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Rainy Day Pakoras

How losses birthed by India's partition seep through recipes


A friend recently shared a family recipe of a cake passed down from her grandmother’s mother down the generations. Their secret family ingredient for this cake is olive oil. I enjoyed this familiar recipe story. Yet, I felt a gaping hole within me. I recall that I possess no such family recipe book. I have no word-of-mouth passed down recipes from older generations. 

 For many folks just like me, immigrants and refugees alike, there are gaps in memory and lapses in access to intergenerational family recipes. In many places, such as South Asia, recipes were rarely written down, but rather cooked from memory and innovated each time.

I muse about the recipes from my Nani’s* kitchen in Lahore before Partition. I wonder what dishes she prepared for her children before 1947…. Before everything as she knew it broke apart irreparably…. before she passed away to tragedy induced by labor pains exacerbated by partition violence.  I long to know many things, among them, I pine for recipes from her kitchen.

I will never know. My mother does not know. I am the only daughter of a motherless child.

Her mother was lost to childbirth during the partition when she birthed twins who did not survive to live but a few months. My mother is now the youngest living child that my grandmother birthed. Her passing was the loss that forever transformed our family. Her tragic parting left a gaping wound that bleeds still. There are no recipes. There are very few family memories. I certainly did not have access to them because

I grew up on African soil, born to a mother who had been a motherless toddler in refugee camps after fleeing Lahore. Though the details are elusive, we know the family transplanted to Simla and then Chandigarh. My Nanaji never remarried and the family home that I visited from East Africa every couple of years had no grandmotherly presence.

Whenever I ask my mother or her sibling about my Nani, I am greeted by silence. It is as if her name is unspeakable. I realise that this forgetting is how trauma manifests itself.

When I was feeling a strong craving for Rajma Chawal*, just as my mother cooked her comforting red beans and rice when I was a child, it occurred to me that perhaps family recipes are manifested in comfort food cravings. For me, basmati rice accompanied by Daal or Rajma or Channa Masala are regular cravings. On rainy days, I consistently find myself seeking deep fried pakoras. How did this come to be?

Every time it  rains,  something within me immediately feels alerted to the need for pakoras. Could recipe memories manifest as cravings?

My mother predictably brought out her Kadhai* or rainy day pakora making. I would be enlisted to prepare all the vegetables as my mother stirred the batter of besan, cumin, red chilis, salt, and who knows what other secret magic ingredients? She would reach into her stainless masala holder, put in a pinch of this and a pinch of that. I can not recall exactly. You see, there was no recipe and I never wrote one down. It might even have been different each time.

I would peel the potatoes, slice the eggplants, prepare the florets of cauliflower, and sometimes, cut up the white bread slices into neat quarters. Bread pakoras were my favorite. Can you imagine a thing more comforting than deep fried battered fritters of spicy white bread served on a rainy day with home made chutney prepared from fresh mint leaves, salt and dried pomegranate seeds? My mouth waters as I recall these flavor memories. My mother would fry up the batches of pakora, and when she was done, I was enlisted to make her chai accompaniment. She would then sip her cardamom flavored elixir while my bhai* and I gobbled up the pakoras. 

My daughter, who is learning to cook, asked me about family recipes when I showed her how to prepare Daal. I told her I invent them. My Daal does not taste like her Nani’s and probably not like my Nani’s might have. I use less spice. I do not eat dairy. We have food allergy modifications to make. We leave out the dairy and citrus. Sometimes, we omit the gluten and sharp chilies.

We ordered kale pakoras with tamarind chutney. There are no bread pakoras here, and I am not inclined to fry any up.

Could it possibly be that when refugee descended immigrants like me who have been displaced or uprooted many times are not craving family recipes as much as we are seeking roots and healing? Though family food traditions might  live on within us in our cravings, oddly derived rituals and comfort foods, our appetites for belonging are rarely satisfied.

Knowing this, I might write down my innovated recipes for my daughter, though, so she can have what I often crave – not just recipes, but access to family history.

Pakoras: Fritters; Nani: Maternal Grandmother; Rajma Chawal: Kidney Beans & Rice; Kadhai: Pan; Bhai: Brother

Main artwork produced by South Asian Today's designer, Charanja Thavendran, @tararaemerd

About the author

Dr. Gayatri Sethi is an educator and writer who muses about social justice themes. A former professor and academic advisor, she consults and teaches about global studies, social justice, anti-racism and decolonizing education. She is of South Asian descent, born in Tanzania and raised in Botswana. Some of her work has previously been published in Brown Girl Magazine, The Dissident Voice and the Aerogramme. Instagram: @desibookaunty  | Tweets: @gayatrisethi

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