A Passage From India
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
(by Sutapa Biswas)
My penchant for Tibetan dumplings (momo) was so great that my daughter’s nickname had to be “Momo.” I had suffered from severe morning sickness when I was pregnant with her. We traveled to the Himalayas in the first trimester so that I could visit my favorite place on earth one last time before I became overwhelmed with motherhood. I had binged on momos. That was one of the few things I could eat at the time.
I am now a single mum, with no family in the United Kingdom. During this pandemic, my elderly parents send me woeful messages from India, half-expecting that I am dead if they don’t hear from me for more than two days in a row.
I came to the U.K. for higher studies and to establish my career as a physician. Opportunities for doctors in general are limited in India, and it’s extremely competitive. I sometimes found it unsafe as a woman—working at night or in remote areas, and traveling alone.
My mum did not take my move very well at all. But I felt that if I stayed in India, I would never have my independence and be able to pursue my career. I miss the smells, sights, and sounds of India. I miss my mum, and I miss her cooking—especially the fresh spices. But it’s a compromise I had to make, not only to pursue my dreams but also to make our relationship better. The distance actually has healed a lot of negativity that had been there between my mum and me.
The kitchen used to be her favorite place at home. She was never a patient teacher, and she is a perfectionist. But I have a few quick and easy recipes that are also delicious, suggested by my mum during the many occasions when she has visited, seeing my busy schedule here and what is available.
Leading up to the lockdown, I finished work at five and traveled for an hour to the supermarket, where the shelves had been stripped bare. I stood in the aisles, struggling with my emotions. My initial anxiety settled slowly into a routine.
Momo, aged eight, fully understands the implications of the pandemic and is extremely cautious. She still goes to school with her sister (as I am considered an essential worker, this is a special provision by the government). She is a fussy eater, with simple tastes. And I realized what worked for us during lockdown. One of her favorites is “Didu’s fish and ghee rice” (Didu is my mum). The “special” fish is just salmon fillets, de-scaled but with the skin left on (that’s the best bit for Momo), marinated with salt and turmeric. Then instead of frying, I rub the fish with olive oil and roast it in the oven as a healthier option.
I am involved with Indian groups in London, and I still learn and perform Indian classical dance; my children have started learning it too. We attend various Indian festivals, where the major attraction is food. But my neighborhood is quintessentially British—a mix of many cultures. I often help out my neighbors with fetching groceries, finding the odd item they couldn't get hold of during lockdown. We have created a Covid-19 Facebook page to raise awareness and provide assistance. People often message me for advice when they are confused or worried, and I do my best to explain or guide them. My neighbors, in turn, have shown their appreciation by leaving cookies, cakes, and potted herbs at my doorstep, even a jug of milk or a homemade pina colada.
Last weekend I tried my hand at pepper pakoras, another of my mum’s simple recipes. Momo nibbled on them as we sat out in our garden in the sun, with my cup of hot sweet Indian chai. I did not feel anxious anymore but strangely calm and relaxed, as I watched the dripping wisteria sway in the sunny breeze.
1 medium onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, seeded and chopped
large handful of fresh coriander, chopped
chilies, to taste
pinch of salt
pinch of turmeric
gram flour, also known as besan or chickpea flour
oil for frying
Mix onion, pepper, coriander, chilies, salt, and turmeric.
Add enough flour to form a thick batter.
Heat oil in a kadai or other deep pot
Drop mounds of batter, and fry until golden, turning once.
Drain on paper towels.