Let Me Tell You Two Things About A Scottish Asian Household
How cooking my mother's food helped me navigate the space between two cultures.
The two things you need to know about Scottish Asian households are that you will rarely leave one feeling hungry and you won't leave feeling unloved. The South Asian part of us will feed you delicious, home-cooked meals regardless of whether you just ate, while the Scottish part will welcome you and instantly put you at ease with a touch of humour and a dash of charm. These are two cultures who both put their love of chai above everything, so for them to meld so beautifully shouldn't be much of a surprise.
I grew up in a cosy suburb in North Lanarkshire, just outside Glasgow, where there were very few Asian families. This would have been a lot more intimidating if my ma hadn't used her exceptional cooking skills to endear us to our neighbours. Every week she would send me or one of my siblings round to deliver her latest "desi dish", and our neighbours would coo in their doorway as they accepted their weekly "takeaway".
The people next door, John and Michele Perry, would earn extra meals from my ma as I was constantly in their house creating havoc with their daughter: The food was half apology, half appreciation. If my parents learned someone was unwell or had had a bad day their answer would be to whip up some chicken tikka masala or lamb chops and feed them until they felt better; spices could cure any cold, according to them.
In return, and without asking, our neighbours began to regularly cut our grass and pull our weeds. These small acts of kindness took on epic proportions in our eyes. We were acutely aware of the houses that, no matter how much food or kindness we offered, would never open up to us.
I was an obvious "other" in my very white school and, in the beginning, I tried my hardest to blend in, resenting anything that identified me as different. Every so often I would be called upon to explain something “ethnic” in front of a class as if I were the resident expert. I would scream silently inside with anxiety, avoid eye contact, and usually make something up. After all, who was I to explain why seven virgins were “important” when my main concern was working out which Spice Girl I should be?
I later found that samosas and pakoras were the best way in with my peers. Before this discovery, I had wanted my ma to make the less conspicuous and far more traditional cupcakes for the school raffle, but she refused. The next morning I stomped into school, carrying a box full of ice cream tubs overflowing with my ma’s handiwork, dying of embarrassment with every step.
I dropped them next to the endless row of Victoria sponge cakes and then ran to hide. To my confusion and complete surprise they were a huge success. I went home that day and spent the night begging my ma to make more while she gave me that “I told you so” look. (Aye, you were right, Ma. You are always right. Jeez.) It was the first time that I had encouraged friendship with food, but it certainly wasn’t the last.
In hindsight, I regret not letting my ma teach me how to cook. I learned a lot from observing alone, but anytime we tried to work together we would both end up exhausted from arguing. My ma the perfectionist and me, the petulant teenager who would rather be outside playing kerby with her friends, were a volatile combination.
It would begin well but dissolve into chaos when my onions weren’t diced well enough or I allegedly used a "rude" tone to respond to my mother when she unnecessarily repeated her instructions. Cooking comes easy to my ma, whereas I felt how I did during maths class: stupid. After a fair few attempts we never revisited it for the sake of the household.
Every single time I cook from scratch for someone I care about, I understand my ma's love better. When I first attempted to create one of her more comforting meals – turka daal and pilau rice – the response was more than complimentary.
I had made that meal with the intent to impress, weighing the daal as accurately as possible (how my mother "just knows" is beyond me). I was warmed to know I had made someone special to me so happy simply by cooking for them.
As I was lowering the temperature on the stove I had a delayed epiphany: The care and caution with which I was preparing this meal had me yearning to call my ma, and not just for cooking advice. In the past I'd considered kind words and physical gestures to be the only way to show affection. Now I was in her shoes and I learned for myself, as clichéd as it sounds, another language of love.
Although my family are incredibly loving we don’t really hug or give out compliments generously, and this differed from what I witnessed growing up, leaving me in envy of my white friends and their families. People cook every day, this isn't rare, but I had been lost in the space between two cultures and this meal helped me feel closer to the one I had been at odds with in my formative years. I felt like I was finally finding the right balance.
When I visit home my dad and I barely speak more than 10 words to one another. The best way we know how to communicate is by bringing or making each other food. My dad might not say outright that he's happy to see me but he'll drive to our usual restaurant – The Village Curry House in Glasgow – and bring home a keema pizza for dinner, knowing it is one of my favourites and almost impossible to get in London.
Every time I hear his Scottish-tinged Pakistani accent telling me that my food is waiting in the kitchen my heart swells. It took me a little bit longer than I’d like to admit to realise that every time my parents put food on my table, all the hours my ma spent in the kitchen making our favourite meals – that was the affection I thought I was lacking.
North Lanarkshire, my home, is 10 hours away on the Megabus, 4 hours 45 minutes on the train, or 1 hour 20 minutes by plane. Living in London, when I get close to a visit I become insufferable in my Scottishness, making torrential rain and gale-force winds sound romantic. I tell whoever will listen about the epic meals ahead of me, and I'm guilty of gushing incessantly about my city. I talk with such pretension about “escaping London for a wee bit” that I'm surprised no one has pushed me into the Thames yet.
Scotland has the strangest quality of feeling both right next door and incredibly far to me. The degrees of distance differ based on how homesick I feel on any given day. Going home never gets old: The thought alone can usually quiet any chaos in my mind.
I know as I reach my parents' house, usually late at night, that everyone will most likely be in bed. I'll slip into the house and my old life. The minute I take my shoes off at the door it will be like I never left. As I said, my family aren't big on grand shows of affection. Instead, the tangible gestures of love will be sprawled out on our kitchen island: a cold glass bottle of Irn-Bru, a bowl of keema peas accompanied with roti and rice, made especially for me. I'll drop my bag against the island and make up a plate.