Parathas

When I was little and my grandmother used to visit, she would get her mixing bowl out, a bag of atta (which is chappatti flour), and begin mixing the sticky dough she would need to make parathas.

She wore gold bracelets on her hands, and a couple of valuable and sentimental rings on her arthritic fingers, not marriage rings because she was divorced. As she rolled out balls of dough ready to make into patties, her bracelets would jingle. It’s a sound I can still hear today when I make my own parathas. I would stand next to her and watch her, my head just reaching above the kitchen counter, and she would tell me of her childhood in Pakistan, where her father worked as a lawyer and they lived in a large house with sprawling grounds and mango trees. She was born in India in an area of Punjab called Jalandhar, but escaped during the night in a tarpaulin-covered cart to what was now Pakistan, to a city called Multan. This was during the extremely disruptive time post-colonialism which is now known as the Partition.

She said the maids used to make the parathas and she would watch them, just like I am now, and when she asked them if she could help, they said to wait until it was the last one and then she could do it.

‘So now you must watch me carefully and wait till it’s the last one, and I’ll let you make it’

She took a blob of dough, and began to roll it into a ball, bringing the outsides into the middle in an expert way, until it was a fine smooth ball. This is an important step, she told me. She then began flattening the ball out into a patty with her fingers, from the inside out. Her bracelets jangled comfortingly as she took her rolling pin and dusted it with atta, and rolled it out on the counter. Nice and thin and round. And then a small piece of butter on her fingers, spreading it around the flat roti so it melted into the dough. Then she slapped the roti from her right hand to her left to flatten it further before placing it neatly into her cast-iron flat pan that already had a drizzle of oil heating on it.

The parathas are large, round flat shallow-fried breads. They are not dry like roties or heavy like puris. Sometimes they are stuffed with spiced potato and onion, or minced meat made with spices and coriander, or any other vegetable like cauliflower. They can also just be eaten plain. My favourite kind of paratha was the plain shallow fried kind with lots of butter, and a side of scrambled eggs made with milk and whipped so they’re as pale as can be, sprinkled liberally with ground black pepper.

Coming from such a mixed heritage as I have, you often feel as though you don’t belong. I experienced this very real aspect of Pakistani culture at the hands of my grandmother, but equally, when my paternal grandmother used to visit, I would be immersed in a rich Moroccan culture. The pronunciation is very different. The food is a great contrast. But both have an incredibly strong affinity for patriotism and pride in their heritage.

My maternal grandmother did her masters in Pakistan before coming to the UK in the ’50s, to continue her studies. She met and married my grandfather, who was an abusive man, and she divorced him after five miscarriages and three children, the oldest of whom was my mother, who was 13 at the time. My mother remained estranged from her father until my grandmother died in 2011, upon which she located him in a town not far from where we lived at the time. in 1993 my mother met my father, a Moroccan student who was in London at the time studying for a masters degree, and married him. Nine months later I was born in a small London flat above Streatham High Road.

I grew up hearing, “You’re a beautiful curly haired Moroccan girl”

I grew up hearing, “You’re a true Pakistani. Be proud of your Pakistani heritage”

I grew up hearing, “You’re a very British person, you don’t fit in with us.”

I grew up hearing, “You’re intrinsically Arab, aren’t you.”

I grew up hearing, “You speak English very well for a Pakistani.”

I grew up hearing, “Your Arabic is excellent for a British girl.”

I grew up hearing, “You’re too white to be a Pakistani.”

I grew up hearing, “Your Arabic is not Moroccan enough.”

Last week I made parathas with my son. Just the way my grandmother taught me. I know how to make them just like any Pakistani would. I have been making them for years and years. My friend, who is originally Pakistani, popped by and saw them, and she marvelled at them.

“Wow,” she said, “Well done! I can’t believe you made our food!”, and her attitude was full of surprise. The ‘our’ in her words did not include me. It was more like, wow a foreigner can make my cultural food, I am impressed.

It’s so petty I know but I felt so irritated.

