Food & drink
A culinary journey
AS seasonal food indulgence beckons, this is a happy time for most people. But what of those of us who have lost someone special, or recently ended a meaningful relationship? For such people this time of celebration is hard, as your sorrow sets you alone.
I have found that through my life, food has always been healing – whether it is the act of picking the ingredients, or merely heading to the kitchen to cut, chop and throw it all in a pan, the final result of a hot, nurturing dish would always lift my spirits. Cooking is an act of being good to yourself; a reminder that sadness is a momentary visitor, one which will be replaced with hope. Apparently, certain foods can increase serotonin levels in the body, helping us to feel better. I wouldn’t know about such things, but what I do know is, certain dishes and the act of creating them, brings comfort to the soul.
Food is a universal therapist. Always listening, never judging. Replying with a non-committal yet astute and almost mirroring comfort. Many of us reach to food or away from it at unhappy times. So what are these dishes that we reach for when we need love; when the ones who we love have gone, for whatever reason?
Every person has their story to tell, their own personal journey through a hard time. This is when I turned to social media for help. Ellie from Twitter told me that when she was at a time in her life when stress was leaving her feeling out of control, she headed to the kitchen to cook aubergine parmigiana, a recipe that to her, is “greater than the sum of it’s parts” and which helped her feel in control again. Another person told me about seeking comfort in baking bread every day, as the routine and memory of baking bread with her father when she was small took her to a place of ease.
I have a really lasting memory of the food my Nani (maternal grandmother) cooked for me. She passed away nearly 20 years ago, after suffering from cancer for years. She still loved to cook for us all, no matter how ill she felt, as it filled her with a sense of worth. Before she died, she left a stack of square paratha breads in the freezer. Made with homemade ghee, she would twirl them into cinnamon shapes, flatten them with a rolling pin and always made them square. I used to ask her, why don’t you make them round like regular parathas? She told me that square ones were just filled with more love around the edges.
She passed away on January 31, 1998, and a few weeks later, when I finally mustered up the courage to go into her house again, I found four parathas made by her in the freezer. I spent the next hour crying, trying to bring myself to decide what to do with them. Was I to eat them all at once, store them for years in the freezer with a mission to preserve some part of her, or what she had touched, or should I enjoy them on days I missed her the most, knowing she would have wanted me to remember her love through each bite. I finally decided to savour one each day following that moment. But, with the plan that for each paratha I eat, I would make one in her memory and try to emulate the shape and flavour. I found consolation in each act of preparing and eating them. Sitting together with my cousins, we shared tears, laughter and memories over cups of chai, the parathas and her achar (lemon pickles she had also made months before). I felt guided by her words, with each paratha I made, as though her hands were helping me make them. I could hear her voice with each bite, and so, I slowly found my way to deal with her loss.
It is funny how loss finds relief through flavour, and that is exactly the story Daniela from Suffolk shared with me. Her memory revolves around this time of year, and the loss of her proud grandfather, who was determined to die peacefully at home. In her words, she says: “In the final week before his death and the week following, my way of coping with the trauma and upheaval was to cook, so I took over my grandmother’s kitchen.” She says that it was a beacon of comfort at a dark time in her life and has kindly shared her special, yet simple recipe.
At a time when we are all focusing on the festivities in the month ahead, it might be helpful to take a pause and think of harder times; times when the only calm you can find is through the food that defines happier moments – and allow these to heal your soul. Sumayya Usmani co-presents BBC Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Cafe. Her books, Summers Under The Tamarind Tree and Mountain Berries And Desert Spice are out now, published by Frances Lincoln Visit sumayyausmani.com Twitter @SumayyaUsmani