I leave work around 7:30pm these days, but that is still not early enough to catch my fiancé before he is incoherently drunk, celebrating the end of a long week á l’anglais.
A Friday night in the City means that the boys who work in Equities will have left their desks at 4:59pm for the nearest pub, or 16:59 as I am learning to refer to it. They average a pint every twenty minutes. The ‘loved-up’ ones will go home to wives and girlfriends six or seven drinks in. The single ones will continue at this pace, ending the night at a club just after the pub calls last orders. All of them, single or partnered, have over even odds of bringing home a kebab, mystery meat carved off a rotating spit, covered in salad and unknown sauce over a pita. This is regardless of who or what is waiting for them for dinner. This is the universe to which I have moved.
We work so many hours. Spare time has been limited for a while. I don’t wish it were me going out with friends on a Friday night. I gave that up a year ago when I signed up to be an investment banking analyst. I miss meeting my dad at the Waldorf for a drink in the gap between evening assignments. The swanky bar is a block away from my office. I miss my mom dropping off home-cooked goodness to my apartment on days she crosses the bridge to Manhattan.
I miss thoor dhal, sai bhaji, gawar, dal pakwan. Foods of a homeland I have never seen.
I remember cutting gawar for Nani, my maternal grandmother, at least once a week during the summers in Mumbai. She hands me a large steel thali and the washed uncut green beans. My job is to top and tail them, cut the beans into inch-long segments. How she transforms the raw ingredients into my favourite bhaji, I never bothered to find out. Once my job was over, I was free to play with my toy rolling pin and a small ball of dough, pretending to roll phulkos until we sat down for lunch. Phulko is the Sindhi version of a chapati, thicker, layered, with ghee spread onto it like toast, before folding into quarters.
The beans are served with achhar, a home-made pickle, oily and spicy.
A by-product of India’s time in the British Empire is the large diaspora in London. To my American friends, I compare being Indian in Britain to being Puerto Rican in New York. All the ingredients you need to cook authentic dishes are right here. In fact, one home-sick Friday, unable to stomach another night at the pub, pretending to like beer, I made an important discovery. There are ready-made chapatis available at the corner store. ‘We get them delivered fresh every morning. No need to make your own,’ the man bagging my purchase says. I smile, pleased with my London ‘bodega.’ Britons consider chicken curry to be their national dish, I am told. I take my chapatis to my little flat, cover them with butter and sugar, eating them alone in the kitchen standing up. Next time, I’ll buy ghee as well.
A trip to Mumbai or New York, so far in the future, I dare not comprehend. No Indian cookbook for a western palate covers something as esoteric as gawar and phulko, but the bodega chapatis will accompany gawar perfectly.
Phlegm is hardening in my throat; a liquid film affects my vision.
Three PM Eastern standard time, a perfect time to call my mother; her instructions over the phone are imprecise. It’s past midnight in India, not that it matters. My grandmother can barely hear the phone ring.
Another bite of sweet chapati. I email my cousin; Vidya can help. She has access to a still sane cook, my mum’s elder sister. Vidya can type out the recipes for me to follow. Whilst typing my request, I add every single food I have felt cross my tongue in sad isolation. She will find my request a bit tedious, but between her instructions and my memory, I have to hope that I will get to a point of comfort.
Again, Friday rolls in: a familiar pattern, a crackly phone call, an empty flat, alone for dinner. This time, I anticipate it. This time, I pick up the beans at the small Indian fruit and veg stall. My spice cabinet has been outfitted during a rainy day in Southall.
I open Vidya’s email.
Here is the recipe:
Start with frying garlic and green chillies in oil.
Add the chopped beans.
Bhunio this continuously to make the beans soft and start to cook down.
Add salt and amchur, dried mango powder.
If it starts to stick, add a little water, cover it from time to time, until it’s cooked.
Are you making Sindhi food for your man? Why don’t you make him mutton instead?
