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At My Mother's Tent

(by Shanta Sultana)

Pick me up, hug me, and just tell me it is hurting you as much as it is hurting me. Let me know that you care, that I mean something to you. Do you not feel anything? I see you laughing at me, telling me to stop this poppycock, standing so tall and powerful. You own me, you will be deciding on my fate, and yet you don’t feel anything for me.

I am three years old, and I already know I am a loser in this battle. I am powerless, sitting on the floor crying. Perhaps it’s nothing, just a scratch from playing in the garden. I point at my leg, bleeding, hoping she will feel something for me and stop laughing at me, but she walks away, leaving me defeated in this quest for my mother’s love. So I go back to the garden and sit with my dog Tommy, staring at the juicy plump tomatoes shining under the bright summer sun. There is something comforting about the glossy vermilion skins reflecting the sunlight. I bite on one like a pirate. I can always bite on something comforting and forget that I am not loved. Ironically, that tomato garden was my mother’s creation, and she felt Tommy’s existence more than she felt mine.

My mother was extremely good at planting, crafting, fashioning a party atmosphere, and creating amazing savory dishes. For weeks at a time, I was told to be quiet around the house, and suddenly the housekeepers would spread the news that Mother was awake, up and dressed. She would check out the garden and cook wonderful food—English, French, and Indo-Persian. She would invite people who would see her perfect self, her perfect household, and how perfectly she was bringing me up. I would play along, allowing people to believe that I did so well in school because of her care and attention. I would taste her food—chicken with dried fruits and nuts, jewel rice with saffron and rose water, crispy fish and potato cakes, game birds with apricots—and convince myself that she loved me and that I had a normal life. This was my only opportunity to imagine her love, to feel some kind of belonging.

My ritual on her awakening days was to complete my studies as quickly as possible, as I needed to do things to attract her attention and, if possible, her approval. I wanted to prove that I was doing my best—not getting fat, not growing breasts like a whore or curvy buttocks like my aunts. I am not dirty, I am not slutty. I neither care for myself nor do I ever want to grow up and find a boyfriend, a husband. I don’t want to be happy because I don’t deserve it.

I had to prove it to her. I would exercise vigorously to show my commitment to her, dress fashionably, and tell everyone that I was not interested in food, even though I was begging for it with my gaze. When I almost fainted from hunger, she would offer me food, telling people how much effort it took to make me to eat something.

There was one redeeming aspect to my life. My father was always traveling for work, but when he was around, he tried to make life as fun as possible for me and my half-siblings. While my mother stayed in bed for days, my father and I would rise early, walk around the city, and then go to the market for the freshest foods. He wore a kitchen tool belt and ranked himself as the high commander, with me as his soldier. We went home to cook giant barbecues, speaking in military fashion—“Yes, sir” or “Roger that”—and we would giggle. We’d go to the indie intellectual movies, to libraries, to the stadium to watch football games, to restaurants in five-star hotels. But I always knew my mother would be waking up soon. She would shame me, hit me, hate me.

Somehow I endured, survived, and created a new life. I have been blessed with two great sons that let me put the past behind me. Being the children of a single mother with two jobs couldn’t have been easy, but I tried to give them what they needed, and that was the reassurance of love. I also emulated my father’s cooking expeditions. As soon as I saved enough money, I took the boys on holidays, exposing them to different cultures and cuisines, embedding dreams. I introduced them to the flavors of saffron and rose and pistachio, to caramelized onions and dried fruits in clarified butter. I had my men, my community. I was eating fabulous dishes with my people. I didn’t need anything else, I didn’t remember the past.

Years later when I was terribly unhappy at work and lost everything in the stock market, my younger son advised me to work as a chef until I figured out what to do next. I applied at a bakery, and even without training, I got the job. I went to patisserie school and found work as a pastry chef at places such as Harrods and Westminster Abbey. Kneading, rolling, measuring, and decorating were a form of therapy, and there was incredible satisfaction in offering heaven on a plate, watching the faces of my customers glow with joy. It reinforced that I am capable and kind and I deserve the good things in life. I eat without reservations, I run in the park to enjoy the singing of the birds or to catch up with the squirrels collecting nuts. I enjoy hearing my voice when I sing. I became free from hearing my mother’s hateful voice in my head. I was no longer my mother’s daughter.

When I cook for my friends, I imagine my mothers in history, gathering in the tent. There is a fragrance of orange blossom, pomegranate, thick tangy yogurt, and honey. They give me sweets with molasses, sesame, and milk fudge, and say, “Eat, darling daughter of Zion, eat. You deserve it.”


Shanta Sultana is a freelance journalist, actress, in and the editor of Striding Eagle in Brixton Hill, England. She can also be found at Backstage.

Chicken with Caramelized Aromatics

This dish is cooked for special occasions in Indo-Persian cuisine, also known as Mughlai cuisine in South Asia. It is sometimes called Chicken Kalia or Shahi Chicken.

2 1/2 lb. chicken, quartered and skinned

2 t. salt, or to taste

7 T. full fat yogurt, preferably Greek yogurt

4 T. clarified butter, ghee, or vegetable oil

2 white onions, julienned

1 t. sugar

4 T. raisins

2 T. dried apricot, cubed

1 inch fresh ginger root, peeled

6 – 7 cloves garlic, peeled

2 T. pistachios

3 t. white pepper

1 t. black pepper

1 1/2 t. ground cinnamon

1/2 t. ground mace

1/4 t. ground nutmeg

1/4 c. water

few sprinkles of rose water

soft boiled eggs (chicken, duck, or quail)

Score chicken pieces on both sides three times for the flavors to penetrate.

Combine 1/2 t. salt and 1 T. yogurt, and coat the chicken pieces.

Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

Heat butter, ghee, or oil in a wide, flat non-stick pan with a fitted lid, and add onions.

Cook, stirring, then add the sugar and remaining salt.

When onions have turned slightly brown, add 3 T. raisins and the cubed apricots.

Cook, stirring, until the dried fruits are roasted and sticky.

Place chicken pieces in the pan and cook over low heat about 4 or 5 minutes, until pick up the color of the fruits.

Turn the pieces to color the other side.

Roughly chop the ginger root and place it with garlic, the remaining raisins and the pistachios in a pestle and mortar. Pound them to a smooth paste.

Add the paste to the pain and stir.

Add the two peppers and all the spices, stirring the chicken pieces in the sauce.

Whisk the remaining yogurt and add to the pan, stirring.

Add the water, cover, and cook over low heat for 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.

Lift the lid, sprinkle with rose water, add the eggs, and cover for 90 seconds.

Note: Although the dish can be served straight away, it tastes best if it sits for a while. Reheat over low heat or in a low oven covered with foil.

Serve with saffron rice and a green salad.


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