Humming in the Kitchen: An Ode to My Father’s Cooking by Anam Ahmed
This poignant and luscious creative non-fiction piece delves into how food can be a link to our most precious memories with loved ones who are no longer with us and connects us to culture, family (both blood and chosen), and to the very kitchens the meals were prepared in.
Anam Ahmed (she/her) is a Pakistani-born, Toronto-bred copywriter and essayist. Her work on family, identity, and parenting have been featured in ZORA, SheKnows, Grok Nation, Apparently and more. She has also been published in USA Today and Bizfluent. In addition to writing personal essays, Anam partners with enterprise organizations on marketing campaigns, copy, and strategy, and has worked with the likes of Google, Shopify, and many Fortune 500 organizations. She was previously the acquisitions editor for the yellow-and-black For Dummies series in Canada. More of her work can be seen at www.anamahmed.ca.
RECIPE POSTED AFTER THE PIECE!
Fried Eggs and Rice Writing Prompt: Time and place are important elements of Anam's essay where they detail a difficult time spent between home and the hospital during the last six months of their father's life. Write a piece in your preferred genre, that starts at one place and time and ends in a different time and place. Your piece does not have to center around food.
Humming in the Kitchen: An Ode to My Father’s Cooking
By Anam Ahmed
My father grew up in the bustling port city of Karachi, Pakistan, eating food that was prepared in a small, stuffy kitchen by his mother. My dadi was the kind of cook who took no shortcuts. This was partly because her family didn’t have access to convenience foods – or the funds to buy them – and partly because she loved using her hands. With her salt-and-pepper hair always tied in a neat bun at the nape of her neck, she used her calloused fingers to secure every strand in place before she got to work in the kitchen. When it was too hot – which was often in the Karachi heat – she’d use the end of her cotton sari to wipe her brow and had an endearing habit of humming while she cooked.
I have memories of sitting at the dining room table with her when I was around six or seven years old. The plastic sheet over the tablecloth would stick to my sweaty arms, the ceiling fan a slow whirring above us. She was shelling peas for matar keema, a rich savory dish made from minced beef with peas. She took each pod in one hand, and used the other to open it up and slide the peas into the colander. She shelled eight pods in the time it took me to do one.
Once the matar keema was ready, I knew immediately after the first bite that I'd have second and third helpings. The cumin and coriander had been toasted, bringing out the nuttiness in the spices and making everything more fragrant. The onions had been slowly caramelized with the kind of patience I have never been able to muster, so that they almost disintegrated into a gooey flavorful mush. The peas were tender and crisp at the same time, while the beef was salted and perfectly juicy on my tongue.
It wasn’t the kind of food you’d find at a Pakistani restaurant, but it was the kind of food all Pakistani people dream about when they’re homesick.
This is what my father grew up with.
This is what my father needed before he died.
My father lived with cancer for eleven years before he left this world. The last six months of his life were when the changes really started taking place. The day my parents told me about dad’s terminal diagnosis, my husband and I had just put our kids to bed and were sitting on the brown couch in the living room flipping through a couple of shows on TV. I knew my dad had an appointment with his oncologist that day, and I was itching to hear some good news. Maybe today we’d find out his new treatment was working.
My mom called just when I was thinking about calling them because I couldn’t handle the suspense any longer. There was no good news after all. There weren’t a lot of words spoken between us, but the weight of each was astronomical. After all those years of fighting with the disease, we were coming to an end. My father was at a stage where there wasn’t much the doctors could do other than keep him comfortable.
We were warned that the changes were going to happen quickly.
We were warned that the changes were going to be drastic and brutal.
Still, we didn’t believe it.
It was September when we found out he was dying, and by March, he was gone.
I spent a lot of sleepless nights during those months, unable to turn my brain off from the difficult time my family was forced to go through. I had panic attacks while working or taking care of my kids because whenever I thought of a world without my father, I found I couldn’t breathe. I cried. A lot.
We all did.
In September, he was the father I knew all my life: running around from one place to another, busy with his staffing business and his many friends. He and my mom had a booming social life. One night they were hosting a dinner party for twenty, the next they were going to a Pakistani classical music concert downtown. My father began to slow down a little, but not by much. He would get dizzy sometimes and preferred not to drive. Sometimes he would lose his balance. Sometimes he needed to lie down in the middle of the day. But for the most part, he was good.
He was alive.
In the few short months we had with him after that, he became a whisper of his past vibrancy. Confined to a bed, in and out of consciousness, the swelling from the tumors and the medications taking over his body – I didn’t recognize him.
