In Time I Find Strength, in Time I Get Caught in the Memories of Food
There had been a time when I had been told that if I had to go through the most important events in my life I would remember only a mere hour of them, all of them painfully squished against each other. I found it ridiculous every time I thought of it, why would someone want to willingly step into their memories, and that too for an hour that ended, unlike the sky? After the long bouts of thinking I often found myself in, I figured that maybe it did not matter whether it was true or not, what was to be held delicately was rearranging the sentiments by grabbing bellies of each other. Assured, that the small growth of these memories would end up walking back to food, I would often wind up letting myself be gulped up by my thoughts, inside wide open throats that would stop in the middle of a kitchen where the humming of the boiling pots, the crinkle of butter-paper and the crackle of thrumming laughter would converge into an unsuspected solitary. What would I have been, had I not known that food curls into dish-like hands holding human bodies similar to when love holds down a body near a sun-coloured window? It lends us the smell of love which we plant with our earth-soaked hands.
What enters in my morning gaze is an unassuming memory that flickers and streams like the indigo mouths of rivers opening up to oceans; the kitchen stands in the middle of the house, the flushed fragrance of the cold rose-syrup milk reaches out and grabs the air. Swallowing the sweetness in the air, I crave for a touch of more of the silken-sugary air. There is a closeness lacking in my steps and before I can take a hesitant step forward, suddenly a light breeze pulls me into the kitchen. I balance myself, leaning on the refrigerator before I trip. Go on it seems to say find something which your heart wishes to open to. Beside my right hand, cold from the refrigerator air, I see my baba’s silhouette in front of the stove, dropping vegetables – julienned finger-sized chillis, diced onions and red bell peppers – from the wooden chopping board into a pan bubbling and singing with the bright orange-yellow of eggs. My amma is behind him, bent forward over a steel bowl filled with dough to make parathas for breakfast, concentrating on pushing and pulling her hands firm yet soft, with a smile barely catchable reflecting on the toaster in front of her.
The leaves of the money plant hang like silk green curtains, ripples of light tilt and lean their way through the gaps. I smell the fresh sticky dough on my fingers ten years later when I stand over a steel bowl, in a blurred-blue kitchen with a flickering lantern and a light that goes off whenever it pleases, my hands still haven’t found the stillness between firming and softening the pushes and pulls of my fists. But, whenever a dough sits in front of me, there is a secret smile we share my head drooping to the front, the dough eating the air, swelling like a small child slowly coming to life. There is a table behind where I stand, a beige and red floral tablecloth atop, and on it, a basket of fruits is positioned in the middle – stuffed with oranges and bananas, the only fruits managing to survive the humidity. Breakfast had always been the most gratifying and largest meal, fluffed up cheese-stuffed omelettes melting in the mouth or pillowy ones steamed with balcony-fresh plump cherry tomatoes; a slightly shallow curved plate half-filled with condensed milk, a dollop of fruit jam centred on it; dusk-coloured pancakes dripping with languid golden honey; sugar-filled parathas cut into half, hot steam drawing the air with swirls.
On the most humid days, we would bring home yoghurt letting it chill the night before and the next morning everyone would huddle in front of the television, the white noise morning cartoons filling up the room, while we would dig long pieces of toasted bread into bowls of frozen yoghurt, the balance of warmth and cold catching in the middle of our throats as we would all peak a smile into our bowls. There would be times when we would return from visiting our cousins – who lived in a different city – as soon as the sun would be thinking of returning back to the sky. Breakfast on those days would be parathas with fried eggs, the yolk pink right before we poked a finger into it, the yellow seeping into the chewy parathas. We would quickly try to gather everything into our mouths, willing our eyes to stay open.
Whenever my brother would return from school, we would all wait for his laughter and rumbling feet to shake the house. He would seep his hands in cold water, grab a cornflower blue or tea-pink basket, urging his feet to race to the terrace, excitement for the coldness of salad on his tongue already replaying in his mind. My mom had lined pots across the terrace, of tomatoes, brinjals and lemons for salads, coriander and herbs to soften the spice in the lentils and curries. We would soak the lemons and tomatoes in bowls filled with water pulled out from the freezer, watching the colours muddle into each other, we would eagerly wait for the cold to settle inside them. The brinjals would be thinly sliced, left to saute in olive oil for a few minutes, then enveloped with yoghurt, red chilli powder, garlic and tadkha. After, my mom and I would stand in the cramped blue kitchen, slicing the tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and green chillis for salad, sprinkling it with pinches of salt and hovering tightened palms over it to catch the seeds when squeezing the lemons.
Some lemons, the size of palms would be set aside to fill up lonely glasses. My most favourite part of summer lunches was mango chutney, a slightly tangy side dish teaspooned on top of rice and curry, it would stick to the roof of the mouth, sliding down the throat with a swift sigh, its colour honey like under the living room lights. We didn’t eat many different varieties of food, it would rotate between the occasional curry, vegetable dishes, meat dishes and rice dishes, but as summers passed with cold salads and even colder lemonades we would drink after lunch, there would be a small place in my heart which would long for summer as soon as it waved a goodbye.
