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There’s No Recipe For Growing
My mom’s Kashmiri cooking has always tethered me
to home. So it’s no wonder she won’t give me (all)
the secrets to doing it myself.
Scaachi Koul November 2, 2016, at 9:53 a.m.
My mom’s Kashmiri cooking has always tethered me to home. So it’s no
wonder she won’t give me (all) the secrets to doing it myself.
Aimee Bee Brooks for BuzzFeed News
On Diwali evenings, my mom let me eat as many sweets as I wanted. She’d
buy jalebees, even though she’d complain that they weren’t as good as the
ones she used to get in India. These were too cold, too sticky. But Diwali, the
Hindu festival of lights and good conquering evil, is and was a day for eating,
so she’d also make a big vegetarian feast and sweet puris piled high in a metal
bowl as a religious offering. After dinner, she and I would sit in front of her
makeshift temple and she’d mutter something about Lakshmi in Hindi. In a
clay diya, she’d make a candle from a cotton ball and ghee, pull smoke from it
with her hands, and wrap it around my face, mithai crumbs on my lips.
Food is a big part of any Indian holiday, but in my parents’ home, hearty
homemade Indian food was a fixture every day. Nightly, we had mounds of
basmati rice, baby eggplants stewed in spices that I’d hold up to my face like
bejeweled earrings, collard greens and turnips (gross, until I grew up). Best of
all were the nights where she made Kashmiri rogan josh, a lamb dish she’d
whip together in a pressure cooker that was perennially broken, the whistle
propped up with a wooden spoon and screaming every five minutes on a
Saturday afternoon.
Mom cooked, Mom piled food on your plate and made chutneys from scratch.
When you scooped the last of your rice up with a fork, she’d instinctively
know and pop up next to you with “More?” holding another cup of steaming
rice aloft. (Usually, she’d dump it onto your plate without waiting for an
answer.) My brother and my dad and I were all spoiled, but I was the
youngest, which means I was the most spoiled.
I moved out at 17, but it took a few years before I craved my mom’s Kashmiri
food. Restaurant Indian food is too oily, too bland, with too much cream and
too few of my mom’s recognizable cooking quirks. I miss things that hardly
matter, like how her potatoes always ended up crescent-moon shaped, or the
way her parathas were always triangular and puckered.
Instead, as I’ve gotten older I’ve been trying to learn my mom’s recipes
myself. She got hers from her mother, who died more than a decade ago in
India, and who used to make the most delicate little pats of paneer. (We
called it tsamen, a word I learned is used only in our little corner of North
India.) My mom has been cooking for maybe 40 years, probably longer, but,
unfortunately, in the five years I’ve been cooking, I’ve learned I have no
instincts in the kitchen. I panic if more than one burner is on at a time, and if
there isn’t a concrete recipe, I can’t wing it. I’ve burned through the bottoms
of so many pots that my old roommate put a moratorium on me attempting
to cook any grains.
This past Sunday was another Diwali spent away from my family, sorting
through that inexplicable loss you feel when a holiday is happening and
there’s no one to celebrate it with you — not really your cousins who are a
trek away, no siblings nearby, no aunties you want to call. I decided I’d do it
myself, and invited two of my favorite (white) people, hoping to not poison
them. Diwali isn’t our family’s most exciting holiday, but celebrating it felt
important, the same way I try to avoid meat on Shivaratri (when my mom
calls to remind me), or the same reason I send my brother a red thread on
Rakhi even though we otherwise never talk.
On Diwali, like most days that remind me of Hinduism and India, I miss my
mom. I’ve been living away from my parents for nine years, long enough to
make a new life in another city, to have friends and a live-in partner. Two of
my cousins live a half hour away. But Mom, regardless, refers to me as “alone,
out there,” like I could starve any minute.
When I do come home a few times a year, Mom asks me what I want for
dinner and plans meals for my entire stay. She loads food on my plate and
freezes the extra so I can take it on a plane with me and defrost it when I’m
homesick. I’m homesick a lot these days, seemingly the same way my mom
was homesick for her parents after she left India. When my mom moved, she
took all of her mother’s little secrets with her. My mom had watched my
grandmother cook for years, knew her languages, knew how to pleat a sari or
mutter a Kashmiri insult (“Thrat”) or throw a wedding for her son, 25 years
after she moved away. I don’t have any of these secrets, because I was born in
North America and raised around white people in a family that wanted to
integrate. So it felt important to at least try to remember how my own mom
did things.
