In Love We Trust

For a long time, I was drifting. I had everything that traditionally gives people a sense of being rooted and whole. I had a beautiful home, a great career, a pretty good husband who was a decidedly better friend, but I had this unwavering sense of being removed from the world, from reality, and a feeling of being dispersed, scattered, and sometimes, invisible. Flowers arrived every year on my birthday from my mother, and at the stroke of midnight, my parents-in-law called. My sisters (both of blood and marriage) filled my Facebook with displays of grand affection. And then we all went on with our lives, which were decidedly and categorically separate, not entirely because we couldn't talk about how full the moon was at the same time of the day.

And then something changed. I think it was the birth of my daughter that was the harbinger of this change. I found a singular focus - Jahan and her upbringing. I thought about my own childhood in a small house in a typical middle-class neighborhood in Lahore, always bustling with activity: Neighbors coming by to borrow sugar or eggs, or to drop off a plate of biryani, relatives dropping in unannounced, because there was no expectation to call first, my aunt and her children staying with us every summer, my mother waking me up every Saturday morning by announcing, "There's halwa poori for breakfast," going to Sunday bazaar or a sabzi mandi with my father to buy fresh produce. There was so much to do. Here, now, rooted as I was finally, thanks to motherhood, I didn't know how to provide a sense of family for my daughter. It is not right for everyone - this sense of being surrounded by people who love you, which also means that you are surrounded by many individuals who want things their way. It was certainly not something I was used to after living alone for almost a decade. And still, I found myself wondering. Will Jahan ever have what I had as a child - the absolute certainty that I was loved and treasured, not just by my parents, but by a close circle of relatives, too? Was it important? To what extent did all that love and attention in my formative years make me the person I am today?

For the last 11 months, I didn't have to wonder because my sister-in-law and her husband were staying with us. We were among family - the longest stretch in the past 11 years. This meant that I didn't have to plan my shower around Jahan's nap-time or wait for my husband to get home from work before I could do something around the house. It meant also that most days I came home to vacuumed carpets and a hot meal. Most nights, Jahan was delivered to me, bathed, dressed in her pajamas, ready for bed. If something came up at work, all I had to do was text my sister-in-law, "Can you please give Jahan dinner - I will be late." But these are superficial details. The most meaningful thing was that if there was bad news, any kind of bad news, we all carried a bit of it inside us and eased each other's burden of that knowledge. And if there was good news, any kind of good news, we all carried that inside us, too, and made it bigger, happier, better.

Two days ago, this period of having family with us ended when my sister-in-law and brother-in-law moved to a gorgeous new apartment just a few miles from our house. Emotional things were said. Gratitude was given. Love was shared. Promises were made. Traditions were initiated. "You are more than my sister," wrote my sister-in-law in a farewell card (even though we were going to see each other again that same evening). "Don't forget me now," said my brother-in-law. The mood was bittersweet all around, leaning heavily toward the "sweet." The couple was excited about setting up house. I was excited about relearning the long-forgotten dynamic of having my house to the three of us.

Then came the matter of the last meal in our house, which was a challenge for me to prepare, because I had run out of meat and this is a family of carnivores. The move was hectic and hard on the young couple. They were frazzled and extremely busy. And what did I decide to do as their good sister? Well, to trick them, of course. I bought two packets of extra firm tofu and prepared tofu tikka masala. I marketed this as paneer tikka masala to the family. While my husband was immediately able to tell it was tofu, he agreed to keep my secret. My gullible sister and brother not only ate the meal, but called me the next day from their new apartment to tell me how good it was. Then, I revealed my secret. "NO WAY!" They both cried simultaneously. "That was very sneaky! I HATE tofu!" "Apparently not," I said. But they were willing to forgive me and conceded that they had thought it was a strange kind of paneer, but it still tasted good. They trusted in me and my love for them so completely that they never even imagined I would subject them to the atrocity of eating tofu!

That's what love is in the end. The trust that someone is there, watching out for us. What I felt in my childhood home surrounded by aunts and uncles was not a brimming love, but a placid sense of trust that nothing bad could happen to me as long as they were all there. What is 11 months in the grand scheme of a lifetime? Nothing. What happens in that time-frame, however, is everything. The things you learn about each other and respect, the things you love to hate about each other, the things you hate to love, the small things, and the big things - it all matters. When they left, they took a part of our home with them, not in material things, but in memories, in habits, in thoughts, and left a bit of themselves behind. Now, this family, with its strengths and its weaknesses, exists in both homes.

