Many hands reaching over a table cooking together

Food for the Soul: The Joys of Cooking with Friends

It is the end of a busy week, and I am having difficulty getting up to my alarm on a Saturday morning. I am due to be picked up in approximately ten minutes by my mother and we plan to drive to the city’s largest market. We are meeting my mother’s best friend and her daughter who I consider family. We have a strict list and schedule for the day ahead. The number one priority, my mother tells me, is to locate The Tomato Man. Once we have achieved this, we can get coffee, pastries, and the other ingredients required to make kasundi (a dish similar to a relish).

It was tradition for us to get together annually to make kasundi, however, it has now been five years since it was interrupted by the pandemic. As I walked the market aisles, I reminded myself of why I pushed for us to get together again. I had been craving the salty, sweet, spicy chutney from my childhood, but I also craved the tradition. During my year abroad, I would often observe women in aprons carting boxes of end-of-season tomatoes to their kitchens, which would turn into rich passata that would last their families the year. I was missing the whole-hearted experience that our kasundi cooking tradition provided me. 

The outside world fell away, and all that mattered was the next step in the process

They say cooking is a form of mindfulness (meaning it allows us to be in the present moment without distractions) and I agree. This is even more so when the cooking is done slowly, over a long time, and alongside other humans. Reflecting on how I felt on Saturday, I observed a different mindset from how I was during the week. I was explicitly more engaged and present on Saturday, and I attribute this completely to the nature of that day.

It was a day dedicated to following a recipe. It was about making something that was a series of ingredients at various stalls around the market, and into a jarred final product to complement many different meals. That Saturday, I felt the outside world fall away, and all that mattered was the next step in the process. I took my time peeling one hundred garlic cloves, removing the skin from the ginger, and weighing the chilli. I was in the moment and not thinking about everything that I had to do. Using my hands, I was completely in tune with my physical body.

As we worked through the many steps of making the kasundi, I came across steps that I was familiar with and other new processes that required me to listen and learn. In this, the day was extremely therapeutic. I was the most in my body I had been in a while, and I couldn’t believe it was a condiment that was responsible for this. 

There is a specific word for the feeling of connection, belonging, and meaning, produced by a collective ritual action.

Participating in a tradition like this with other people, is what social scientist and researcher Emile Durkheim calls collective effervescence. Collective effervescence is a feeling of connection, belonging, and meaning produced by a collective ritual or action, and this feeling is really important for wellbeing. I believe the collective effervescence I felt on Saturday was strengthened by the experience of intergenerational story-telling through learning methods taught by my mother, who was taught by her mother. 

I felt a part of something much bigger than myself, which I find difficult to define.  Hearing about the latest in these women’s lives, it occurred to me it had been years since I had properly seen them., Had it not been for the idea of making Kasundi on this autumn Saturday, that period of absence would not have been interrupted.

While I have known these two women all my life, there was a different quality to the time we spent with one another that day. A calm openness and present-ness whereby we really listened and laughed in a way we hadn’t before. In this, our cooking was an intimate activity. It provided an opportunity for us to be vulnerable with others, to help and support each other, and to feel a sense of connection and camaraderie. 

The Slow Food movement stresses the strong connection between plate, people, planet, politics and culture

Walking around the southern Italian beach town I spent the better part of 2023, I remember the pang of awe and envy I would experience when I walked by a garage or a doorway containing a group of women cooking out of the largest pots you’ve ever seen. These women commonly sold or exchanged preserves, pickles, sauces, and jams. Seasonal things they had grown from nothing, harvested, prepared, and transformed.

In the newly colonised, industrial supply chain, supermarket-heavy land I come from, this garden-to-table process is something many of us yearn for. Italian-born Carlo Petrini believed there is so much value in this rich soul-satisfying process, that he dedicated his life to what he calls ‘Slow Food’ and turned it into a global not-for-profit organisation.

Slow Food can be thought of as a movement that promotes a philosophy around food and eating, which ticks three essential boxes: it is good for them, it is good for those who grow it, and it is good for the planet. The movement stresses the strong connection between ‘plate, people, planet, politics and culture’. Synonymous with mindful eating, the Slow Food manifesto offers an objectively better-quality lifestyle that is essentially about finding pleasure in what we eat and protecting local traditions in the process.

Whilst hunting down restaurants in Australia that endorse the local translation of ‘paddock to plate’ can be one way to be involved in the Slow Food movement, another might be to have a go at growing your own food. There are numerous psychological benefits to gardening, so why not do a two-birds-with-one-stone approach and grow your own herbs (or veggies if feeling adventurous!)?

Cooking something for another person nourishes a very primal aspect of our human nature.

Finally, and arguably the most special part of the process, is the altruistic joy you feel when handing a jar of Kasundi, or something else you have made, to someone you love. Something simply tastes better when it is made with love. It’s an ingredient more nuanced than umami that fast or industrially supplied food cannot match or even begin to compete with.

Cooking something for another person nourishes a very primal aspect of our human nature, and has been a cultural ritual in many cultures for centuries (for example, offering bread and salt). To offer sustenance is to offer care for another person. When that care tastes delicious, comes in a hand-wrapped jar, and can be enjoyed over many, many meals, it is the most fulfilling and nourishing gesture of them all for everyone involved.

You can read more on the benefits of cooking here, and if you want to give mindful cooking a go, this book can get you started.