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.’