Photos by Rebecca McCue - Rebecca took these photos on the eve of the move and inspired this blog post!

Pickled Shrimp and Letting Things Pickle

It is not always easy for me to let things go. In fact, I have often been criticized on my habit of holding on to emotionally charged exchanges, incidents, memories, and outbursts for an unhealthy length of time. It is hard to explain, but I am not dominated by the moments I am not letting go of; they are not holding me captive. I would submit that it is, in fact, the other way around. I am safekeeping them to remind myself not to invest too much again, not to make the same choices that led to emotional meltdowns of the sort I am guarding, and most importantly, not to allow anyone or anything unravel my composure for reasons that really don't warrant such a reaction. 

I find then - in keeping these moments alight in my memory - that at some point or another, I find a lesson or two to savor from them and let the bitterness go. They pickle, so to speak, instead of stewing. It is a different kind of mental energy that goes into this specific effort, you see. When I let certain things stew, there is a conscious fire of resentment burning under that particular cauldron. Unpleasantness is bubbling and brewing and cooking and sputtering. It has, shall we say, rather different consequences that do not always result in amicable discussions. Stewing has its purpose however, and I try to reserve such a reaction for people who really matter to me. I let grievances concerning my loved ones stew so that they can bubble over, we can air our differences, and be done with the whole irksome business and move on. For subtler things, however, such as hurts I encounter without the intention of the one causing it, inadvertent misadventures of the heart let's call them, need a markedly different treatment.

Making Bon Appetit magazine's Pickled Shrimp was a quick and delicious substitute to cooking an elaborate meal, and thinking about the write-up I wanted to accompany this food post with made me think long and hard about 'pickling.' You take something raw, put it in different spices and oils and juices and what-have-you in mason or earthenware jars (or a bowl, like I did), and then you put it in a corner for a predetermined length of time. Lo and behold! When you open the jar, you have perfectly pickled, savory, special-somethings. 

It's kind of like that when I file things away, or if you really want me to tell you the full truth, hold on to them when I should really just forget them and move on. But pickling, like stewing, also has a purpose. I put these disagreeable events in a jar with helpful facts (it was not intentional, they really are good people, everyone makes mistakes, et cetera), and leave them there for a while. Eventually, I find that the event loses its rawness and takes on the flavor of the facts surrounding it. One day, I miraculously find it to be perfectly pickled, a different beast really from what I first imprisoned in the jar. It is easier then for me to move past it in a more savory manner. It is better for everyone involved. 

Try it - it does work, and by the way, the pickled shrimp was delightful.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Giving Thanks

During the last two months of the year, we inevitably receive constant reminders to reflect on what we are thankful for. Magazine covers show perfectly roasted birds laid on fine porcelain platters in November for the Thanksgiving and transition to glossy stacks of perfectly wrapped presents in December for the holiday season. It is quite impossible not to dwell on the things you are grateful for during the few weeks that round up the year. There are naturally the obvious things one is thankful for - health, comfort, family, success, possibilities, the liberty and ability to do anything, be anything, to aim and achieve. However, when I read Rachel Ray's letter in last month's Every Day with Rachel Ray magazine, in which she talks about being thankful for "food," I wondered if it is not worth being more granular in my thinking as well. After all, the hunger statistics in the world are staggering. 

I am thankful for food, too. I have more than I need, and it is a great pleasure for me to write about it. During this season, however, it is important to observe that with my fridge bulging with leftovers after a magnificent Thanksgiving feast, I am far from the despair that is brought on by a hungry belly. If you are like me, even a quiet moment of meditation will go a long way if it results in you sharing a small slice of your pie of prosperity with the unfortunate. It is really very simple – just one recurring payment to your favorite charity hidden between the monthly evidence of a comfortable life (charges for beauty boxes, video subscriptions, book purchases, etc.). There are obviously other ways to give back. A friend of mine volunteers in soup kitchens during the holidays. Another friend is planning to capture portraits of patients to give them hope. My roommate in college used to invite all the stragglers for a Thanksgiving meal - college students who couldn't go back home and wanted a nice meal and good company...

