Writers use food and heirloom recipes to tell stories of love and loss


Pic Courtesy/Saffron and Pearls, Harpercollins India

As a 20-year-old, when Sarina Kamini first learnt that her Australian mother was suffering from Parkinson's, a part of her own Indianness, which her mother had so devotedly brought to the kitchen table at their home in Torquay, died. In a new book, titled Spirits in a Spice Jar (Westland Books, Amazon), Kamini says, it's possibly then that she had "stopped eating Indian food". It's ironic that while she attributes her Indian heritage to her father — he was Kashmiri — it was through her mum that she learnt the traditional family recipes, who in turn learnt how to cook Indian food from her mother-in-law, fondly known as ammi. Cooking these recipes would eventually be a way to heal, helping her make sense of the resentment she felt towards her mother's condition.

If Spirits in a Spice Jar traces the arc of a woman, coming to terms with the illness, another book, Saffron and Pearls: A Memoir of Family, Friendship and Heirloom (HarperCollins India) by Delhi-based Doreen Hassan, recounts how the author, who belonged to a Goan Catholic family, warmed up to her Hyderabadi husband's family and his rich food legacy. Last year, US-based Pakistani writer Bisma Tirmizi revisited her favourite dishes from the subcontinent through a journey of self-discovery of a young, obese girl, in the novel, Feast: With A Taste of Amir Khusro (Rupa Publications).

Doreen Hassan. Pic Courtesy/Saffron and Pearls, Harpercollins India

More writers are now exploring narratives around food, while showing how recipes too, are important to great storytelling. "I set out to tell the story of me, because I was so confused about who I was. I quickly realised that I couldn't understand mum unless I understood her connection to India. From my point of view, the connection was a mix of the material and the mystic [she loves the fashion as much as she appreciates the stories of faith], and food within our family is a real representation of that. Food ties my family to Hinduism through offerings and stories. So I had to write about Kashmiri food. Spices, for me, became the axis point where I could draw all of these thoughts together," says Australia-based Kamini.

Doreen says she started writing the book, with the intention of sharing heirloom recipes she had inherited after marrying her husband, Peter Toghrille Hassan, who is honorary Counsel General for the Russian Federation in Hyderabad. But, as she started work on the book, she "thought it might be interesting for people to know where the recipes came from". "That's how it turned into a memoir along the way," she says. Doreen believes that Hassan family's history is deeply influenced by food, and hence, it was crucial to the memoir too. "When people marry into a family, they often bring their own food traditions with them. It's fascinating to understand it," she says.

Sarina Kamini. Pic Courtesy/Kristy Jane Hoghton

In the book, she writes about the time she struggled with learning to cook, after she and her husband moved to Delhi from Hyderabad, with their two children. She, eventually went back to Hyderabad, and "met Peter's aunt, Zehra Alambardar, whom we called Phuppu Jani, and said, 'Please teach me how to make a few dishes.' She told me that she cooked by andaaz, or instinct. 'Beta, you have to watch and learn. I will make the dishes in front of you, and you write them down.'" That was how Hassan was indoctrinated into cooking.

She remembers the time when her husband invited the famous Pakistani singer Mehdi Hasan, to their home for dinner. "He was to sing at our home, and there would be 100 guests in attendance. I decided to make a Salim bakra, which is an entire goat, stuffed with eggs," she writes. Kamini says her fondest food memory is associated with paneer. "I'd always make sure I was close by when mum or dad began chopping the fresh paneer into pieces; I became adept at stealing bites," she says. Adding, "When I began cooking it for my own two boys, I, too, would have to shoo them away from the chopping block as they made attempts to sneak away with it. This kind of emotional continuity around food is what cements recipes into our hearts."

The Salim Bakra stuffed with chicken and eggs, and served with rice, which Doreen prepared for ghazal singer Mehdi Hasan

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