It annoyed me when Mona said well done about my parathas. It felt patronising. Like I had no business knowing how to make them well, and that by making them I had achieved something extraordinary.

I don’t think she meant to be patronising, but I took it that way. Instead of saying ‘well done’ she could have said ‘that looks good’. But she doesnt think that. In her head I am an amateur and I just achieved something great. Nevermind my Nani spent hours with me teaching me how to roll the paratha balls just so, how to get nice round rotis, how to fry, how many I helped make with her over the years. No. This experience is saved only for ‘experts’. Part-Pakistanis like me have no business knowing how to make something so desi as parathas.

It’s the same when I made something Moroccan, my own Moroccan cousins explaining foods to me that I grew up eating. Explaining cultural habits to me that I grew up with and which are intrinsically part of my lifestyle.

It’s the same when I am in England, and my family explain British things to me as though I never grew up knowing them. Or act surprised when I understand references and customs.

It’s nobody’s fault.

It’s just part and parcel of having a mixed heritage. You don’t belong anywhere and nobody accepts you as part of them, not truly. They say it but their actions say something entirely different.

I shouldn’t be annoyed about it, but sometimes I am. People often don’t like to listen to you or who you are, they believe their prejudices and what they ‘see’ over what a person tells them. I can scream about my Nani and parathas till I am hoarse but all Mona will hear is, ‘this foreigner learnt how to make parathas like us Pakistanis and wow let me show off more of my culture to her so she can learn.’

11 thoughts on “Parathas

  1. What an insightful post, Lenora, and helpful to those of us who might make assumptions about others merely out of ignorance. In the US, many of us are trying to unpack our assumptions, even the well-meaning ones like Mona’s that might be hurtful when viewed from another’s perspective. I learn every day that curiosity is the best way to approach others because it gives the other person an opportunity to share their experiences. And posts like these are vital. They teach. They’re good reminders. I also hope that you continue to cherish your varied heritage and the many cultural gifts that are part of you, as well as the opportunity to open eyes and help people grow. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, Diana. You’re very open minded. In the US the culture is very multi-cultural too, isn’t it. At least in the big cities, from what I hear. you’re so right that curiosity is the best way to approach learning about someone else’s perspective, rather than going by assumption. I learnt this too, mainly from being assumed about! I think we all have to learn, because we all come with our own subconscious built in prejudices, every single one of us. Black, white, and all the shades and races in between. Thank you so much for stopping by ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      • The US is multicultural, but we are still dealing with the centuries of racism embedded in out culture and systems. Fortunately a lot of people are now trying inform ourselves, listen and learn, accept our complacency and blindness, and make changes. Admitting that it exists is the first step. There is hope.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh yes of course. The education that is going on will hopefully inform the next generation new cycle of ‘rule-makers’. The UK and other similar nations are also dealing with centuries of embedded racism too, but maybe not on such a nuanced scale as the US.. or maybe it is, I am not sure. There are so so many good people Diana who are trying their hardest to make the world a better place and that really counts for something 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Well I don’t blame you one little bit for being annoyed. It’s a wonderful thing to have a rich and diversified heritage and to me it sounds like you fit in just fine wherever you choose. Seriously, bread making skills aren’t passed down in our genes, right? My mother-in-law, who was Swedish and made Swedish bread, kept her recipe a secret from me for a long time. Then she was really miffed when my husband started praising mine as just as good as hers. I don’t even like it much but I just wanted to prove a point. (This is the same woman whose “praise” for my sister- in-laws Christmas dinner was saying – “wow, it’s almost as good as mine!”). We laughed about that for years although it wasn’t all that funny at the time. Love everything you write. Your son is blessed to have an amazing mom. 💜

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha, i sincerely doubt bread making skills are passed down in our genes as I certainly don’t have the skills my ancestors had. But as you’ve so aptly demonstrated, it’s a skill that can be enhanced with great practice. I can imagine it was not funny at the time to be belittled so. It’s curious how some people’s self worth comes from strange places like that. Your comment is so nice, thank you! And thank you for taking the time out to read my post 🙂

      Like

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