I am thankful also for having a welcoming home, and more importantly, I am grateful for having it frequented by guests. I was talking to my sister the other day and she mentioned that in most religions and traditions, to host guests is an honor. In Islamic tradition specifically, we grew up listening to the story of Hazrat Abu-Bakr Siddiq (r.a.). He gave away all his wealth in the name of Islam. One night, he was sheltering travelers, but had very little food. He offered all of his food to his guests and lowered the flame of his lamp so his guests would not know that their host was forgoing his own rations to feed them. I had forgotten about this story until she reminded me of it. I have been guilty in the past few months of wrinkling my nose at the prospect of hosting guests. With a demanding schedule that encompasses work, family, baby, writing, studying, and teaching, I am left with very little patience to entertain – even though I feel my best when I am doing exactly that – entertaining. This story made me realize how guests really are an honor (I also agree with Benjamin Franklin that “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days”). Let’s face it. I am not the only person in the world with responsibilities and a grueling routine. If my guests are willing to take out the time to visit me, I should take it as the compliment it is meant to be. 

Finally, I am thankful for my friends. All of them – near and far. Some of my family members are my best friends. There are others who, over the years, have acquired a familiarity that is akin to being related by blood. We are all separated by time and distance, scattered as we are across several continents. Sometimes, we don’t speak for months, and then suddenly some kind of magic takes hold of the air around me and them at the same time, and we are propelled into the perfect harmony of “having free time” to Skype for hours (I should also offer thanks for Skype and Facetime). Speaking of friends, though, I must say that everyone should have a Rebecca in their lives. There is very little about my life that Rebecca does not know. While she does not always understand the complexities I encounter as I tread two identities in two different continents, she is always able to sympathize. Every year, she cooks me a fantastic Thanksgiving meal and has become a part of my family so completely that all you have to do is look at my baby’s big smile upon seeing Rebecca to realize how much we care for her. This year, Thanksgiving was spent with the usual preparations and piles of delicious food as you can see in the pictures. The turkey was beautiful to look at and perfectly moist and wonderfully flavorful with crisped golden-brown skin. Creamed corn, fluffy mashed potatoes and salty gravy, crisp string beans with pesto sauce, smoky roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, and tangy apple pie for dessert with a flaky crust. It was a memorable dinner to say the least. 

Being in the presence of other family members, I sometimes find it difficult to transition into and out of accents, inflections, and even languages. While Rebecca was busy cooking in the kitchen to prepare our feast, I was going back and forth between Urdu with my family and English with her. The juggling made me wonder, quite profoundly, if I have sometimes inadvertently left her out of conversations, and worse, if she has felt that way. 

It is one of the aspects of my personality I have struggled with. I have never been at ease with speaking a language that a part of my audience does not understand, but over and over, I fall back into this pattern, perhaps by habit or by circumstances. I noticed, for example, my mother who does not converse fluently in English shying away from the company of my American friends  and preferring to stay in her room after greeting them, because we spoke English among ourselves, and I often forgot to translate for her benefit or include her in the conversation. I wondered anxiously on Thanksgiving Day, if I had somehow alienated my best friend, too, by not having the discipline to stick to one universally understood language. I may have – I will hear about it either way after she reads this. 

For now, I am sanguine. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, we met up with Rebecca at the mall. My two-year-old daughter rushed into her arms, ran around her in circles, and stayed with her for two hours, just playing and laughing because she was so excited to see her. There is no language between them, but they understand each other perfectly. My daughter is able to communicate with everyone she loves without saying anything at all. Maybe that’s a universally understood language in itself, and I am thankful for being privy to it.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Birthday Celebrations for Goll Gappay

“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”
― William Shakespeare

November is the birthday month of Goll Gappay. A year ago this month, I resolved to launch a blog and not let anything get in the way - a wish I had guarded and nourished since at least 2006.

I went frequently to my close circle of friends and supporters for advice. I singled out Afia Aslam for her assessment of Goll Gappay in its developing stages. Afia guided me on everything - name, concept, design, she even edited the well-loved line that defines this place "Little Matters That Matter," which is far more superior than how I originally wrote it, "Words and Opinions on Little Matters That Matter." When I launched the blog, she shared it on her Facebook page and instructed her online community to visit Goll Gappay in her signature style. "Shoo!" Afia wrote at the end of her post. My strong and secure friendship with Shehla Wynne, which is characterized by a complete lack of judgment and unrealistic expectations and is often epitomized in moments of absolute understanding and profound emotional/intellectual support, lent itself to the carefully worded critique she provided on the initial design and writing style. This changed the finished product positively when the blog went live.

