My brother takes the flour out. Bits of flour dust sail behind the paper bag as he brings it the counter.
He shakes the saucepan on the hob. It’s filled with caramelised onions. Sliced peppers. Sliced beef. He throws in some stock. It splashes over the edge and creates a symphony in the pot. Swirling, whirling. Drops of sauce on the sleek and shiny stainless steel cooker. A bit of half cooked meat on the counter, where it has lain there after flying out the pot during some aggressive stirring.
He slaps the dough on the counter. Kneads away. Somehow a glob of dough lands on the edge of the sink behind him. On the cupboard handle. On the edge of his shoe.
Wraps the dough in clingfilm. Pushes it into the fridge. The egg tray falls out, and the only egg in it cracks on the floor.
Old rag, smearing egg yolk on the floor. Kick the mop over. Pour a glass of water over the egg. Mop it up. Leave the mop leaning against the door.
‘You done with the mop?’
I know that’ll stay there for a few days. Until some unwitting person wants to mop and will smell the unholy stench of raw egg rotting.
The dough is ready. He slams it on the counter. Takes the rolling pin out.
Sheet of dough. In the greased baking dish. Blind baked, fork holes peeping up at the searing heat of the oven curling the air over it.
Pours the filling into the pie shell. Drapes the other dough sheet over the top. Fork pricks.
Milk wash…. he had broken the last egg, remember?
I sit on the sofa in the next room with a good view into the kitchen. The beef pie is in the oven. It smells incredible. He can’t see me. He sees flour all over his hoodie. So he shakes the edge of it, and a cloud of flour dust flies into the air. He claps his hands on his trousers. Rolls down his sleeves.
‘Food’s nearly ready,’ he tells us, gruffly, as he heads upstairs.
‘Thank you darling,’ my mother tells him. She coos at my baby, who is sitting happily on her lap.
And I think, that boy hasn’t changed a single bit since he was a chubby little boy messing up the kitchen in a well-meaning attempt to scramble eggs.
Is it annoying? Yes, so much so. Does his food taste good? Delicious. Do I clean up after him? Yup. Does he think he has cleaned up after himself? Yes. Does my telling him he hasn’t done it well enough work? Nope. Hasn’t worked for over twenty years. What makes you think it will work now?
Also. I am at my mum’s house. Somebody else is holding my baby and somebody else is cooking dinner. Am I about to regurgitate an old sibling fight about messy cooking?
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.’
There is this beautiful book that I have become acquainted with, and it is called Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger. It is the perfect recipe book, just filled with the most decadent, good quality foods you can imagine. You can just think of eating these lovingly made dishes in the comforting, cosy glow of lamps, on rustic tables, using aesthetically pleasing cutlery, while the city just carries on outside. A loved one to share food with you is always a bonus.
My favourite ingredients to use lately are lemons, olive oil, coriander and garlic. You can combine these any way you please and you are guaranteed that the outcome will be decadent. Comforting. Quality.
The best food, in my opinion, is rice. It is so versatile. So filling. You can do so many different things to it and have an entirely new outcome every time.
I take my saucepan out, and drizzle in some extra virgin organic oil, turning the heat to low. I hum while I smash my garlic under a large knife, peel the skin off, and chop it up into little pieces that I throw into my pot. The garlic sizzles gently and the warm smell of it cooking gently wafts my way as I deftly squeeze the juice from a lemon, turning my spoon around to pull out the pulp. I don’t mind pulp.
In goes the juice, just when the garlic is sizzling but not browned, and in goes some freshly grated lemon zest, and in goes a healthy amount of salt. And in goes some pre-soaked rice, and also a nice heaped teaspoon of bright yellow turmeric powder. I stir it and sniff it and pour in some water until it covers the rice so that when my wooden spoon is inserted in the pot it covers the spoon halfway when the tip of the spoon is on the rice.
I then make sure my heat is turned as low as possible, put the lid on my rice and let it cook gently.
I then take some coriander, garlic, olive oil, salt, curry powder and smash all that together in a mortar and pestle. I have a lovely paste, which I smear onto some freshly defrosted cod (or fresh!). Into an oven dish it all goes, shoved in the oven for a good 25 minutes.
While my food simmers and sizzles away, I chop up an avocado, some cherry tomatoes, some rocket, some coriander (yes, again!), some cucumber and squeeze some more lemon over it, salt and pepper, olive oil (YES!!!) and toss it all up. Maybe some sumac? How about a little sprinkling of chilli flakes? Yes, that’ll do.
