On the phone, Mumma inevitably asks, “What did you eat?”
And suddenly I’m a child, crowded in bed with my sisters, asking for our favorite story and our favorite song. We don’t speak Gujarati, but this Gujarati story is our favorite: Parrot moves out of his mama’s house and is robbed. After handing over his money, the parrot runs into a friend of his mama’s, Monkey, who says, “Parrot, tell me how you are and I will tell your mother.” Parrot begins a song: “Popat bukhoo nathi . . . ” Parrot isn’t hungry, a litany of ways in which he is doing wonderfully, a message to be conveyed to his mother. At home, Daddy begins his song and we all giggle. “Popat,” he adds, “did not want to say anything that might make his mother worry.”
In college, when Mumma called, I described the elaborate and fictional meals I wished I’d eaten instead of the bean burrito I’d actually eaten. I, too, thought it best to protect my mother from the truth. Now I’m straightforward, describing the simple and elaborate meals alike, bracing myself for a response if I tell her I’ve had pasta.
Pasta: My parents say the word like a curse, with a shudder of disgust. To them, pasta is the food of desperation; of too little time. Your adult children eat it because they think they are too busy to do anything but boil water and heat up a jar of sauce. Your small children beg for it because they prefer the limp noodles and over-salty Prego of this country to that of yours, with its array of textures and careful balance of color. Even though I’ve moved well beyond overcooked spaghetti and canned sauce, telling my mother that I had pasta for dinner feels like a betrayal. Pasta, she repeats on the phone, and I can hear the disappointment and concern in her voice. Pasta is the food I’m eating, instead of kitchri kadhi and aloo.
Mumma and Daddy prepared me to live on my own, taught me to cook many of the dishes they love. I can make kitchri kadhi and aloo. My pasta sauce is (sometimes) made from scratch, with as much attention to detail and options for variety as Mumma with her daals. But even now, married for some years and on my own for many more, I know pasta is the wrong answer. Like Popat, I think, perhaps I should assuage my Mumma’s worry with a little lie. Instead, I patiently detail the meals I have made and eaten, arguing for the legitimacy of foods like baked chicken, tacos, roasted veggies, and pasta. Sometimes I also document my missteps in replicating her recipes, like the time I ran out of coriander and had to use the flavorless dust-like stuff bought from a mainstream American grocery chain.
In my case, I’m rarely hungry even when I say I’m hungry. Each Ramadan, when I fast from sunrise to sunset, I marvel at the sheer absurdity of what I regularly perceive as hunger. Routine, boredom, stress, and nostalgia usually drive me toward food. The slight discomfort that precedes a late meal is often an excuse to overindulge. In Ramadan, by contrast, I’m faced with powering through all of this. I find I don’t actually feel hunger until hours past the initial impulse to eat.
This holy month, I expect my stomach to growl and my head to ache, but I know a meal will always come along with the night. When I see pictures of babies with distended stomachs and hear that nearly one-third of the children in my parents’ home state of Gujarat suffer from malnutrition, I wonder at the unjust world in which I deign to continue to use the word “hunger.”
I suppose I do hunger, but not just for food. At the end of Ramadan, when we celebrate Eid al-Fitr—traditionally, three days of feasting—and I’m in Chicago, celebrating far from my parents in Kentucky, no amount of food will make me feel full or festive. To me, now, Eid feels like Eid only when, coming home from namaaz, I briefly catch a whiff of air, thick and smoky with incense, cardamom, and rich cream. My own kitchen, though, will have no sticks slowly burning to ash on the kitchen counter; no pot just about boiling over with sheer kurma; no sisters frantically searching for shoes to match their shalwar kameez or Mumma suggesting another shade of lipstick or Daddy telling us we’ll all be late, again.
This Eid will not be Eid until I’ve spent time with my husband crying and laughing, describing the aromas of foods that are not here: samosas sizzling in hot oil; saffron rice layered with goat, potatoes, and spices to make biryani; yogurt, smoked with a dollop of ghee dropped carefully on a piece of reddening charcoal; too-sweet falooda, made with rose syrup, basil seeds, and small pieces of angel hair spaghetti in chilled half-and-half (because whole milk isn’t rich enough), topped with French vanilla ice cream. These phantom scents help me recall the distinctiveness of Ramadan and Eid and other holidays with my family, and help me observe the arrival of a new season.
Daddy always insisted a rainy afternoon called for deep fried batata vadas with his chai. We’d form assembly lines in the kitchen, orchestrated by Mumma—one sister mashing the potatoes together with lemon juice, coconut, and chilies then forming the mix into right-sized balls; another sister dipping them into batter and dropping them into sputtering oil; another orchestrating because it’s not like we can all cook. I’d make chutney if we were lucky and happened to have fresh cilantro.
photo courtesy of the author
Now, I often make batata vadas for guests as an appetizer, and open windows on rainy spring days somehow pull the ghost aromas back into my apartment. The smell of daal chawal paleeda is a harbinger of winter—as icy Chicago winds bring tears to my eyes, cracks to my lips, they also make me hunger for the heat and acidity of a steaming bowl of Mumma’s paleeda. I didn’t even notice until I left home that Mumma cooked more complicated meals like this, usually with meat, on Fridays to eat after Daddy returned from prayers.
My parents know—though we don’t like admitting it—that sometimes I miss their cooking more than I miss their presence. I’ll call them and say, “Mumma, after work today I smelled your biryani when I was walking to the car.”
She’ll ask, inevitably, if I’ve eaten at all. And after all these years, sometimes I still parrot Parrot: “I’m not hungry, Mumma. Your daughter isn’t hungry.”
My stomach may be full when I say this, but when the breeze carries with it the fragrance of cumin tempered in hot oil, I find I’m craving from somewhere so much deeper than my belly.