My friend Rebecca McCue and the photographic life-blood of Goll Gappay also provided invaluable advice, encouragement, and gorgeous photos to accompany complicated posts, often on a short notice. Rebecca is also the personification of the voice in my head that berates me (albeit gently) when I have not posted an entry for more than a week. Most of the time, her reminders work.

Others, especially my sisters Maham, Qurat, Mahey, and Anam (oldest to youngest - no preference in terms of affection, although one of them knows she is my favorite - watch, each of them will think it's her I am talking about, muahahahaha) promoted Goll Gappay unabashedly. "My talented sister," their proud and loud Facebook posts would say. "The latest gem from Noorulain Noor," or something equally overblown and grandiose would go up on each of their Facebook timelines successively during Goll Gappay's infancy. I am lucky that their love is just as ardent in all other aspects of our lives as well. We have had a good year - on Goll Gappay and outside of it. Special bellow, shout-out, acknowledgement, cheer to Qurat Noor for creating and managing the Goll Gappay Facebook Page (all the way from Tokyo) that has a modest number of followers.

Through Goll Gappay, I have discovered some wonderful voices (and people) in the past year, both in the blogging community and writing world. I have, in the past year, rediscovered the metaphor of Goll Gappay that first inspired this blog - new people, new events, and old friends along the way, too. I am grateful to everyone who has read and appreciated my ramblings, my honest attempts to capitulate to the quagmires of my thoughts, which more often than not manifest themselves in the form of run-on sentences. For that, my apologies.

And now, without further ado (and emotional speeches of gratitude), Goll Gappay's Birthday Celebration Plans! DRUMROLL, PLEASE!

To celebrate 1 year of blogging and in an effort to rediscover my writing mojo, I am making the following promises.
1. There will be at least one new post on Goll Gappay every day in the month of November. Sometimes, this post will appear on the homepage. Other times, it will appear on an additional page that will go live at some point this month (see point 2 below for details).
2. I will start working on my writing seriously by following a structured program. I will be working through Michelle Richmond's Story-Starters , the 50-day program to write on one prompt per day. These entries will go up on the "Story-Starters" page - the additional page alluded to above.
3. I will be reading and writing more poetry - sorry, you will be subjected to some of it here.
4. I will start cooking again - stay tuned for some cool cooking posts, including a rather grand one at the end of the month for Thanksgiving.

I am very excited. I hope you are, too. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Comfort Food

Weekends used to be sacred in my mother's household when I was a little girl. My sisters and I were too young to have plans of our own, and we were allowed to sleep in.  My parents were in the "steady" stage of their careers; they were satisfied, but had not yet reached the point of working long days, having a demanding schedule, and occupied weekends. That time still remains one of the happiest of my life. 

Some weekends we used to wake up to my father clanging pots and pans in the kitchen. He would plan to cook for all of us to give my mother a break and to remind us of a very important detail. "I taught your mother how to cook, after all," he'd say, surrounded by mason jars of spices, jars of lentils and Basmati rice, flour rising in plumes from a stainless steel bowl as he banged spatulas and ladles on the counter. After many hours in the kitchen, my mother hovering on the edges, the maid's nerves overwrought with the anxiety of getting my father everything he needed while not getting in his way, my father would call out our (nick)names, "Ainee, Renu, Munnuuuuuuu!" We'd rush downstairs, starving, only to be greeted by a giant serving bowl of daal (lentils) on the table with a side of plain white rice, mint and cilantro chutney, and a chopped cucumber and red onion salad. "Daal!" We would crumple our little noses and roll our eyes at the food. "Don't you make faces now," my father would wag a finger at us. "You'll love it."

