Mehrunnisa Yusuf is of Pakistani-Polish heritage. She works at the University of London’s International Academy. In her spare time you will find her in the kitchen making jams, chutney, pickles and pulao. She writes food stories on her blog come·con·ella which is Spanish for ‘eat with her’. (Photo credit: Ilaria Michelis)
Bread, Butter, Books
A tapestry of first tastes and journeys come together in this food memoir style essay, talking about how real and imagined foods coincide in experience.
With food, you don’t have to buy an airline ticket or don a backpack – the magic of the exotic is there, right beside the everyday stuff, for you to bring into your kitchen.
Diana Henry – Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons
In my early years, air travel was a novelty. Travelling from Islamabad to Lahore by air to visit my extended family was a grand adventure, for we usually drove there along the Grand Trunk Road. I loved looking out of the window, nose pressed to it and wondering if I could walk on the clouds. They looked substantial and firm, contradicting the knowledge I had gathered in my science class that they were made of tiny droplets of water huddled together. When the clouds parted, they revealed squares and rectangles of cultivated land and buildings the size of dolls’ houses.
I was not keen on road trips but despite this we took many of them as Baba loved them. I found them tedious and monotonous and spent my time irking my parents with the oft repeated question: ‘Are we there yet?’.
I wanted to travel without the journey.
When I was around ten, I discovered that it was possible to travel the world without leaving. The journey was my imagination and the place was borrowed from the books I was reading. Fiction made it possible for me to inhabit worlds that seemed beyond reach. These worlds were not fantastical and I knew it then, for the countries in the books were actual places on maps in my atlas. This made the adventures of ‘The Railway Children’, the ‘Famous Five’ and the young girls who attended ‘Malory Towers’ real to me.
Woven into the adventures were details of school dinners, picnics and tea-time treats some of which were very different from what I ate. I had a curious appetite and this became yet another reason to read more. ‘Anne of Green Gables’ introduced me to raspberry cordial, ‘Little House on the Prairie’ to the hardship and reward of preserving food for an unforgiving and desolate winter, and ‘Heidi’ to the simplicity and deliciousness of cheese coloured golden-brown over an open fire. I could relate to the flavours that Heidi described because Mama used to make cheese toasts under the grill, the heat of which would make the surface bubble into golden brown blisters. Some of the edible things in ‘Malory Towers’, the ‘Famous Five’ and ‘Anne of Green Gables’ required creativity to be fleshed out though; it was difficult to imagine raspberries or anchovies when I had neither seen nor eaten them.
The discovery of fictitious worlds and meals coincided with an awareness of how my family was different. My maternal grandparents, who have Polish and Kashmiri origins with English leanings, met in London at university and spent the first decade of their marriage in Wales. I realised that there were stories and memories associated with the things that I ate. It was our kitchen table that gave colour and substance to my mixed heritage. My school day breakfasts of a soft boiled egg cradled in an egg cup to be eaten with buttered toast or pancakes drenched in orange juice and dusted with sugar were very different from the ‘fried anda and paratha’ of my classmates. My school lunch of soft white buttered bread with crimson strawberry jam contrasted with the meaty whiff of their shami kebab sandwiches.
Mama would make potato pancakes with sour cream for our weeknight dinners. These would be a simple affair made with finely grated potatoes and one finely chopped onion bound by an egg and a spoonful or so of flour to give them shape. The thick batter was fried in a shallow layer of fat until the potatoes were cooked and the edges went crisp. I will forever associate these pancakes with my first glimpse into Mama’s childhood. Mama used to make potato pancakes with her grandfather and even now when I eat them, they summon images of her grandparents constructed from a few old photographs and a poem she wrote called ‘Memoriam’ in which she describes their features and personalities.
My paternal family is from the Punjab, the province often described as the granary of the country as its fertile plains produce the grain that feeds the nation. Its people are well known for their hospitality and their hearty appetites, and traditional Punjabi food featured heavily on our table. My paternal grandmother was an excellent cook – food was most certainly the language of love for her. She made labour intensive dishes like stuffed bitter gourd: spiced minced beef was secured in the belly of the vegetable with delicate and even stitches. I loved her chirri roti, griddle fried flat-breads shaped like birds, which when torn into bite sized pieces, would ooze sugar syrup from the centre. Her stories were a different kind. They were rich with imagery of waderas (local feudal landlords), bandits and dacoits who kidnapped children and adults alike. The stories usually had happy endings, but my vivid imagination retained the fear and I was forever plotting ways in which I could eat her delicious food but escape the tales that accompanied them!