“Add a teaspoon. Or maybe a tablespoon. Well, try
a teaspoon and see what happens.”
Late last week, I called my mom to get a refresher on a few of her recipes. I
wanted to make rogan josh, aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower), chicken
biryani (chicken and rice), and paneer with palak (spinach). But my mom,
like so many Indian mothers I know, has always avoided giving me complete
recipes. Even when I visit home and watch her, she somehow manages to
divert my attention by, say, dangling in front of my face a gol gappa, a globe
of fried wheat flour filled with chickpeas and potatoes and yogurt. I’m always
missing a spice, a cook time, a stove temperature. I’m never clear if when she
says “ginger” she means “fresh ginger, about a pinky-size, cut into strips” or
“ginger powder, a teaspoon or two.” Or, if she’s feeling really casual about a
recipe, she’ll say, “Add the usual spices,” a mix of 5 or maybe 10 different
spices that might be usual to her but are patently unclear to me. Salt? Does
she just mean salt?
Worse, her measurements are not based on any contemporary or commonly
used metric. A teaspoon, to her, is the size of the white plastic spoon with the
snapped-off handle that she uses in all of the containers in her spice drawer
that originally came from Dairy Queen when I was 6 or 7 and abandoned a
half-eaten Oreo Blizzard. A tablespoon, conversely, is anywhere between two
or three of the “teaspoons.” A cup is the cup she uses to scoop basmati rice
out of the five-gallon plastic tub in the pantry on the bottom shelf. It is
unclear where the cup came from, but it is cloudy and cracked and
significantly smaller than an actual cup.
Every other measurement she has, then, is specific to her grocery store, to her
homemade spice mixtures, to her butcher who hands her a hunk of lamb the
size of a small toddler, leaving her to break it down into digestible and
cookable pieces. “How much frozen spinach do I need?” I might ask her, and
she will answer, “One.” One block, she says, as if I can go to a grocery store
I suspect some of this is intentional. Indian women — mothers, in particular
— hoard some of their recipes, refusing to give them in full. So long as they
are the eldest women in their families, they are the gatekeepers for these
particular culinary incarnations that exist only in their kitchens. (A cursory
Google search for a good chicken biryani recipe yielded ingredients like
chicken stock — my mom literally screamed when I suggested this — or curry
paste, something that has never once been in her kitchen.) I’ve started to do
this too, refusing to give my boyfriend a complete ingredient list, even when I
need help cooking, because I refuse to let him in on a secret I have been
scratching at for years.
Maybe it’s about making herself needed as a mother, or forcing me into
coming home and beg for my favorite lotus root, a recipe specific to Kashmir
that I’ve never found at a restaurant. Regional differences are lost, the little
things my mother’s mother’s mother did in the kitchen get muddied — unless
I ask. And I have been asking, for years, for as long as I’ve been away from
home and have been trying to find my mom at the bottom of a 20-quart pot.
All of this reduces my cooking to a kind of trial and error. Once, when I tried
to make her rogan josh, I ended up adding three times the right amount of
cinnamon; my lamb tasted like an angry ginger snap. Two years after that,
she casually mentioned that you’re only supposed to use flat cinnamon sticks,
and not the rolled up ones, which apparently makes a fucking difference.
When I last visited, she sent me back to my home with frozen rogan josh in
my suitcase. Later, when I defrosted and ate it, I picked through it, pulling
out any identifiable spices I could find. At the bottom of my bowl was a dark
ball the texture of soft wood. I cleaned it off and texted it to my mom with my
trademark calm: “?!?!?!?!” She gave me the Hindi word for it, leaving me to
creative googling to figure out what it was. (I won’t tell you; I’ve invested too
much to give it up that easy.)
Mom swears that she’s not actively keeping ingredients from me, that she just
forgets because cooking is so second-nature to her. This doesn’t explain why
sometimes she’ll add an ingredient to her list for me — a year ago, the rogan
josh recipe had coriander powder in it — later saying something like, “Why
would I ever tell you to put coriander powder in it? Nothing has coriander
powder in it.” Now she says it’s actually garam masala, but not the kind you
buy in the store (she says this with her particular brand of derision usually
reserved for “white” grocery stores) but the kind that she makes at home,
fistfuls of unidentifiable brown spices hand-ground with a mortar and pestle.