We always ended up loving the simple meal of lentils and white rice, eating expertly with our fingers, laughing at jokes my father told us as my mother admonished him for this or that with the overbearing task of cleaning the kitchen looming large. I can't eat as deftly with my fingers anymore. I have to use silverware now, but daal chawal is a dish that still looks great on the dining table and is satisfying despite its simplicity. I probably don't make daal as good as my father used to, but it's my go-to meal on busy days when I can't be bothered to plan a menu or cook an elaborate meal. I pair it with chappali kebabs to appease the meat-eaters in my household. It is a well-loved combination now - the light, creamy texture of daal with the rich, smoky flavor of kebabs.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

The Charm of Routine

“Not that she didn’t enjoy the holidays: but she always felt—and it was, perhaps, the measure of her peculiar happiness—a little relieved when they were over. Her normal life pleased her so well that she was half afraid to step out of its frame in case one day she should find herself unable to get back."
- Jan Struther, Mrs. Miniver
Monday morning madness. I arrive at work later than usual, because I have some meetings that will continue into the early hours of the evening. I begin to type furiously even before I am comfortably settled in my chair. Hours pass. I answer questions. Write emails. Before I know it, I am on my third cup of coffee and fourth meeting of the day. I have worked through lunch, which I like to do, but the meal has been disappointing. Tasteless beef with stiff brown rice, under-seasoned vegetables, and limp pasta in an unappetizing yellow sauce. Coffee is better. Much better. I am back at work after two days off followed by the weekend. Four days of nothing but Eid celebrations. The holidays have been good to me. Now I am back at my desk, with my "crap-to-do" pad filling up. I check off one item and add three more in its place. I take my empty coffee cup to the Keurig. I pop in a K-cup - Newman's Own Special Blend - my favorite. As the coffee brews I lean on the counter with my elbows resting on the cool metal surface, my head in my hands, and I breathe in the steam. But back to work now. Chop, chop. And would you believe it? I love every minute of it. 

I resent Monday mornings, not because I have to go back to work, but because up until the midday epiphany I always get at the beginning of the work-week ("I love doing this."), I have the false feeling of not wanting to be there. It is nothing but a spillover effect from the weekend, but it's real on Monday mornings. The break in routine, the interruption of my weekday breakfast of badly poached eggs and creamy-sweet coffee while I check my email by two lazy mornings of getting pinched and slapped by a cute baby until I clamber out of bed to make her pancakes, disorients me. Every Monday, I have to relearn the motions. A teaspoon of water in the egg-poacher, 35 seconds for each egg in the microwave, Newman's Own, cream, Splenda, with a side of emails.

Let me tell you a short and interesting story. When I had Jahan, I devoured parenting books. I did not even have a background in vicarious learning when it came to raising babies. I went to the birthing class with my husband to gain some wisdom, but we walked out halfway through, because on the slide titled "How Dads Can Support Moms During Labor," one of the bullet points read, "Say encouraging things like 'I am so proud of you,' and 'I love you for doing this.'" For some odd reason, my husband thought that was absolutely hilarious and dissolved into badly concealed laughter. We left the class. On my first night home with Jahan, I almost took her to the ER because she wouldn't stop crying. I felt completely useless as a mother. "This is a big mistake," I thought. "I am not fit to raise this baby." Thankfully, Usman's cousin who was visiting us from Reno, took her from me, wrapped her up really tight in a blanket and swayed her in his arms until she went to sleep. She just needed to be swaddled. Simple. "OK," I thought. "If there is a logical set of steps I can follow, then this is doable." Baby 411 became my bible. I had Harvey Karp on my Kindle, Baby 411 on my nightstand, and they all said the same thing. Routine, routine, routine. You need to give your baby a dependable schedule, so she knows what to expect, so she can learn what's coming next. I marveled at this. How can a baby recognize routines, patterns? But, she did. By 6 weeks, her sleep cycle had corrected itself. By 4 months, she was sleeping through the night. And by 6 months, she was fully sleep-trained, falling asleep on her own, following a perfect schedule. 

Even babies, or perhaps especially babies, are creatures of habit. I don't think this instinct of following a routine, having a pattern or a predictable "normal life" ever goes away. This is why it's hard to form a habit, but harder to break one. This is why despite the Monday morning crisis, I always bounce back. This is also why it was strange not to be cooking on Wednesday nights for the blog after doing it for so many weeks and why for a long while after I discontinued my daily walks at work due to schedule constraints, I felt wretched. This week's Monday morning got me thinking about the importance of routine a lot. I exercised such control over my baby's routine in the first year of her life that we all simply take her good habits for granted now. They are cultivated - practically since birth. And if I do buy into this belief of routine having a lot of significance in daily life, then why do I short-change myself? Why don't I exercise the same control over my routine and guard it with the same vigilance? 