Baba loves the cuisine of his heritage but like Mama, he brought foreign tastes to our table too. These were collected from his travels (work and otherwise), his friendships and work relationships (I had my first taste of Korean, Japanese and Russian food thanks to them) and eventually from the vacations that we took together as a family from the late nineties onwards. I think of hummus as the opening chapter, for it first appeared in my family’s kitchen in the late eighties. Mama tells me that she first tasted it in Saudi where Baba was working at the time. He did warn her that she might not like it at first, which was true. But then she developed a taste for it and even began making it in Pakistan when we returned. I still remember the first time I tried it. It was in our house in Pindi and I must have been seven years old. I spooned the creamy opaque-yellowy paste into my mouth and took an instant liking to the slightly bitter and nutty taste.
Other experiences followed thick and fast and varied widely when it came to their places of origin, although they were all centred in Islamabad, the city I grew up in. There was the Afghani pulao at Kabul II restaurant crowned with candied carrots and raisins and roughly shaped dumplings anointed with fermented curd. Or Americana in the form of canned sardines, Kraft cheese and large cartons of Kellogg’s Frosties bought from the bonded warehouse where diplomatic staff used to shop during the eighties. As I recall, we were one of the few locals who shopped there. I had my first taste of Iranian food at Omar Khayyam and like Baba, instantly loved the buttery rice with a saffron halo and jewel like barberries.
We began to travel abroad more frequently from the late nineties onwards. Our family vacations were as much an insight into culture and history as they were about new tastes. I had my first mezze and shawarma in Dubai. The eating of crepes in Paris brings to mind a cat and a dog napping together in a cardboard box with a beaten down cushion. Dolma stuffed with rice and beef mince blanketed with avgolemono (egg-lemon sauce) recalls the joyous dance and song of stout, old Greek men in Athens. Baba found a tiny, family-run Italian restaurant in Brussels where I had my first taste of Roman pizza. I loved the thin base, puckered and blistered by heat, its character sturdy enough to hold the toppings without collapse.
In the early 2000’s, university brought me to London and eventually, work and marriage made it my home. In those early years, London seemed like a microcosm of the world. The city was made up of people from different parts of the globe. And as if that was not enough, the rest of Europe was at its doorstep. These were the years that I tried English food. My friend Emma’s mother made us comforting bowls of kedgeree (a smoked fish and rice dish made with curry powder). I discovered later that kedgeree is a cousin of kichari, the restorative rice and lentil sub-continental dish most often eaten by those prone to upset stomachs or with delicate constitutions. I developed a taste for sandwiches made with cheese and branston pickle or egg with cress and hot buttered toast with the intensely salty and rather divisive marmite. I also fell in love with soft fruits like raspberries, blueberries and blackberries – all of which I had read about decades ago, and I was only too happy to discover that they were as delicious as their descriptions!
In 2008, I met Ilaria and Mathilde on a course that we were studying together at the London School of Economics. Ilaria is of Italian heritage and Mathilde is French. The things that brought us together were curiosity for each other’s’ cultures, a love for London and our aspirations for human development and human rights. It was close to the time of graduation that we discovered our mutual love of food. We took to cooking dinners together, started a food blog and eventually visited each other’s childhood homes. Ilaria and I stayed with Mathilde and her family in Chambery and Lyon during our Easter study break. I remember being struck by the simplicity and pleasure of French food. It was the trip that gave me a love of tomatoes dressed with vinaigrette, cheese and crusty baguettes. And coffee yoghurt.
In 2010, I flew to Turin to stay with Ilaria and her family. It snowed on that trip, providing us the perfect reason to eat large plates of comforting pasta with rich meaty sauces. We spent an afternoon in Asti where we had a delightful lunch prepared by her mother’s partner, Ray. We started with a bright salad of oranges with pepper and a fruity olive oil and dates with mascarpone and walnuts, after which Ray brought out an oblong tray bearing a piping hot lasagne. Its burnished surface let off steam and its corners bubbled with heat. He plated generous squares of it and passed them around the table.
My first bite instantly transported me to my childhood, to the first time I had lasagne. It was made by Mama and I was taken aback at the authenticity of her version, because this was a time when Italian food was hard to come by in Pakistan. When I asked Mama how she understood the flavour, she told me about her childhood memories of lunches with her grandmother at the traditional Italian Trattoria Mondello near Goodge Street in London, where she first ate classics like ravioli and lasagne. The lasagne that she had made was as much by the memory of taste, as it was from the recipe that she had found in a cookbook.
Ray’s and Mama’s lasagne wove together the experiences of growing up in my family at a time when I had begun to travel and eat the world on my own. It showed me how my family’s culinary inquisitiveness and love for books had acquainted me with countries and sometimes their cultures through their food. Growing up, stories, tastes and memories were my constant companions. As an adult, I have found that they are seasoned travellers, as they are companions to me in London and the many places I have been to since.
The Bread Butter Books Slideshow: A Trip through Mehrunnisa’s Food Memories