“I will give you some when you come home,” she always says, but she is a liar,
because she never actually has. Food has always been my mom’s domain, so
maybe it makes sense that she doesn’t want to give me her trade secrets just
“You can’t make this and be impatient.”
Is there a point when you stop needing your mom? I want to know if it will
happen before she dies, or if she’ll go and I’ll be left figuring out how to
contend without her. My dad talks about dying with typically alarming
frequency — a few weeks ago, he answered the phone and said, “My body will
never be what it once was,” and then passed the handset over to my mom —
but it’s my mom whose death I’m more concerned about.
In terms of being needed, my mom will never get a break. My dad sometimes
won’t eat unless my mom is home to prepare food for him; even something as
simple as a sandwich requires supervision. My brother and sister-in-law and
their daughter come over every Sunday and my mom piles Kashmiri food on
their plates like she does for anyone who comes to dinner. She’ll sit next to
my niece and watch her eat, her half-white, blue-eyed granddaughter licking
daal off a teaspoon.
I started cooking this past Sunday around 3:30 p.m., peeling the potatoes and
cutting the cauliflower into florets and quietly muttered “son of a bitch” when
I realized I had forgotten to buy rosewater. I called my mom first at 4 p.m., to
confirm that cumin seeds and fennel seeds are different (DON’T @ ME).
Once she finished laughing at me, I put the aloo gobi in the oven and
marinated the chicken in star anise and “the spices from that box.”
I called her again when my palak looked electric-green and tasted canned
(“Well, obviously you forgot to add the haldi,” she said, as if I had called to
ask a question as simple as “Why can’t I breathe when I place a brick on my
own throat?”) While I pan-fried the rogan josh, she called me back and asked,
“How’s it going?” I could hear her smiling, and it almost felt like a taunt. I
told her I was sure something was missing, a spice that she considers too
routine to even mention, or one that she’s actively hiding from me.
But by then my kitchen smelled like my mom’s, a clash of turmeric and
paprika and chili powder and cumin (whole and ground) and the scent that
comes from fresh meat when it’s being slowly cooked in different pots at the
same time. I loaded serving bowls with the food I made, called everyone into
the kitchen. The chicken tasted right, the rogan josh looked reddish-brown,
the paneer had turned yellow and was easily cut with the side of a fork.
It had the markings of my mom’s food, but of course it wasn’t as good as hers.
It wasn’t as good because my food, as surprisingly palatable as it was, didn’t
include my mom hovering over me with a wooden spoon. (Was she going to
give me more rice? Was she going to hit me a little bit for eating too fast? It’s
a journey.) It wasn’t as good, because it couldn’t be. I can’t replicate the
things my mom does; I can only build on top of them. But still, I made sure
everyone had seconds, preferably thirds.
“When you’re done, add a pinch of that spice in the
yellow container. I gave it to you last time you
were here.”
Aimee Bee Brooks for BuzzFeed News
I didn’t poison anyone on Saturday. I made six, maybe seven times the
amount of food intended, but I’m content with that being my biggest mistake.
(I did use a pressure cooker for the first time and screamed every time it
screamed, and I forgot to add the almonds to the biryani but, you know what,
fuck nuts.)
After my guests left my house, I sent a photo of my spread to Mom, and she
called me later that night. “The color was right,” she said, paying me the
highest compliment she could give me from 1,500 miles away. “So, I guess
you can do it yourself.”
More frequently than I think is normal, I imagine what we’re all going to do
when my mom dies. My dad will be completely incapable of taking care of
himself (he once asked me to put his jalapeño potato chips in the oven to
“crisp them up some more”). My brother and I only call each other now and
then, because Mom begs us to, so who knows how far we can drift. I’ll lose her
as a tether.
Mom doesn’t talk about death; it’s too macabre for our pleasant chats. But I
can’t help thinking about it, an anxiety that started to ramp up in my early
twenties when I noticed how little I am capable of doing on my own. I still call
her to consult on how to appropriately wash a lace bra, and she still buys me
leggings if they’re on sale, and she gets this rare herb shipped in from India
that I have no idea where else to get outside of her pantry.
These gaps in my knowledge are terrifying enough, but what about all the
things I don’t know that I don’t know? Sheer chai, for example, is the most
disgusting product her home country has ever produced — but will I one day
wish I knew how to make it?