The city waking up during one of my walks
The answer is simple. I would rather make my routine malleable to fit everything I need to do in my day than adversely impact someone else. And that is simply not fair. I find happiness in predictability, in eggs and coffee on weekday mornings. I used to find it in my early morning walks with the cloud thickets in the sky, dew palpable on my fingertips, the city awake, yawning, gearing up for the day. I find it in my audiobooks on the way to work and on the way back. I find it in the game I play with my baby every day at 4:30 when I get home from work - "Mommy's gonnaaaa  geeetttt youuuu," and her squeals of delight dissolving into laughter as she throws herself on the bed resigning herself to the tickle monster. I find it in writing this. Here. As I used to twice a week at one point. My normal life does indeed please me well. Maybe it's time to make it charming again. Maybe it's time to prioritize and cross off and add to it until I have the comfort of predictability, until I am like the woman in the quote above - "Her normal life pleased her so well that she was half afraid to step out of its frame in case one day she should find herself unable to get back."

Photos by Rebecca McCue

What Fish Fillets Teach Us

This week's Bon Appetit recipe is Fish Fillets. (I used thyme as I did not have basil on hand.)

When I was making this dish, which took a half hour at most, I was struck by the simplicity of it. I am used to whipping out my tall mason jars full of whole black cardamom, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, cumin, star anise, et cetera, that I measure and pour into my spice grinder or a marble mortar to crush. I am familiar with taking upwards of 20 minutes to get onions just the right shade of golden brown. When I cook, the whole house needs to be aired for I fear that the aromas of garlic sputtering in hot oil, spices sizzling upon meat, and rich gravies shining with a touch of butter and/or ghee, will seep into the walls, furniture, clothes, even my pores! 

When I started this blog (and frequently since), I treated food as a malleable metaphor spanning a medley of emotions, representing life, love, families, relationships. It works for me. I am able to reflect on and understand the tangled mess of questions, insecurities, and fears I struggle with when I am cooking. The act of concentrating on combinations of flavors, focusing on creating something delicious from humble ingredients is both gratifying and therapeutic. 

Admittedly, the period of reflection while making this particular dish was rather short. Simple in preparation, it was anything but when it came to presentation and flavor. We focus so much on the details every day, on all that goes wrong, on disappointments, entanglements, losses, and heartaches. I think we lose sight of things that actually work perfectly, like all sections of the orchestra coming alive together and creating a symphony. Life, always, presents us with small blessings that are taken for granted or overlooked entirely because negativity is enticing - juicier, more exotic. 

When I was preparing these fish fillets, I was humbled by them, surprised by them. Packaged in pieces of parchment, with the most basic of ingredients to impart flavor to this dish, it turned out to be delicious and refreshing. That was unexpected. I am used to thinking that complication equals better. This dish completely debunked that theory of mine. Sometimes simple things are all you need. Sometimes going back to the basics is good. 
It is true for food. And it is true for life. Go back to the beginning of beautiful things with this dish. Appreciate the simple things in life, and remind yourself, "Yes, they are worth it."

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Fallen Chococolate Cake, A Sick Baby, And Solace in Baking

Last week, Jahan came down with a terrible cold. She had a high fever, which probably persisted for a day longer than it should have because I was fretting as mothers are wont to do. On Monday afternoon, haggard after taking care of a sick baby, carting her to the pediatrician's office, pleading with her to eat something, anything, even fries, for god's sake, I heaved a sigh of relief when Rebecca came over. With Jahan fitfully napping, I began to bake Fallen Chocolate Cake featured in Bon Appetit. Slowly, as the day wore on and the cake took shape, I began to feel better. The sense of being overwhelmed began to recede. "Babies gets sick all the time, right? She's just fine. It's just a fever. We're fine," I kept saying to myself (and to Rebecca, who good-naturedly agreed with my ramblings, validating and encouraging me by turns).

This new-found passion for baking came on rather strongly, I must admit. One day, I baked banana bread and blogged about it, and almost immediately afterwards, I was drawn to baking, which I previously detested. Part of the reason may be that I have found I am not dreadful at it, which is to say I am a better baker than I had previously anticipated. The other, and I suspect the more pertinent reason may be that I have discovered baking to be a stress-reliever for me, much like cooking (and writing). It is the distraction it provides from the rest of the day, from the daily pressures of being...well, me...paired with the tangible results I see in the form of a rising cake, thickening heavy cream, the happy faces of the people I love when they taste it, which makes it so rewarding. It allows me to forget about everything else and devote my attention completely to a piece of paper with just a few different ingredients whose chemistry upon combining together creates delicious results. And this is why I feel rested despite being on my feet stirring, chopping, frosting, et cetera, while cooking and baking.

