Too often, when I reflect on my relationship with my estranged mother, I think about the bad stuff. But it’s true that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the direction in life that she gave me, her feistiness and determination, her attention to detail in the home, her efficiency, and her love of food.
Growing up in India, my mother learned about cooking by watching her own mother and other women helping out at the temple. She was expected to assist with cooking and chores at home and to take care of her siblings from a very young age. When she was 18, she entered into an arranged marriage with my father, who was 20 years older, and travelled to the United Kingdom to begin a new life. It was an isolating and lonely time; she didn’t know my father at all, didn’t speak English, and had few friends. Everything was foreign, including the food. Her reaction was to hang on steadfastly to her traditions and culture; it was difficult for her to be flexible or to assimilate.
Food wasn’t merely a response to hunger when I was growing up. My mother was always considering how could it nourish body and soul, what could it fix or heal or provide, how could it bring together a group of people around the table, feeling content and wanting to participate in conversation that might not otherwise interest them. We were expected to eat Indian food every day except on Fridays, when we were allowed fish and chips. It was embarrassing; my friends would walk past my house and make fun of me, saying it smelled of curry. I just wanted to fit in with everyone else.
As the oldest daughter, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mother, and resented being the one washing the dishes, facing her wrath, her disappointment at life, or in me and my siblings, listening to her bitter tone for hours.
Yet, taking the opportunity to dig deeper, I realize it was within those hours that I learned the most crucial things about food. Watching her meticulously prepare meals, I saw that there were never any shortcuts to ensuring taste, and she made the simplest of ingredients pop and blend together to create more complex depths and dimensions. I never met anyone who could take a piece of bread, cheese, and garam masala and make it taste like the best toast in the world. Nobody did it like Mum did.
My mum never measured anything, and she couldn’t give you a recipe if she tried. Everything just came to her instinctively, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and if it looked right, she knew it would taste right.
There were not many things that made my mum happy, yet the sights and sounds of her family enjoying her food made her feel good. Tasty things came effortlessly to her. One of our favorites was her onion pakoras, reserved for special occasions, but she would make them in vast quantities and let us eat to our heart’s content. I always thought I could never make them as well as she did, but when I decided to try, my husband declared that I must have inherited the same innate feeling for food that my mum has. Unfortunately in the 20 years of our being together, he has yet to meet her.
Although my mother and I are not connected at the moment, I hope she knows that she raised me to understand food well. It’s at the heart of who I am.
Raj Anderson is a life coach and business consultant. She is president of the Haven Grace Foundation and has partnered with I Can Cook, a women’s business network that brings together life strategies and delicious food. She can be found at www.rajanderson.com and @rajanderson_.
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 large potato, thinly sliced
1 T. cumin seeds
pinch of salt
1 T. garam masala
1 t. chili powder (more if desired)
1 t. curry powder
2 T. fresh coriander, chopped
5 T. gram flour (also known as chickpea or besan flour)
water, as needed
vegetable oil for frying
salt and ground black pepper
*Mum's secret: Add a few squirts of Heinz tomato ketchup and Heinz brown sauce to the mixture.
In a bowl, mix onion, potato, cumin seeds, salt, garam masala, chili powder, curry powder, and coriander.
Stir in the gram flour, and mix by hand.
Add water, a little at a time, until a soft dough forms.
Add oil in to a depth of about 1 inch in a deep frying pan over medium-low heat.
Drop the dough by tablespoons into the hot oil and fry until golden.
(Test one first to see if more spice is needed.)
Remove to a plate lined with paper towels.