In true Pakistani tradition, we’re a family business. Although there’s no business involved. We do this for fun, not money. And we haven’t been cooking for years. We’re fairly new to this. Like you.
One of us is Aasmah Mir, radio and TV presenter, Glaswegian and Pakistani.
Here’s the story of why she returned to the food of our ancestors, after turning her back on it for years.
The 1980s were a collision of the excruciating and the pleasurable. My recollection is that everything was concrete, but days were always flecked with sunshine. My school was a brutish monolith but I enjoyed the haven of a happy home. I eschewed the cardboard food in the canteen, but day-dreamed of my mum’s ambrosial cooking…
After a day of dodging spit bombs and compass stabs, I would trudge home and she would gather me up in her velvety embrace. Seated on a wobbly, formica chair, I would eat the food of Mughal princesses. The kind of food that dances on your plate and brightens your eyes. Buttery spinach, creamy daal, chicken studded with coriander. Fat, doughy rotis and steaming bowls of rice speckled with cloves and cumin seeds. Although the smell and taste of the food was the root of some of my problems, for that half hour I would surrender to it. The moment it hit my tongue, everything was right with the world again. An implosion of taste, a collision of textures. I would feel full, fat and safe. This was truly my first taste of comfort food.
The next morning at school, the boys and girls in the class would hold their noses and refuse to sit next to me. Mind you, if I was 11, and someone sat next to me with their hair reeking of coriander, I would probably have complained too. The worst time of the year was the run-up to Christmas, and the dreaded School Dance. We would be forced to practice the ‘Dashing White Sergeant’ and ‘Strip The Willow’, shoes squeaking on the gym floor, spinning drunkenly across the netball court markings. But when no-one chose me as a partner – “But sir, she smells!” – I would have to dance with the teacher. I’m not sure who was more mortified.
So years later, when I bought my first flat, I took control. Curry would never be cooked in my house. My clothes and hair would smell of ‘Chloe’ not coriander. I would eat ‘European food’ and I would eat it with a fork and knife.
This continued into my thirties… until I met my husband, who is also Punjabi, and therefore, by law, a foodie. He took one look at my joyless fridge and navigated me to his favourite curry house in London’s East End. And from the first mouthful of Tarka Daal, the first spoonful of Saag, I was transported back to my mum’s kitchen and felt her love swirl around me once more. I could almost hear the scraping of the formica chair on the lino again, the clanging of her metal pots. What an idiot I had been. All those years, wasted.
Weeks later, I picked up the phone and asked my mum how to cook ‘yellow daal’. She had told us many times how she would always secure the lead role in every school play. And that day I understood why. She dispassionately dictated the recipe to me, although months later she told me she had put the phone down and hopped around the hall with my dad, howling with laughter.
The Tarka Daal was a success. Well, it is an idiot-proof recipe. I asked her for a Saag (spinach) recipe, then Channa Masala (chickpeas), then Bhindis (okra). I was hooked. It was so easy.
I started to spend hours in the Asian stores on London’s Brick Lane, the shop assistants scratching their heads at this woman who looked Pakistani, but spoke in a funny accent – was it Welsh? – and couldn’t pronounce anything correctly. I stumbled about, disoriented, obstinate. On every shelf stood a reminder of my childhood, calling out to me – dhania, jeera, achaar…
That was 7 years ago, and my re-conversion is complete. There is no sweeter cacophony than the clashing of pots and the sizzling of onions and garlic and ginger in oil. There is no taste that can rival the bewitching alchemy of coriander, cumin and chilli. And I’m not troubled about smelling of spices anymore.
You should never run from who you are. You’ll only hit a brick wall and come bouncing back.
(This piece was first published on aasmahmir.com in November 2012.)