Loving Spoonful

A traditional South Asian stew helps a mother and daughter find common ground

By Zainab Shah

Published on October 21, 2014

Earlier this year I decided to get divorced. The whole process was tough, but the hardest part of the ordeal, it turned out, was breaking the news to my conventional Pakistani parents. As soon as I told them, they resolved to take a 14-hour flight from my hometown of Lahore, in Pakistan, to New York to set me straight. Luckily, my father wasn't granted a U.S. visa, so they settled for meeting me at an AirBnB apartment in Toronto instead. This was a relief; if they had come to New York, they could have stayed at my place indefinitely. My plan was to see them and assure them that I was an adult who knew what she was doing before hurrying back to Manhattan.

I took an early morning flight and arrived at the apartment at 7:00 A.M. As soon as I saw my mother, I surprised myself by clinging to her and crying uncontrollably. I hadn't seen her in two years, and when I did, my adult demeanor dissolved. She started to cry, too, and I felt like nothing would be okay, ever. She wailed and cursed herself for being a bad mother, for not raising me to respect tradition, my husband, and a woman's expected role. Finally, she stopped and asked me if I was hungry. I was. On the plane ride over, I had been craving nihari, a thick stew of meat and spices she used to make for me in Lahore every Sunday.

My mother was taken aback to hear that I longed for such a traditional meal. After all, she'd just written me off as "too modern." She expected me to shun the food of my ancestors because I had rejected so many other traditions. But my desire for nihari transcended my cultural critique. When it comes to food, I don't discriminate.

Passed down to us common folk from the royal, Persian-influenced kitchens of Lucknow, in India, nihari is a laborious, time-consuming dish that is the ultimate proof of a cook's dedication. In requesting that she make it, I was testing my mother's dedication to me. I knew she would readily do it, though. She has always had time to cook for her loved ones. In fact, she claims that's why her family is still together.

"We should get to work if we want to eat it today," she announced at 8:00 A.M. As if on cue, my father, who was waiting his turn to talk to me, decided to take a nap. After a trip to a nearby market, she asked me to lay out the spices we needed. I knew the procedure, having grown up watching her: I placed fennel seeds, black peppercorns, cumin seeds, cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon sticks, coriander, and nutmeg in front of her. She used her eyes and hands to measure the amounts needed. I cringed slightly as she put the spices into a whole-bean grinder, concerned for my next cup of coffee.

She held the machine under my nose, but she didn't have to, I could have smelled it a mile away. It was spicy, sweet, and bitter all at once, a reminder of my childhood, most of which was spent perched on my mother's kitchen counter. She smiled as I sneezed, and then asked the question I had been dreading: "So, what's the problem?" As I searched for the right words, she continued, "All marriages are hard work."

She lifted a heavy, cast-iron pot from the cabinet next to the stove as if to demonstrate her point. Her strength did not surprise me. She grabbed lamb shanks from the fridge, recalling how difficult her own marriage had been, and her sister's, and her cousin's. She talked about husbands who beat their wives, who cheated on them, and about marriages that lasted because of the loyalty of women. I began to wonder: Why did I have to request a dish that takes 7 hours from start to finish? Couldn't I have settled for a couple of scrambled eggs?

She heated some oil and placed the lamb shanks in it. The loud sizzling provided the appropriate soundtrack to her interrogation. I felt my face burn as I watched her add the ginger paste and spices. She cooked the meat until it was half done. Then she added water, brought it to a boil, and informed me that the lengthy stewing process had begun.

For the next several hours, as the nihari cooked, I listened to horror stories of divorcées—women who were miserable after their marriages ended, who were fated to lives of loneliness, poverty, and mental illness. "What makes you so special?" she asked.

There was no convincing my mother that I had tried hard, that there was no hope for my marriage, and that I was being rational when I asserted that no marriage at all was better than a bad marriage. She wouldn't hear it, and at some point everything became my fault. It was my fault for not wearing enough makeup, for not being a good cook, for being too independent. I fell silent, resigned to the fact that I would never change her mind. Meanwhile, the smell in the apartment had altered dramatically, from raw and meaty to tantalizingly spicy.

That night, when we sat down to eat, the rich, mahogany-hued nihari had thickened with the gelatin that had slowly seeped out of the lamb bones. Some of the meat had dissolved into the fragrant gravy and the rest melted in my mouth. I closed my eyes and imagined the stew clinging comfortably to my insides, and felt a warm fullness in my belly. When I opened my eyes, my mother was looking at me. "I worry for you," she said.

"I know," I responded, my voice sounding tiny. She went on, "I may never understand your reasons, but I just want you to be happy." As always, my mother didn't wait for a response. "How is it?" she asked, nodding toward the nihari. "It's great, Ama," I told her. But she already knew this. "Happy?" she beamed proudly. And at that moment I was.

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