My relationship to my mother has always been a lot easier than my relationship to food. Fiery and fierce, Manji (as my brother and I call her) has been a source of constant love and support throughout my childhood and adulthood, always giving me the tools and strength to discover myself and the world around me. We both went vegetarian over a decade ago, and perhaps that furthered our bond—munching on Quorn and tofu while my brother and father had sausages and steak. I have yet to find a better vegetarian kitchen than my mother’s. Laced with dynamic spices such as turmeric and star anise, her big, bright kitchen feels like a separate colorful, spiritual and, most of all, tasty universe—a universe similar to India, where she gets most her inspiration.
Manji is a yoga teacher and a devoted India-lover, traveling there about once a year. In 2014, shortly before graduating from high school, I was lucky enough to go along and to discover the magic of the country myself, both in its cuisine and its vibrant culture. We stocked up on enough paneer in our bellies to last a lifetime, drove through the busy streets in the back of rickshaws, and pushed our ways through crowded markets that smelled of tea and curry. Fortunately, the tastes followed me home, both in my mom’s kitchen and in our favorite restaurants scattered around Berne, Switzerland, where I grew up.
Although my mother always put so much effort and love into her cooking, neither of us quite escaped the pressure of a fat-phobic society. Manji consistently reminded me of the beauty she saw in my body, but sooner or later, I stopped believing her, and instead turned to the skinny models on social media and my friends commenting on my protruding belly. After years of failing diets and workout routines, I was left with a lack of appetite, the figure I thought I wanted, and a messed-up relationship to food. I came home to Switzerland last summer, after spending all year in New York, and my mother told me how she still struggled with body image, especially her belly. It is unsurprising to hear about body issues from women, but this admission coming from my mom, whom I’ve always thought was so beautiful and admirable, was heartbreaking.
Constantly fighting against the unrealistic expectations that others and we ourselves project onto our bodies seems impossible at times. We are taught that our worth is tied to our skinniness, that thin is beautiful, that we could always be just a little better—a little smaller or perhaps a little rounder in the right places—and that we will never be enough of something. Our curves are not respected because companies want to sell us their dieting and slimming products. My mom and I understand this poisonous this way of thinking, but the self-hate that comes from it still manages to seep in.
Body issues never really managed to ruin my mom’s kitchen for me. I live abroad throughout the year, so I don’t get home very often. The dinner table is one of the things I miss most—not just because of the food, but because of the quality time I get to spend with my family there. I think of my mom every day. Her smile, big blonde curls, and wise words never fail to brighten my day.
Jennifer Ammann is an artist and actress currently based in London. Her work and a shop for her products can be found at jenniferammann.org.
Palak Paneer (Indian Cheese with Spinach)
(Adapted from India Cookbook by Pushpesh Pant)
4 oz. paneer
8 oz. chopped spinach (fresh or frozen)
2 fresh chilies, deseeded and chopped (if you prefer it mild, only use 1 chili)
1 t. chopped ginger
pinch of salt
2 T. vegetable oil
pinch of fenugreek seeds
1 onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1/4 t. cumin seeds
8 oz. pureed tomatoes
Cut paneer into squares and set aside.
Put spinach, chilies, ginger, salt and a bit of water in a large, heavy-based pan.
Cook over medium heat for 3 - 4 minutes.
Allow to cool and pat dry.
Puree in a food processor or blender and set aside.
Heat oil in a heavy pan over medium heat.
Add fenugreek seeds and stir-fry for 30 seconds.
Add onion and stir-fry until lightly colored.
Add garlic and cumin seeds, and fry for another 30 seconds.
Add tomatoes and fry for another 5 minutes, or until the liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated.
Add paneer and stir gently.
Add pureed spinach and cook for 2 minutes.
Serve with basmati rice, naan bread, and chutneys.