Every evening, we would sit cross-legged on a red carpet, easing onto it with green-joy, the smell freshly grounded ginger-garlic paste lingering in the air. With wrists held sideways, we would let our knives break into the plush flesh of whatever fruits sat in front of us, the water droplets on apples springing up into our faces, the parrot colour mangoes would be split lightly, the juices streaming past our fingers pooling into the inside of elbows, knives would get stuck into the pits of peaches. There would be times when my grandmother would join us, hands tearing apart the shells of lychees handing them to us, so we suck down the white-pink jelly-like fragrant fruit.
There would be a fleeting sensation of peace, the grandness of the room quieting down when it looked at the back of our heads shaped like round smiles, folded neatly into a circle, it would watch our teeth bite into different fruits – fragrant garden-fresh strawberries, bright water covered plums, sliced tender-scented oranges, popping cherries that would stain fingers a bright magenta – the sharing of them, the slow wait before handing down a pleasant piece, exchanging different fruits, a small love bottled inside the pulps of each fruit. Homemade fruit jams were always sat in the fridge door, a small crystal jar, sometimes filled with strawberries, sometimes figs, sometimes apricots and sometimes peaches. I would spread the cream on milk bread, layering it thickly with sweet jam, chunks of fruit licking at the corners, a sweet delight, something lulling the mouth, pressing it shut when the sugar would escape with a huff of a widening smile. When the evenings start turning colder I and amma devote ourselves to the simple act of stirring soup in a steel pot, methodical but slow and steady, chopping vegetables (cauliflowers, broccoli, carrots and capsicums), spooning salt and pepper little by little, topping with balcony-grown herbs, letting the water simmer as we talk about my day and hers. It all comes down to connecting with food as you nurture it like you do the love which holds the home together in its arms.
When the time for dinner calls, we all return to each other, newspaper-heavy, wishing that we could become our better selves, brimming with dissatisfaction and worry, we all pour into the kitchen readying ourselves to prepare something that would empty us of uncertainty and the impossibility of tomorrow, delicate enough to dip us into hands that would taste of food-love. An orchestra builds up in the kitchen at this hour, tapping the corners with a poem that cooks and tangles into each pot. Someone sets a glass bowl of freshly picked jasmines on the counter, the faint sugary smell infuses into the steam-hot kitchen, at that moment time decides to slow down its racing feet into an unrushed walk, its paces matching the slowness of our shallow heartbeats. A pot the length of my forearm is steaming with rice and chicken stock, filled with popping cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon sticks, ginger-garlic paste and thinly sliced onions. When I open the pot a burst of steam rises to my face, a cloud of white turning my vision blurry. Someone behind me laughs inside their mouth, I frown lightly and return the lid back to its place. Pulao is served with sour raita covering the rice, cold yoghurt folded into an assortment of julienned cabbage, carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes, topped with cumin powder and mint leaves. Wooden spoons are stirring the tomato sauce into the garlic, diced onions, bell peppers, carrots and cabbages.
Later, when the vegetables shrink, fennel seeds and an array of herbs are added into a semi-deep pot. The only thing left is to tend to the lonely twisted noodles sitting in a dish. Sometime after the noodles are topped with the warm-weather sauce and garnished with spring onions, the dish looks like the brightest aromatic flower blooming in spring. There are pooa being fried in shallow oil, coconut flakes, milk, ghee and sugar are mixed into a pancake-like consistency and fried, they are served after they are lightly buttered. The outside is a tree-bark brown, the inside a delightful rice white. Large pear-shaped bowls filled to the top with fresh cucumbers, dewy lettuce leaves, sweet baby spinach leaves and sliced tomatoes are already on the table, freshly washed and the water on them cooled by the slow whirring of the fan. There are times when the coolness of vegetables makes the heart sing in joy, like a sparrow waiting for the arrival of spring. There are warmed light browned, tawa-toasted pita bread set with triangles of cheese, a long thin plate of falafel sitting beside it. The house slowly reaches into the living room, each person waiting to pick up a plate and dig into their food. The blue and green and white empty plates and bowls fill to the top, there’s a pleasant smell hanging in the air; of food and humans coming together to connect their mouths with the food in front of them. There are sounds from the kitchen meshing with those of mumbling and whispering in the room right in front of it.
I remember how my brother and I would try to learn the different ways in which people would pick up the rice when eating with their hands, someone would fold their thumb to hide it under their fingers, someone would let their palms angle away from the plate, someone would let the tips of their fingers stick out a little bit. Eating food is a lot like loving, you let something fill your heart and your stomach, but the specificities subtly change from one person to the next, like how someone holds the hand of a lover and how someone arranges their tongue when chewing their food. Now each day, I wait for a new tomorrow when the turning over of days would pass over with gentling reverence, a passing that would twist its fingers into other memories flicking themselves like branches in the wind.
Hamnah Khan is a Pakistani university student mostly found tucked in corners of libraries. She loves petting cats, reading, and fresh fruits. She sometimes cooks and thinks of writing about food all day. She also loves writing on human connections and history.