If I weren’t about to cry, I would laugh at her ambition, that I would actually attempt to make something as complicated as a mutton curry. “Bhunio” has no English cooking word equivalent. The method is a steam cook alternating with a sauté using the vegetables or meat’s juices. The ingredients come together and caramelise a bit as they cook down; hence the idea that you can cover the pot to trap some of the steam or add a little water if that is not enough. The cook adds water by sight and smell of caramelisation versus at regular intervals. Knowing when it’s cooked exactly right too, is something that is hard to quantify in time, easy to identify from smell memory. The level of the flame is up to the cook, depending on whether things are going too fast or not fast enough. This is problematic on my electric stove, but I improvise by moving it from a hot spot to a cold spot on the range.
There is no threat my fiancé will interrupt; Norah Jones is on the CD player. Shyly at first, and then audibly, I start talking.
‘Nani, do you think this is enough garlic?’ or ‘Is the gawar chopped too big? Shall I make them smaller?’
In my mind, her voice answers. ‘You need more mirchi, more garlic, more amchur or the taste won’t come.’ I hear her laughing as the contents catch on the inside of the pot. I pour in too much water; now it needs to boil away.
‘Now mash some of the beans to give the dish a better consistency,’ she says. I wish she were here to take the wooden spoon from my hand and fix the mess I am making.
She would have needed a similar balm, probably infinitely more when she left the Sindh.
Another by-product of India’s independence from the UK is Partition: the creation of a separate secular India and a Muslim Pakistan. On the stroke of midnight, 15th August 1947, not only does India gain her independence, but she also gains a neighbour that she remains at odds with to this day. They call it the largest peacetime migration of people when Hindus and Muslims crossed the border into one or the other newly formed nation, though the migration is far from peaceful. My Hindu forebears lived in the Sindh, which is now in Muslim Pakistan. Even before the actual day of Partition, my grandparents spoke of hiding in their homes for fear of sectarian violence. My parents were young, and no one will recount much of our family experience. Suffice it to say, my father’s father passed away from a stray bullet when Dad was seven. My mother speaks of the train journey she took to Mumbai when her paternal grandfather feared the rape of his older granddaughters or daughter-in-law. The official numbers are disputed, but it is estimated that between ten and twelve million Hindus and Muslims left one country for another, caught on the wrong side of the new borders. It is estimated that up to a further two million lost their lives, but the estimates vary enormously.
In a country as byzantine as India, we don’t even know how old my grandmothers are. We aren’t even sure whether my mother’s birthday was the 6th or the 7th of April. Most survivors of the migration lost every ounce of material wealth they could not carry with them. Survivors from our community, and their offspring, rebuild lives in foreign lands as far away as Manila, Lagos, London, and New York. They take as much of their tradition and their language with them as they can remember to pass on.
Single plate, two folded chapatis to one side, a bowl waits for green beans to appear as I remember them. I inhale the aroma of cooked garlic, the sourness the amchur brings.
I am afraid to eat. When the beans are gone, our conversation ends. Nani passed away a year after these cooking experiments. This dish was one of her favourites.
I write about food because it is a meaningful part of everyone’s life. What we choose to eat reflects broad, significant historical occurrences. Imperialism, migration, and love can be found in a simple bowl of rice.
Writing about food is a tribute to the women in my family who did not have the life choices available to me to lead them out of the kitchen. I want to highlight their hard work and entrepreneurship by sharing their food history.
My food stories reflect three generations of immigrant experiences. My parents emigrated to the United States from India in the 1970s; their families displaced to Mumbai in the 1940s during Partition. I extended this tradition, being Indian in the United States, and immigrating to the United Kingdom. Participating in the ritual of food, writing about it, is a way to connect with my ancestry, and incorporate it into my present – the American, the Indian, the British.
Finally, food stories are fun; writing and reading them transform and transport us.
Anu’s essays and short stories appear in Caustic Frolic, Off Menu Press, and Angel City Review, among others. Her unpublished novel was longlisted for the 2021 Mo Siewcharran Prize. She can be found walking her unruly, shaggy terrier on the Common or on Twitter @AnuPohani.