Only when he spoke did he seem like my father. His voice was the same. It was the only thing I found familiar about him. His voice was full of humor, charm, and love. It was deep and musical. He always sounded like he was telling me a joke, even at the very end. His voice carried through. It was him.
I can still hear it sometimes.
Much like my Dadi, my father was a chef at heart. Unlike many Pakistani men of his generation, my father loved spending hours in the kitchen chopping, stirring, and tasting, usually in an apron featuring some kind of culinary pun. He enjoyed hosting dinner parties for his family and friends. He could easily pull off a dinner for thirty in their home. Painstaking dedication went into creating the menu. He’d draft it and then spend days agonizing over it, changing items in and out until it was perfect. It was important to him that there was something everyone would like to eat on the table. He would text me the details to make sure I approved. We shared a love of food stronger than anyone else in our family.
He’d spend days sourcing ingredients at local Pakistani stores, doing his best to use the types of items his mother once used. He put my mother to work with him, who though not a fan of cooking, helped him with a smile and no complaint because she knew cooking gave him joy.
He always worked on the pièce de résistance himself, usually a roast lamb or a spicy beef curry. He’d serve it with yeasty naan and a vegetable-laced pulao. A constant was the fried whitefish, battered in fresh coriander and flour with a smooth crust, served, at dad’s insistence, with extra lemon wedges. And then there was the barbequed tandoori chicken, bone-in, skin-on, and fiery red. It was the kind of chicken you ate while tears swelled in your eyes from the heat. And no dinner party my father threw was complete without kababs: ground beef laced with lentils, breadcrumbs, and a myriad of spices. There would always be a few salads and a big bowl of raita, salted yogurt with onions and cucumbers to drown out the heat.
When we were younger, my brother and I loved to sneak into the kitchen and grab bits of the lamb as it came out of the oven. We’d take the freshly fried fish and eat it over the sink while we scalded our tongues. My dad didn’t mind.
“Well, we want to make sure I don’t poison any of the guests, so it’s better you two try the food first,” he would say with a glimmer in his eyes.
The naan was my favorite part, airy and soft with a few blackened crispy edges. I loved dunking it into the raita or using it to wipe the bottom of the pot he used to make the curry in. The naan was perfect for mopping up the leftover oily sauce clinging to the base. Dad said I was helping him do the dishes whenever he caught me.
My father threw the kind of dinner parties where you’d eat too much, know it, and still eat more. Always the gracious host, he didn’t rest until he knew each and every guest was having a good time.
The cancer took his left side first.
A month after his terminal diagnosis, it began with his fingers, then his hand, then his arm. Next, he couldn’t lift his left leg off the ground to walk. He was determined to move, so he’d drag himself around with the help of a walker. Everything about him felt heavy. His hair, his fingers, his nails even. It was as though the weight of his illness was everywhere, holding him down, forcing him to stop.
After a few more weeks, around the end of October, he was so weak he was confined to an old black leather lounge chair in the living room across the television for most of the day. Soon after, his right leg stopped working, too. My mother got a hospital bed that she set up in their bedroom to help make my dad more comfortable. By November, his right arm was the only limb that he had any control over.
“Good thing,” he’d say, lifting a piece of naan to his lips. “At least I can still feed myself.”
Before my family moved to Canada where we live now, we lived in a tiny town in Saudi Arabia called Jubail. There we made friends with a number of other Pakistani expats, who were all also working in the petrochemical industry. All of the kids grew up together, and the parents did too. One by one, we all moved to the same city in Canada, starting a new desert community in a winter wonderland.
This Jubaily family, as we called ourselves, may not have been the family we were born into, but it was the family we chose.
The Jubaily aunties made a meal train that sustained my family during my father’s illness, and well after his death. There was something new in the fridge every day so my mother didn’t have to burden herself with cooking. They knew time was finite, and they wanted my mother to spend as much of it as she could with my dad.
The aunties showed up at all hours of the day and night, knowing someone would always be home now. Some would be there early in the morning before heading off to work, sleep and sadness in their eyes. Others would come in the middle of the day in between running errands, their coats smelling of the delicious concoctions they had brought. Many would show up in the evening on their way home from work or later at night right before bed. I could see the pain in their faces, for my father was someone they had shared laughs with for almost thirty years.
The cancer was taking a part of their lives too, not just ours.
No matter when they showed up, they took charge. The Jubaily aunties knew my mom was overwhelmed – emotionally, physically, spiritually. They would come in themselves as the door was often unlocked. They’d put the food they brought in the fridge, often labeling it with the name and date so my mom knew what to eat next. They’d put any dishes left in the sink into the dishwasher and tidy up the counter. If my dad was awake, they’d sit with him for a few brief moments. Time was precious. I could see they felt it with the way they spoke, the way they sighed.
