Asha arrived at a small kitchen at the back of a small eating place at the corner of a busy street where small close-packed office buildings situated. It was hard to move when all the cooks were walking around in such a compacted place.
"Asha, why are you late today? This is not you," Charbi, the head chef, a tall man of six feet in his thirties spoke while kneading the dough for Chapati.
"Sorry, boss, I looked for the last ingredient for the competition tomorrow." She took an apron and wrapped it around her small waist, then she wrapped her hair with a spare shawl.
"Hurry, cook your Chicken Torkari. A lot of customers were asking for it, but I didn't allow anyone to cook it."
"It's easy to make. Let Bishal do it. He tried to copy it once." She took a covered plate with her pasted spices from the chiller.
Bishal, a pot-bellied guy with bulging face, and covered with dirty apron, went to her side. "Asha, that was just a fluke. I tried more than once but it still lacks something. I don't know what." He saw Asha tiptoed to get the powdered spices on a shelf above. Bishal took it for her.
"Thank you," Asha said.
He took in her big black eyes fringed with long eyelashes that moved with grace as it opened and closed, mesmerizing him. "Just marry me and cook only for me."
"Stop asking again. Even if you ask me every day, my answer would still be no."
"Bishal, cook the Biryani now or we would be late serving the office workers coming for lunch," Charbi said as he formed dough balls.
"Boss, convince her to marry me." He glanced at the chef's direction with earnest eyes.
"I prefer for her to marry a lawyer than you," Charbi replied.
Everyone laughed at the head chef's remark.
"Be kind to me, boss. My Ma is now looking for a wife for me but I would be happy if beautiful Asha is the one." Bishal looked at her again and wished to hug her. His arms began extending and Charbi saw this.
Bishal stopped at the nick of time. He instantly pulled his hand and glanced at the head Chef. Charbi moved shook his head with a stern face.
Bishal went back to his table with his hope disintegrated.
Asha didn't notice Bishal's odd behavior. She started heating the twenty-four-inch wok while standing on a wooden box in front of the stove. She poured oil and spoonfuls of turmeric powder. She added the slices of onions and garlic then followed the chicken marinated with her spicy pastes.
She continued to stir and poured a cup of water and covered it. She put some roasted peanuts in a plastic and smashed it with a rolling pin. The peanuts were blended in a blender with little water. Lastly, she mixed them with the simmering chicken curry.
She announced, "In ten minutes serve the Chicken Torkari." This dish of hers was an all-time favorite.
The first time she stepped into this kitchen, Charbi was reluctant to accept her since women seldom welcomed as cooks though she was highly recommended by the owner, her school friend, Mukti. "She could be a washer or anything else but not the cook," said Charbi without batting an eye. It was taught that men go to work while women stayed home to look after the household. Women working was still new in those days.
The other thing in Charbi's mind was that she was the daughter of the Chef accused of food poisoning the magistrate a year ago. She may be an orphan that needs help, but he wouldn't loosen his standard for the restaurant's sake.
Asha drew her courage and told him, "Try eating my Baba's recipe of Chicken Torkari and judge it. If you still see that I'm not worthy then I'll give up." He looked straight into the eye of Charbi. "I know what you're thinking, my Baba poisoning the magistrate. I'll prove you wrong."
Mukti pleaded to Charbi. He agreed in the end, in the condition that all chefs in that restaurant would taste and be the jury. She plunged herself to the task. Charbi observed her every move. Making sure they wouldn't get poisoned. Thirty minutes after, she was done and serve it with a smile. No one knew at that time that she was sweating cold with anxiety.
The men gathered around the Chicken Torkari with a different look. The restaurant workers peeped from the windows to see the result.
Charbi scrutinized the food on the table. This dish was common but this one had some brown paste, but with a sweet aroma that filled their nostrils making them salivate. Mukti spooned a small chicken cut with some sauce on her plate filled with rice. They waited for her reaction.
Her eyes opened wide and elation suffused her being. She couldn't control herself but to get more. The rest saw her excitement and they started digging. The other kitchen staff ran to taste even a little.
After tasting, each one showed a delightful face. Some laughed or smiled in satisfaction and approval. A lady even cried remembering her late mother's cooking. The plate was white clean less than a minute, even the sauce itself was consumed.
The head Chef licked his lips. "Delicious, totally delicious. Different but tasty. Perfect for a specialty the customers can choose." Charbi looked at Asha and said, "I'll be a fool to let you go. Sorry, for doubting you earlier." He faced the owner. "Mukti, she will be one of my second hand in the kitchen." He looked around. "Anyone disagreed?"
All men went silent and their gaze went to the second chef Shashantu. "I can't cook like this though I'm good. I hope my sharing this position with you will be rewarded with more great cooking of yours or I'll take back what I said."
"Thank you for the offer but I don't want that position. I'm still new here. I just want to cook and earn," Asha politely said with a big smile. Deep inside, she felt like she was floating.
Mukti agreed with Asha. For her, as long as she could help Asha, then it's enough. However, if revenue increases, Mukti wouldn't hold back of paying more. "I think Asha will just cook her specialty dishes and that's all for now."
Everyone dispersed but a lot befriended Asha and some asked for her recipes. From then on she became a part of this kitchen.
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