What cooking my mother’s recipes taught me about her and myself

Photography via author

A lot of my mother’s culinary and medical advice (the two are intertwined in our family) will be familiar to most South Asian people – almonds to boost brainpower, crisp slices of mooli (daikon) to “cool” the body, avoiding garam (warm) foods like milk and mango to reduce inflammation, and karela juice to heal essentially everything. Some of her other wisdom will be familiar to almost anybody thanks to the fact that some of it has now been brought into the realm of Western science, therefore being recognised as valid knowledge, like honey to soothe a sore throat and turmeric to reduce inflammation, for instance. 

Sadly, I used to disrespect this, and any other form of knowledge pending white verification. 

“She didn’t know what to say, and felt that she didn’t have any recipes that she could call ‘hers'”

As millennials sometimes are, I find myself frequently gripped by the compulsion to do a one-week challenge of some sort like veganism, or zero waste. I think the nature of these challenges appeal to me greatly – they are lifestyle tourism, non-committal, both trendy and trending. But I decided to do something a little different – instead of future or present gazing, I wanted to look back a little bit to see what I may have missed when I was rejecting my mother’s wisdom growing up.

Instead of spending one week being vegan or wasting nothing (the question of individual action as opposed to systemic action to affect change is a discussion for another article), I decided to spend one week (spoiler: it ended up taking far, far longer) cooking my mother’s food and trying to learn something from the process.

My mum comes from a Muslim community called Bohras, and she grew up in Mombasa, a coastal city in Kenya. Her food is influenced by both of these sources. Not only did these dishes take most of Saturday to cook, but at several points it was a two-person job to smoke the biryani, so I called on my partner for assistance. The dish also had the addition of salad, onions and tomatoes (a Kenyan twist on the biryani called kachumbari). We had broken several health and safety regulations in the process – and in the end, we still didn’t achieve exactly the right smoky flavour.

“There is a huge amount of flexibility and forgiveness in her approach to cooking “

I started my journey by calling my mother to ask for her recipes. This began by being a sad thing – she didn’t know what to say, and felt that she didn’t have any recipes that she could call “hers”. I assume she, like myself, had learned to devalue our labour and creativity in this arena. But after some prompting, her passion for food flowed through and we talked for over two hours. The recipes and insights didn’t stop coming, and were followed up with constant texting about food over the next couple of weeks. My mother loves food, and once she began to talk about it, she couldn’t stop.

Her recipes didn’t follow a Western pattern. I wrote pages of notes, and even though I tried to question her about measurements and begged her for some precision, there are almost no numbers on the page (maybe, if I’m lucky, “one-ish onion” appears occasionally). There is a huge amount of flexibility and forgiveness in her approach to cooking – at one point, my mother reeled off a list of spices, and when I asked her to repeat the last few because I didn’t hear them properly, she said “dikra, just anything – it will taste fine” – a refreshing departure from the condescending rigidity that characterises some European cuisines. It meant there was no way I would be able to identically replicate any of the dishes she told me about and I think that’s a good thing. If I could recreate them so easily, it would undermine the depth of knowledge, intuition, and intellect involved in their construction.

The knowledge that women in my family hold about cooking is taught through intergenerational doing, teaching, caring, skill, and instinct. My mother didn’t produce any Imperial or Metric measurements on command for her recipes, but her dishes turn out exactly right and exactly the same every time she makes them – the same restaurant-level consistency and quality I can expect from so many of my women relatives’ food. 

I started day one of my challenges with a lot of excitement – I set aside most of Saturday to cook an entire biryani (this is a challenging, time consuming dish traditionally reserved for festive occasions, although people eat it more frequently now), as well as creamy mushrooms served with garlic bread. 

Hurdle one, handling raw meat. My mother and I have very similar tastes when it comes to food, but we disagree staunchly about several things – meat is probably the biggest point on which we clash now, asI’m a flexitarian. Bohra cuisine is meat-centric; there is no getting around this, though my mother insists that her family ate very little meat growing up. Not only that, but it is pretty beef heavy. I haven’t prepared meat at home in years and everything inside me cringed at the idea of cooking meat dishes. I wanted to respect my mother for who she was and what she made, without squeezing it into a narrative that I felt would be more palatable.  

“Cooking is labour, even when it’s done in the home, and not only that, but it’s hard, creative and skilled labour”

So I quashed every instinct inside me encouraging me to change my challenge into something like “making my mother’s recipes vegan” and made was essentially a ground beef pie called keema mesubs, made from mince, onions, garlic, and spices, brushed with an egg wash, topped with thin tomato slices and cut into squares. I adored these growing up but my God, was it a lot of meat. 

When my mother was telling me about her recipes, she would frequently say, in relation to turmeric for example, “It’s becoming big time now, sweetie, I’ve read about it everywhere”. It broke my heart because she was right, yet she felt compelled to translate and validate herself in this way. She recognised that her own wisdom, conveyed culturally through generations, was worth less than the wisdom purveyed in Western magazines. This is everyone’s fault, and it hurt me to consider the extent to which it was my own. 

I began to develop a lot of food intolerances especially as as I grew older. I believe I have intolerances to onions and garlic – when I conveyed these developments to my mother, she said “okay” and then just cooked with onions and garlic anyway. And, I stayed true to her recipes and cooked with onion and garlic. 

I also made a recipe that she said was “Papa’s famous thing” – moorg makhanwalla, which translates to butter chicken, but, thank God, it bears no resemblance to the Anglicised version on offer in most takeaways. The base of this recipe is essentially onions blended with milk, spices, tomatoes, garlic, and cashew nuts, with grilled tandoori-rubbed chicken and butter cooked into it after the sauce has been blended. It is single-handedly the best thing I’ve ever tried. 

Altogether, cooking my mother’s recipes for a week took me about a month, which led me to recognise an important fact that we overlook far too often cooking is labour, even when it’s done in the home, and not only that, but it’s hard, creative and skilled labour – the fruits of which sustains us and nurtures us, feeding us emotionally and spiritually. 

I don’t want to end on a cliché note like “I now have a newfound respect for my mother” and then never think about this again. I also don’t want this “newfound respect” to consist of a simple appreciation for how hard the work of cooking really is. In other words, I don’t want to respect this creative and life-sustaining work and body of knowledge only insofar as it has been of service to me. I want to respect the cooking and the food as an invaluable knowledge-making processes in its own right. I want to challenge the idea that anecdotes, stories, feelings, instinct and intuition are less important, less real modes of knowing than data and the scientific method. They are not less important and for me, they are real. 

My mother already knows these things, but people, including me, convinced her that she was wrong and that her thinking was less sophisticated. But I can do better moving forward. After this, I hope I remember to always, always resist the urge to Westernise, to translate, to explain things that are in my blood and my mother’s blood. 

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