It is a dance that we have both performed countless times; we know the steps by heart. Her kitchen was my first kitchen - my training studio.
Every day, my mother would come home from work and almost immediately set about preparing our evening meal. Whenever I got the chance, I would join her in the kitchen, observing how deftly she scaled fish before cutting it into pieces to simmer in a thin, spicy curry along with chunks of potato. I watched as she swirled rice in several changes of water before putting it on to boil.
I was always desperate to join in. I peeled onions and learnt to let them soak in bowls of cold water to lessen the potency before slicing them. I swept up the papery skins of garlic and onion from the floor. Soon, I graduated to the next stage of training. Under her watchful eye, I learnt the correct method for preparing fish (always trim the fins and tail too – something few people do) and how and when to correctly add salt to a dish.
Over time, the need for direction lessened. I knew to anticipate what needed doing rather than asking for instructions: if dal was on the menu, I knew how much to measure out into the correct pan, how to wash it and drain away the milky white water, and how to prepare the right ingredients for the bagar– the tempering – pounding cloves of garlic, slicing chillies, setting aside a good pinch of panch puron. My confidence grew and in time I began taking charge of entire dishes myself – vegetable bhaji, dal, simple chicken curry with potatoes.
We regularly cooked like this, together, during the time I lived at home. It was symbiotic. Sometimes we talked, but often we moved in a quiet kind of rhythm – each knowing what needed to be done to jointly prepare the meal.
Now I have grown, married, and have a home of my own, our kitchen-centred reunions usually take place on the eve of a family celebration – most notably, the annual festivals of Eid ul-Fitr, which heralds the end of Ramadan, and Eid ul-Adha which commemorates the story of the Prophet Abraham and his son.
Our cooking reunions follow a pattern. A couple of days before Eid we agree a menu – always with input from other family members – of what we will serve. Aromatic chicken korma cooked with ghee and yoghurt is a staple, as is pilau rice studded with cardamom, cinnamon and bay leaves. Next comes beef or lamb bhuna – sometimes both - depending on what the butchers have on offer. There is always a platter of succulent tandoori chicken and potato cutlets stuffed with spicy tuna or egg. If we are entertaining widely, we will add in a kofta curry: balls of chicken or lamb baked in the oven and then simmered in a spicy, thick sauce. Of course, there is fish, coated in spices and fried with onions, and countless vegetable dishes – chunks of aubergine in yogurt sauce, cauliflower lightly spiced with green beans. For dessert we make shemai – sweet vermicelli pudding with whole milk and jewelled with sultanas and flaked almonds, and sometimes fat, juicy rounds of gulab jam.
Then, once the menu has been confirmed, we divide our tasks, each taking the dishes we enjoy making the most. The preparation begins the night before with chopping, marinating, soaking and peeling. We stay up until one or two in the morning with my sisters, talking as we shape patties with our hands, ready for frying the next day. Sometimes my father will come into the kitchen to tell us not to stay up too late and to taste a sample.
This year, on the eve of Eid ul-Fitr I am not in my mother’s kitchen. The global pandemic that has kept families apart for months continues to rampage, meaning that loved ones are unable to be together on this festive occasion. We spent the month of Ramadan, which is so deeply about connections and community, observing the lockdown, staying at home, saving lives. But while Ramadan has ended, the dangers of a pandemic have not – and so our usual celebrations of feasting after fasting will continue be spent in isolation.
This year my mother and I will not agree a menu or stay up late together to prepare it. Neither of us will be hosting guests – instead we will cook for our households only, in our own kitchens, two hundred miles apart. I will be making a reduced number of dishes: chicken korma, of course, and fragrant pilau with lightly spiced vegetable bhaji, aubergines in yogurt, and fish cutlets. Firni – or rice pudding – for dessert; in our limited trips to the shops, I couldn’t find the thin vermicelli needed to make shemai.
This year, instead, we will take photographs of our laden Eid tables and send them to each other. After lunch we will speak on WhatsApp or Zoom with the rest of our family from across the country with who we would ordinarily be feasting alongside.
This year, still, we have much to be grateful for. Our health, thankfully untouched by the virus that looms over us. The gift of technology that allow us to remain connected. The tables that are laden even though we are diminished in number.
This year, we make this sacrifice to stay apart during our festivities because we care about the health of others. We are conscious of the immense pressures on the NHS and want to limit the possibility of a future resurgence of infections. But it is hard not to feel despondent about the confused guidance issued by the government, the cavalier flouting of rules by government advisors, and the double standards applied to rules on social gathering and social distancing. We can only hope that if, as a nation, we are able to continue acting sensibly and with caution in order, we may be able to be with our loved ones again when it is safe.
Eid ul-Adha – our next festival – is only months away. I dream of spending it in the only place I want to be: in my mother’s kitchen.