When you emigrate, you end up the last person to touch a lot of your family
history. Somewhere along the line, we’ll forget my mom’s maiden name. We’ll
forget what her actual name was before she changed it when she moved. We’ll
lose language and the way to make a candle from ghee and a cotton ball. I
can’t pull all of this information out of her, and I can’t carry all of it after she’s
gone, and I panic when I think about how impossible it feels to one day not
need her. But at least I can try to cook.
My mom’s own mother died in India, seemingly suddenly, from a
combination of declining health and crummy care. Mom was with her when it
happened, but near the end my grandmother was confused and didn’t seem
to register that her daughter had flown all that way just to see her off.
When I imagine my mom’s death, I picture her perched on her proverbial
deathbed, lucid but weak, about to die. She’ll raise one arthritic finger toward
me, motioning for me to come closer to her. “Yes, mother,” I will say, and
kneel down so her face is close to mine, glistening with tears.
“Closer,” she will say, and I will press forward, taking her hand.
“What is it?” I will ask.
And with one final rasp, the death rattle of a long life winding down, my mom
will wheeze out her final words, releasing me from a lifetime of trying to keep
her as close to me as possible: “It was just salt.” ●
How To Get Your Green Card In
Until last year, I was one of 4.3 million people at the
mercy of the legal immigration system, waiting for
the chance to stay in the U.S. for good.
Sarah Thankam Mathews
Posted on November 22, 2015, at 10:07 a.m. ET
Pete Gamlen for BuzzFeed News
When we arrive in North America, I have never yet crossed a street by myself.
I’ve spent the last 14 years in Oman, a sliver of the New Middle East where,
for all its malls and modernity, transit as a girl meant being driven in a car by
my mom or walking in blistering heat holding my father’s hand. I am two
weeks past my 16th birthday, but as my boots slip and slide on icy asphalt, it
feels like learning how to walk all over again.
The coats we bought in Oman are laughable, unlined scraps of wool and
corduroy that the wind tears at like a Rottweiler. The temperature on the 22minute walk to the Indian Embassy is -9°C, which is 17°F, which is about 73
degrees colder than anywhere I have lived in my short life. I instantly reevaluate my Judeo-Christian conception of hell as a hot place.
My father’s ears are visible in the distance, an angry boiled red. Eyes watering
from the cold, I think, I can’t go on, I can’t, I’m going to die, I can’t do this,
but we have 10 more blocks to go before we can be anywhere warm, so I suck
it up, which is an American phrase that means I must do the thing I think I
cannot do. I walk faster and faster, overtaking even my dad, and cross my
first street at an almost-run, half expecting traffic to roll my body into cartoon
flatness, my heart juddering like mad.
The first night in America, I look up restaurants to get dinner from, and
decide on a place called Chipotle. I see the people in line behind my dad flip
their eyes upward as he strains to understand the menu, how it all works. It is
the era of Bush junior, of men who look like my father getting stopped and
questioned for two hours when they attempt to travel by airline, of women
who look like my mother getting ignored by the sales assistants at J.C. Penney
when they try to buy real winter coats.
Back at the apartment, we sit cross-legged on rental carpet and share the food
— burrito bowls, they’re called. They are delicious. My back is to the radiator,
and I feel warm and full, and happy that we have one another.
On my first day of high school in Palatine, Illinois, I can’t figure out my
locker. American teenagers fill me with fear. These creatures my own age,
allegedly, but bleached and lip-glossed and wearing clothing that fits so
differently from my own, occupy space with such force and ease. I am a little
turtle with my brown face and overstuffed backpack, swerving to avoid my
classmates in the hallway.
I’m asked, “Do they have, like, schools where you come from? Do they have
malls? Is Oman, like, a village in India?” I spend most of my lunch hour on
that first day trying to explain my visa status, my legitimacy in pursuing
public education. I’ve rehearsed the speech with my parents ad nauseam, so I
know the jumble of letters almost by heart. My family and I am here under
H-4 visa status, as dependents on my father’s work visa. We applied for our
green cards, hopefully we’ll get them soon.
I try a thing called tater tots. I get a C- on my test in English, which was
always my best subject before, and a hard lump begins to form in my throat.
At the day’s end, a kind boy (Chinese-American, first generation) helps me
open up my locker. I take the bus home, exhausted by the day’s trials,
crossing streets like I’ve done it all my life.
My father, who had a …
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