Published in Complete Wellbeing, India, January 2014
My love for cooking is very ancient. Who knows, perhaps I was born with it!
I was brought up by my mother. As a child, I saw my mother working at the sewing machine practically all day, except for a couple of short breaks, when she prepared some food for both of us. Her food was basic – simple and quick. But it was very tasty – because, even if she only cooked for half an hour, she would put a lot of love into it and I always ate two portions every time!
When I was seven, she got the brilliant idea of sending me on vacation. She thought I should get some fresh air that summer, so she took me to a village. The folks had a simple life, without the facilities of urban life – not even electricity or running water. But their food was delicious. I loved the place right away. They would prepare a fire early in the morning and keep it alive all day, using it to cook their meals for the day. They made homemade pasta, sometimes lasagna or gnocchi or other authentic local delicacies. I loved their food so much that I wanted to learn how to make it, so I spent that summer learning how to cook – fettuccine, cannelloni, ravioli and more.
When I returned home a few months later, I couldn’t wait to show my mom all that I’d learned in the countryside. So one day, while she went out for some errand, I prepared some homemade fettuccine topped with a ‘ragout sauce’ [tomatoes and minced meat] and when she returned, I served her my masterpiece. My mother simply couldn’t believe it – she was ecstatic, because she had never eaten something like this before. She kissed me over and over again asking how it was possible that I could cook so well! That day I learned how easy it is to make somebody happy just by cooking some food for them and that become my gospel: “I cook today because I don’t know a better way to tell you how much I love you!”
The cooking kid
From that day on, I cooked whenever I had a chance – for the birthday party, a special celebration, any occasion, and soon I earned the reputation of ‘the cooking kid’. This reputation followed me even to Pune, where I moved to in 1978, enchanted by Osho’s vision. One day, Ma Deeksha, the huge Italian mama who was in charge of the ashram kitchen, called me to her office and told me that she had heard stories about my passion for cooking from almost every Italian present in the Osho commune. She said she was wondering if I would like to cook for my fellow travellers.
“Wait a minute,” I said, “I’ve only arrived a couple of weeks ago, and I’m enjoying all the meditations in Buddha Hall… I have no time right now! Come back to me in a month or so, and then we can talk about it.”
But she was adamant. She said, “you don’t have to cook every day, just come one day and make one of your special dishes for everybody. Please!”
How could I have said no to such an invitation? So I agreed. I started thinking immediately about what could be my first meal for the ashram.
500 portions of joy
I had an Italian friend in those days. I knew he had visited Sicily, where he had spent a week learning the art of making mozzarella. So I went to this guy and asked him if he could make 50 kilos of mozzarella for the next day!
“50 kilos!” he said, “and what do you want to do with all this mozzarella?”
“I want to make 500 portions of ‘eggplant parmesan’.”
“Okay, you will have your mozzarella for tomorrow at noon!”
The next morning I woke up early, went to the kitchen, and told them that I need 50 kilos of red tomatoes and 50 kilos of eggplants, plus a box full of fresh basil. By 5 pm, when the canteen opened, there were 500 portions of my creation on display.
After all the hard work, I felt tired and decided to go straight back home for a nice shower. There were two ways to leave the kitchen: one from the back, which bypassed the eating area, and another through the front. I took the second way, a little curious to see how people had received my creation. What I saw was just unbelievable – it gives me goose bumps even today, after 35 years! People were feeding each other, with ecstatic faces and whispering words like ‘how good, how fabulous, how delicious’. I hid behind a tree and cried, because everyone seemed delighted with my dish!
And that’s how I started to cook every day!
The greatest secret of cooking
My culinary tricks are simple. In fact, they are so obvious that most people overlook them completely. For example: did you wash your hands before starting to cook? You will be surprised to know that millions of people start cooking without first washing their hands. In the east they say, ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’. When we cook, we are preparing something that will go inside the body of our guests. Washing our hands before starting to cook is, to me, the first sign of respect and love.
The food we prepare, touching it with our hands and our feelings, goes inside the bodies of our loved ones. It follows then that we should be aware that we are involved in a very delicate, subtle, yet powerfully alchemic process. Cooking is not a secondary activity, something you do with one hand [while the other holds a cigarette], nor something you do with one eye [while the other is watching television]. Cooking has to be recognised for what it is: a noble, loving, caring activity, which affects our physical, psychological and emotional health. Once you become aware of this, your attitude is bound to change. You realise how deeply you can heal [or poison] someone with your daily cooking. Once you see how you contribute to the wellbeing of the people you are feeding, and accept that existence is all about nourishing the ones you love, you will be overwhelmed with gratitude for such a beautiful responsibility, which is no less than a blessing. Once you realise the splendour of cooking, you will wish that you could nourish everyone better, for this will become your greatest joy in life, and you will not wish to spend a day without cooking for them.
The greatest secret about the alchemic art of cooking is this: it’s love that is cooking.
Swatantra Sarjano is a former professional photographer who made India his home more than 35 years ago. He became a sannyasin and lived at Osho Ashram in Pune. He now lives in Goa where he runs an authentic Italian restaurant ‘My Place’ and is the author of ‘Food Is Home’.