(by Mehr Hussain)
Picture it; infant me wrapped in bundles of blankets, spending most of my time in the kitchen, near the hearth, on my grandparents’ pastoral farm in Lahore, Pakistan. That infant then grows into a reckless and adventurous tot that divides her time between the outdoors and the kitchen, with scores of family members, as the only child on the residence at that time. I wasn’t spoiled in the traditional sense, but I was spoiled for choice—of distractions and love and definitely food.
I started helping my grandmother and her kitchen hand from a very young age. Like most kids, I started out mixing and pouring, and eventually got promoted to cracking eggs. But where my experience differed just a little is that I was given full run of the kitchen. There were many accidentally salted cakes, disastrous and murky casseroles, and lord knows what else in those early years. But it allowed me to develop an intimacy with and appreciation for meal preparation because they let me figure things out on my own. And if you grow up female in the Indian subcontinent, that is a rare and precious gift.
My family has played a pivotal role in cultivating my passion for cooking. My grandmother, who is normally pretty sedentary, still will spend hours on her feet slaving over meals for her family. My mother, while not the most enthusiastic cook in the world, takes pride in everything she does, and when she does cook (which is rare for a workaholic with two jobs), it shows.
Grandma is indulgent, a lover of luxury, who revels in the ceremony and spectacle that make the mundane rituals of everyday life special. And, quite frankly, she’s been called a bit of a hoarder. That didn’t stop me from calling dibs on her massive china and porcelain teacup collection when I was just six years old.
(With my grandmother, Mrs. Hamida Latif-ur-Rehman)
Spiritual, soft-spoken, and stylish, my mother is resourceful, efficient, and one of the most persuasive people you’ll ever meet. She’s been an educator for over two decades, and if that job and being the mother of three wasn’t thankless and selfless enough, she went on to complete a psychology course and now spends what little free time she has counselling people. My mother moves at the speed of light and drinks tea just as fast. When she’s not working or solving people’s problems, she’s quietly playing sudoku or words with friends, with the news on in the background. Strong, self-sufficient, and sanguine.
Both women are forces of nature, one like a gentle stream, the other like an unmoving rock. But still waters run deep, and my grandmother can be emotionally torrential, while my mother is intimidating, almost unmoving, in her pride.
Raising a tomboy and more of a minimalist was definitely a challenge for my grandmother, I think. They didn't have as much to bond over. I suppose that’s why my grandmother and I get along so well; I appreciate the frills as well as the function. We all have a great relationship, but a house full of strong women is always buzzing with activity and healthy debate.
And me? Well, I’m a rebel. Artistic, pragmatic, and wildly unsatisfied with my lot. I always wanted to travel, see the world, start my own life. Growing up in Pakistan was a bit of a bubble, but my family was spread all over the world, so I was always excited to go see the places and meet the people behind the stories I would hear.
My journey has taken me to Dubai, where I am now based for work. And I couldn’t do it without these women. They equipped me with the best skills to live a happy, full, and well-fed life—from the days when I was rushing to build the foundations of my independence and I had to cook like Mom (creative, frugal, and shrewd) to the times I wanted to show up in a big way for my friends, coworkers, and loved ones, celebrating the big and little wins, wowing people like Grandma always does.
Now I can proudly say that I’m a skilled and creative cook. Like the recipe for Madrasi Chicken Curry, I can be both indulgent and not require too much fanfare.
What a diva.
Madrasi Chicken Curry
juice of 2 large lemons
1 t. salt
1 t. white pepper
1 t. flour
4 t. olive oil, divided
2 cloved garlic, chopped
1 T. minced fresh ginger
1 lb. boneless chicken, cut into cubes
2 - 3 green chilis
2 T. chopped coriander leaves
2 T. chopped mint
15 oz. can of coconut milk
2 T. yogurt or heavy cream (healthy verse indulgent)
thin slices of fresh ginger
sprigs of fresh coriander to garnish
optional: extra lemon juice
Combine lemon juice, salt, white pepper, flour, 1 t. olive oil, garlic, and minced ginger.
Marinate chicken in sauce, refrigerated, for at least 30 minutes or ideally overnight.
Heat remaining olive oil in a wok over high heat, and sauté chicken until lightly browned.
In a blender or food processor, combine green chilis, chopped coriander and mint,
coconut milk, and yogurt or cream.
Add mixture to chicken, and cook about 5 minutes, just to combine and heat through.
Garnish with fresh ginger, coriander sprigs, and optional lemon juice.
Serve with fresh chapati, roti, or jasmine rice.
Note: Vegetarians can use paneer instead of chicken. Cut into bite-sized cubes, toss with oil, and bake at 400 F. until golden brown before adding to the curry sauce.