Food & drink

A culi­nary jour­ney

Sunday Herald Life - - NEWS - By Su­mayya Us­mani

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 sumayyaus­ Twit­ter @SumayyaUs­mani

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