asked. “But it’s done now, what to do?” She smiled at me, and did a little jig to illustrate she didn’t care. She joined me on the couch, her meal in a bowl, all kinds of techniques overruled. It was a kind of mush, like my ragù, but it had come together anyway. “Come,” she said, as we sat down to watch Outlander on her TV, digging her spoon into her bowl enthusiastically. “It is Sunday. Let us do what we want. Let us give ourselves a treat.”
Sharanya Deepak is a writer and editor from and currently in New Delhi, India. She is a co-editor at Vittles Magazine. She is currently working on a book of essays. You can read more of her work on her website https://www.sharanyadeepak.com/.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Peter Rubin