And then the yellow lemon rice is done, on a plate with a piece of soft salmon, the salad on the side, a drink poured into a glass, set on my rickety green table that is actually an old garden table but we don’t complain.. and that is my favourite meal ever.
What is your favourite meal ever? What are your go-to ingredients? If you could only ever eat one food for the rest of your life what would it be?
(mine would be rice!)
I LOVE lemons! Image credit: Still Life with Lemons and Oranges. Luis Melendez 1760s. (National Gallery, London)
Daily cooking has become a chore now. I used to love cooking but now that my interests have expanded to include devouring Knowledge, I find that the time frame to cook a decent meal has narrowed horrendously.
Also there are financial constraints to adhere to, and also health constraints.
One must eat healthy, else one will develop all the manner of mysterious ailments. By one, of course, I mean myself. I have bad poops, acne, weight gain, hair loss, bloating – the list goes on. And all these things only occur to me when I eat instant noodles or microwave meals.
The minute I eat gluten free oats for breakfast and plenty of vegetables, my body goes back to normal and I feel fabulous.
SO, with these limitations, I have to make sure we have a healthy meal for dinner every day. Because if I left it to my husband, we would be eating – well – probably nothing served with a cup of tea.
Daily cooking for me has consisted of an oven dish filled with chopped up veggies, drizzled with olive oil or coconut oil, sprinkled with some salt, pepper, oregano and sometimes paprika. A crushed garlic or two nestled in there somewhere. And baked until just decent enough to eat.
Today it was half a sweet potato chopped up into thin ‘fries’, some green beans and some lamb mince spiced with salt, pepper, garlic, paprika and maple syrup and patted into burgers and shoved in the oven with the veggies. I had some leaves in the fridge too (don’t ask me what leaves they were, they were green and tasted like they were full of vitamin A) which we had on the side with some lemon squeezed on top sharpish. Two plates, serve the lamb burgers on the side, pile the veggies on another side, put the leaves on the third side, and there was a decent meal for two!
Prep time took ten minutes, cook time (left in the oven while my nose was in a book) was half an hour, and eating time was half an hour too.
Basically, I spent ten minutes in the kitchen preparing dinner. WHAT. Also, it wasn’t crap out of a box. WHAT?!?!?!
Tomorrow it will be gluten free oats with almond milk and blueberries for breakfast, lentil and coriander soup for lunch, boiled brown pasta, grilled chicken breast, chopped up tomatoes with some spices and all mixed up together for dinner. And hopefully that will take around 30 mins prep time all combined (ten minutes for each). And also include plenty of nutrients for my bodayyy.
Here is a photo of today’s leftovers which will go to work for tomorrow’s lunch, I will also add some steamed spinach and green beans tomorrow to add some colour!
Chocolate croissants made with puff pastry and Nutella! I mean, what could be better? Well, I could think of a wild variety of things that are infinitely better (hugs on a cold morning, fluffy socks, summer fields, churros, cheese melts, surprise flowers, comfy house scents, parents who are happy… the list is endless). I tried to fold them nicely into croissant shapes and croissant twists. That didn’t work out too well for me, ha!
Anyway here are my Nutelloissants!
They do look rather messy, I grant you, but they taste delicious.
I am a sucker for food. All kinds of food. I was brought up eating a variety of foods from a variety of cultures. My mother cooked Pakistani, Mediterranean, English, European, Indian and Arab. She called us mongrel children because our heritage is so mixed, but I can honestly say that this experience taught me one important thing about food; there is nothing you can’t try. Food is an experience. It is to dabble in the senses, the sense of smell and sight and taste. They are all intertwined, and each culture in the world has its own unique taste, based, of course, on the climate and crops which dominate the area in which the culture presides.
I got myself a few things from Italy, sundried tomatoes, a sprig of fresh oregano, and a packet of pasta seasoning which contained dried herbs, salt crystals and dried garlic chips.
I decided to cook something Italian, loosely based on the simple recipe on the back of the pasta seasoning packet. The recipe called for some olive oil, two tablespoons of seasoning, and some cooked pasta.
I added the tomatoes and fresh garlic, and topped with a few sprigs of oregano.
I heated up the oil with the herbs and fresh garlic, and gave it a little fry. I then added my chopped tomatoes and tossed them around a little until their skins started to wrinkle and they began to get hot and slightly soft.
I also seasoned some pieces of chicken breast with salt, pepper and some thyme and a squeeze of lemon, and stir-fried in a little olive oil.
The entire process took about ten minutes, during which I boiled some spaghetti until it was just past al dente.
I then tossed the tomatoes together with the chicken into the spaghetti, coating the pasta with the sauce and herbs, and dished it out!