The cake turned out great - you all must try it. It is rich and smooth and creamy. The chocolate melts in your mouth. The whipped cream frosting is a wonderful accompaniment to the richness of the chocolate. And it's beautiful to look at. 

Before I could serve dessert, however, there was that little matter of cooking dinner.  So I cheated and served something that required minimal preparation - shami kebabs with roti (ah, the hardy roti - it requires a post of its own) and a cucumber and red onion salad. Jahan woke up, ate a little, and even had some dessert. We were fine. Just fine.    

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Chai - & - Announcing 1-recipe/week from Bon Appetit

Chai has featured more or less consistently in my writing. A series of poems I have written and posted on Desi Writers Lounge is called Chai and a Poem. The poems aren't all about chai, but doesn't it create a powerful image? A cup of steaming chai next to a piece of paper with words scribbled on it that make a poem - a few phrases married to each other to create compelling meaning. Most of the prose I have written recently has chai in it - a girl sitting on her balcony sipping a cup of chai, watching the city breathing, writhing, teeming below her; a woman breaking the coat of milk-fat forming on top of her chai and wondering if this is how her relationship with her father is breaking apart - one touch of a finger and a million cracks running all over the thin wrinkled brown layer; a boy and girl on a rooftop in Lahore during Basant, the festival of kites, a teacup breaking as it slips and falls between them, a meet-cute. I use chai consistently in my poems, too. The brown ring of chai left on a glass-top table, a reminder of somebody no longer there. Burnt chai. Strong chai. Weak chai. Chai the color of someone's skin. Chai that burns. Chai that soothes. Chai that reminds you there is much to live for yet. Not long ago, my good friend, the amazing Editor of Papercuts, and humorous blogger Afia Aslam asked me, "Why didn't we call your blog Chai and a poem?"

There is something inspiring about this humble drink. It is a beverage that crosses all class barriers in Pakistan. The cleaning girl, the errand boy, the washerwoman, the driver - they may have a separate set of china for their chai, but it is poured out of the same pot as Bibi Jee's or Sahib's. It is what sells year-round on the street in chipped porcelain cups (or small narrow glasses if you're across the Wagah Border). Every home has a way of brewing it. And when guests arrive, the hosts ask, "Chai? Thanda?" (Chai or something cold?). Until recently, my image of an arranged marriage, which is common in Pakistan, was one of a demure young lady wheeling a tea trolley with kebabs, samosas, scones, pastries, and the queen of the arrangement, chai in a majestic teapot, to the drawing room.

The oft-overlooked, humble chai is quite an inspiration. If you don't believe me, just look at the pictures Rebecca took!

Chai is the first thing I really learned how to "cook." I spent a long time coming up with just the right recipe. The best kind of milk (whole milk), the right amount of Lipton Yellow Label Orange Pekoe (sorry, PG Tips), the perfect additions (crushed green cardamom), and the right length of boiling. I mastered it. It's what I did on stressful afternoons back in Davis with an exam looming in the near future. It physically made me overcome my stress, relaxed my tense muscles one by one, made me realize it was going to be OK. It was strangely therapeutic for me, this act of making the perfect cup of chai. And now I feel the same way about cooking (and maybe even baking).

This is my perfect cup of chai
And this is a great segue to the second part of this post - the announcement! I will be cooking 1 recipe per week from past issues of Bon Appetit magazine that have been accumulating in my kitchen for over a year now. Posts will be labeled with the "1-recipe/week from Bon Appetit" tag. I will be cooking on Mondays and posting pictures (taken by Rebecca), an accompanying blog post, and a link to the recipe by the end of each week - Friday-ish. Stay tuned for....drumroll please....Fallen Chocolate Cake....coming soon!

