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A Manipulative Fiancé Stole My Self-Worth. Cooking Helped Me Regain It

Ironically, the culinary lessons I took to be a model wife were my path to recovery.

Transferring the last batch of chicken wings from a skillet of simmering honey, I set down a platter of — at the very least — five dozen honey-garlic chicken wings in front of my parents.

“How would you rate these?” I ask, gloating over the perfectly caramelized skin, dotted with specks of opaque garlic and vibrant chili flakes. My “recipe of the day” wins a 10 from my indulgent father and a 9.5 from my hard-nosed mother.

Sampling a few each, they head out to get some wedding shopping done. “If they were truly worthy of a 10 and a 9.5, you would have devoured these,” I call out behind them in disdain. Observing my sticky fingers, I wonder how I will finish this greasy platter, when I haven’t been able to stomach anything lately.

A sidelong glance at my phone confirms that there are no new messages and no missed calls. A sudden wave of fatigue overcomes my 110-pound body. My stomach lurches and my chest contracts with a dull ache, bodily reactions that I had grown accustomed to over the past few months.

He was still mad at me.

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In the spring of 2012, I was engaged to be married to a man my parents had found on a matchmaking site for South Asians. Like most arranged-marriage situations, after the requisite process of getting to know him and his family (and them getting to know us), we were engaged and set out on a long-distance courtship.

As a rite of passage, the new bride will make a sweet dish on the first day after the wedding, perhaps kheer (a rice or vermicelli pudding) or a sooji ka halwa (semolina pudding).

“You don’t want to stumble around the kitchen on your first day, with no clue on what you’re doing, do you?” my mother asked. Dreadful images of my mother-in-law looking on with disapproval as I spilled milk or burned the halwa came to mind.

“As the woman of the house, you will have to put together simple meals, elaborate dinner affairs, quick bites for unannounced guests and emergencies,” my mother insisted. She reasoned that in days ahead, my culinary talents will earn the favour of my in-laws and marital bliss. But above all, I did not want my beau to eat unpalatable food.

In a bid to domesticate me and ensure that my future family was fed well, my mother asked our middle-aged neighbour and a close family friend, Rashida Aunty, to teach me the ropes of the kitchen. Rashida Aunty had spent several years in Canada and other countries, and over the years, acquired a knowledge of global cuisines and culinary expertise.

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Rashida Aunty never hesitated to walk up to a chef at a five-star restaurant or the cook at a roadside food stall to ask for the recipe of a chicken a la Kiev or a chicken 65 that she had just enjoyed. As someone who learned from YouTube tutorials, I thought her approach a tad audacious. She would decode flavours, observe techniques and painstakingly recreate those recipes in her kitchen. As someone who relied on the convenience of canned ingredients and frozen food, I couldn’t fathom her obsession. Rashida Aunty spent hundreds of dollars on cooking classes and also taught several young women like myself. As someone who approached cooking as a dreary call of duty, I thought her efforts were time and money squandered.

At 26, I was brash, overoptimistic and resolute in my belief that throwing a few ingredients together will eventually “work out.” Nevertheless, I looked forward to mastering world cuisines, whipping up a delicious fare and winning the hearts of my new family. So, three days a week, off I went to Rashida Aunty’s with a bag of groceries and a notepad.

“As flavours sputtered in the kitchen, trouble was brewing in my relationship.”

Over the next few months — alongside teaching me how to dice and julienne — Rashida Aunty gave sound advice on adjusting to a new home and new kitchen. While demonstrating the difference between chicken cutlets and chicken croquettes, we spoke about navigating patriarchal societies. I learned the simple technique of crumb-coating a fish fillet and the more elaborate dum gosht — marinating lamb in a cashew nut paste, slow-cooking the meat and, finally, infusing it with charcoal smoke.

As flavours sputtered in the kitchen, trouble was brewing in my relationship. My parents were keen on setting a wedding date; my fiancé’s parents kept prolonging the conversation, until it culminated into a thinly veiled demand for dowry.

The practice of dowry is so primitive, yet unfortunately, so ingrained in the South Asian culture that in many parts of the subcontinent, the birth of a baby girl is shunned, whereas the birth of a baby boy is celebrated. It implies that the parents will have to pay a large dowry in exchange for their daughter’s hand in marriage, but the son is an asset whose mere existence will reap in money and material things (a house, car, etc.) at the time of his wedding.

His family believed he was a great catch, and whatever they asked for was only a fair deal. My objections to dowry were attributed to “a poor upbringing,” and I was constantly reminded of how far removed I was from the reality of “how our culture works.”

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With excessive emails, Skype sessions that ran into the early hours of the next morning, and once, a telephone call to the HR department of my company (because my phone was dead), my fiancé assured me that he loved me and was trying to placate things on both sides. Other times, he withheld communication, lashed out aggressively, relayed our private conversations to his family, and complained to mine about my insolence.

Forget being a good cook, I couldn’t even prove to be a good partner.

I profusely apologized for my perceived shortcomings, promised to make amends and continued to believe that we were just going through a tough phase. Nervous breakdowns, shivers and acute headaches ensued after every conversation.

The wedding was called off two weeks before the big day.

In the aftermath of the bombed relationship, I was left grappling with its consequences: grief, denial, anger, insecurity and incredibly low self-esteem. It took me seven years to understand and verbalize my experience for what it was — a toxic and manipulative relationship with a narcissist.

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Looking back on my journey, moments in the kitchen served as a foundation to the recovery process. I was uncertain of my future, but certain of the technique to temper daal. I found reassurance in the fact that there are exact sciences to cooking and baking — there’s no betrayal there. Although I couldn’t control the emotional upheaval I was facing, I could control the butter-to-sugar ratio in my blueberry-lemon bread.

In a bid to restore family dynamics — my father disoriented, my mother distraught — I was consumed with an urgency to create, to feed and to smother loved ones in food. I sought validation in the form of points awarded or an empty plate. Small milestones paved the way to finding this validation: baking elaborate cakes for friends, planning and hosting dinner parties, conducting cooking classes, and even Rashida Aunty asking for some of my recipes made me feel like I was doing something right.

In patriarchal societies, it is all too common to see a woman lose her self-worth in the kitchen. Enforced again and again, she starts believing that the kitchen is her place; her opinions, talents, and abilities outside the kitchen are inconsequential. Ironically, the kitchen was where I regained my self-worth and confidence.

As a haughty and presumptuous student, it took me seven long years to master the kitchen and, in the process, find myself. A process as long and laborious — yet just as rewarding as our succulent, perfectly smoked dum ghosht.

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