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Love Like Garlic

The King and His Daughters


There was once a king who had several daughters. To the first he said, "How do you love me?"
"I love you as sugar," said she.
To the next he said, "And how do you love me?"
"I love you as honey," said she.
To the third he said, "And how do you love me?"
"I love you as sherbet," said she.
To the last and youngest he said, "And how do you love me?"
"I love you as salt," said she.
On hearing the answer of his youngest daughter the king frowned, and, as she persisted in repeating it, he drove her out into the forest.
There, when wandering sadly along, she heard the tramping of a horse, and she hid herself in a hollow tree. But the fluttering of her dress betrayed her to the rider, who was a prince, and who instantly fell in love with her and married her.
Some time after, the king, her father, who did not know what had become of her, paid her husband a visit. When he sat down to meat, the princess took care that all the dishes presented to him should be made-up sweets, which he either passed by altogether or merely tasted. He was very hungry, and was longing sorely for something which he could eat, when the princess sent him a dish of common spinach, seasoned with salt, such as farmers eat, and the king signified his pleasure by eating it with relish.
Then the princess threw off her veil, and, revealing herself to her father, said, "Oh my father, I love you as salt. My love may be homely, but it is true, genuine and lasting, and I entreat your forgiveness."
Then the king perceived how great a mistake he had made, and there followed a full reconciliation.

Source: Charles Swynnerton, Indian Nights' Entertainment; or, Folk-Tales from the Upper Indus (London: Elliot Stock, 1892), no. 27, pp. 78-79.
 -From Love Like Salt - folktales of types 923 and 510. Translated and/or edited by D. L. Ashliman

Every summer, as soon as the monsoons arrived in Lahore, so did my paternal aunt and cousins from Faisalabad for three months of story-telling, late-night snacks, PTV drama commentaries, and aiding in the interminable task of completing summer homework. My cousins, several years older than me, used to tell old folktales, stories of their village, a haunted banyan tree, farm life, their 2-mile trek to school each way, weekend trips to the city. I listened to them with fascination. Living in the city, their lives in the village sounded like a rustic vacation. I don't remember most of the stories my cousins told me, but I do recall the one I wrote above clearly. 

After listening to this story, I remember telling my father, who often complained that his daughters didn't show any signs of loving their poor old Papa, that I loved him as much as salt in daal. I followed up with this story, and my father, the writer that he is, butchered my metaphor. He claimed that it simply did not work, because the salt content in our food is always high. The beauty of the metaphor is that even a little salt goes a long way, but it simply didn't apply to our food, he informed me. It wasn't about the quantity of salt, I argued. It was about the quality it gave to the dish. We agreed to disagree. 

Now that I have re-discovered this story, I actually think that the kind of love I crave, want, and give is not like salt at all. Salt represents an overpowering kind of love, it emboldens the dish, or makes it bland, or if used in excess, makes it bitter. It is the trying-too-hard kind of love. Or playing hard-to-get kind of love. It is the stalker kind of love. Or the reckless kind of love. It is the kind of love that dragged me across an ocean to this country at a precarious age for a boy. It is the dangerous kind of love. It is young love. Careless love. Short-lived love. Or overburdened love. It is the love that cuts deep and is often unforgiving, all-consuming, maddening. 

I no longer subscribe to love like salt. Not anymore.

I love differently now and demand that the affection I get in return should be qualitatively distinguishable from love like salt. My love is like garlic. It is like the aroma that lingers outside a kitchen, hovers around windows and screen doors on summer evenings, when the cook throws in a few cloves of garlic into extra-virgin olive oil and the pale pieces begin to turn golden around the edges. It is like the flavor that makes a plain plate of rice superior, delectable, gourmet because it's tossed in sauteed minced garlic. It is the personality change that a pasta dish undergoes when you crush some garlic into the creamy sauce. It is Emeril's BAM!, Rachel Ray's Yummo!, Bobby Flay's throwdown - it is the secret weapon of home-cooks, cooking enthusiasts, chefs and sous chefs and iron chefs, novices, experts, one and all. The metaphor of garlic gives love the flexibility of being subtle or bold. It inspires malleability, patience, forgiveness, sacrifice. It imparts confidence. It stands for a final flourish, a strong statement, a love that pleases the senses, appeases emotions, understands differences. A love that does not cause those who practice it to clash with each other, to break each other, to embitter each other. I am talking about a responsible kind of love. A respectful kind of love. The enough kind of love. A love that says "It's OK!" or "I love you just because" or "I'm sorry." A love that does not compete or compare or demean or judge.

I love this kind of love. Love like garlic, a humble ingredient that gives all of its essence to the dish it is added to, never compromising its personality, never losing the richness of its flavor

Photos by Rebecca McCue