The Jubaily aunties came with Tupperware containers full of the kind of home cooking my Dadi would have been proud of. Palak daal, yellow lentils cooked with spinach, tomatoes, and fried mustard seeds. Yukhni pulao, basmati rice cooked in homemade lamb stock with lots of cloves. Haleem, beef slow cooked and shredded with lentils, barley, rice, and more spices than I can name, served with fresh chopped ginger and limes.
They always asked my dad what he was craving. The medicines sometimes messed with his appetite, but he usually had a request. He asked for karele keema, ground beef curried with bitter gourd. He suggested aloo ki tarkari, potatoes curried with turmeric and nigella seeds. He wanted seekh kabab, ground chicken cutlets cooked in a tandoor oven. Most of the time, these were dishes that reminded him of his childhood – food that reminded him of his mother and that small, stuffy kitchen in Karachi.
On one such occasion, my father asked for paya. It’s not a meal for the faint of heart: cow legs and hooves cooked slowly, often overnight, to release the sticky gelatin. The soupy curry is eaten with lots of fresh coriander and green chilies, and sopped up with naan. It’s the kind of meal where you have to lick your fingers after every bite because of how sticky everything becomes. It was a favorite of his – and mine.
The Jubaily aunties always obliged. They never visited empty handed, and they never wanted anything in return. For Pakistanis, when someone brings you food, it’s customary to return their dishes back filled with your own cooking. With a dying husband by her side, this wasn’t something my mother could keep up with, and no one expected her to.
The day after his death – the day of his funeral – I thanked one of my mom’s closest friends for everything she had done for them. I thought of the piles and piles of food stacked in the fridge that she had so lovingly made and brought over. I thought of the many early mornings before work and the many late nights she had spent with my mom as my dad lay there dying. I was grateful for everything she had done – for being a friend, for being a pillar of support, for being there.
She seemed a little surprised when I thanked her, her eyebrows raising.
She hugged me tightly for a long time. I could hear her sobbing gently on my shoulder, tears falling on my shirt, on my hair.
“It was my loss, too,” she said. “I don’t need any thanks.”
My father was more than a friend to her – he was like her brother. Even on this day, the day of his funeral, she brought food for my mom. She and the other Jubaily aunties arranged dinner for all of the people who were visiting to pay their respects, so my mother didn’t have to worry about anything. And when everyone left, she stayed to clean up, put the leftovers in the fridge, and take the garbage out. While I was upstairs in bed avoiding the crowd, she quietly brought a plate of food up to me and put it on the night table for whenever I was hungry.
I was grateful for it all – but I realized she wasn’t doing any of it because she felt she had to. She was there because she wanted to be. This is how she grieved.
Out of all the rich dishes he ate during his illness, I think six-minute boiled eggs are what kept him alive longest. As far as I can remember, my father has had an affinity for eggs. He used to say the sound of an egg frying could wake him up from a deep sleep, and I don’t doubt it. On the days when he was so weak he couldn’t speak or even open his eyes, my mom would feed him a soft-boiled egg. It was the perfect food: nutritious enough to keep him going, and soft enough for him to swallow without exerting any energy.
During his last six months, he spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals for various infections. He was never happy with the boiled eggs the hospital served.
“They are so cold and rubbery,” he complained. “Overcooked!”
I always felt so helpless when he was ill, but this was something I knew I could solve. I would boil two eggs each morning, just the way he liked. After leaving my kids with my mother in law for the day, I’d bring the eggs to him in a little Ziploc bag. His eyes would brighten when I showed up, no matter how exhausted or in pain he was.
We would slowly move his bed into a sitting position, and I’d swerve the tray in front of him. I’d grab a few pillows and sit him up, making sure his neck was straight so that he would be able to swallow. I’d put the eggs in a plate on his tray for him, and place a fork in his right hand. Then he would be able to take over.
With the focus of a surgeon, he’d bring his fork over to the eggs, piercing them and slicing them in one fluid movement – one he’d been doing all his life. He would then slowly bring the fork to his lips, being careful not to drip any yolk on to his hospital gown. Sometimes I’d hold a napkin under the fork, but I tried to stay out of the way because I knew he wanted to do it himself.
“You made it just right,” he’d tell me every time. Those words meant the world to me.
I wept the first time I ate a boiled egg after his death.
In February during a hospital stay that we thought would be his last, my mom called in the reinforcements: her sisters. She needed someone else to lean on, and they arrived, one from Pakistan and one from California, within a day of her request. My father had been unconscious for about a day and a half, and we were told he may not make it another night. We were in the hospital room, waiting for what we thought was inevitable. His two best friends were also there, pacing the hallways. They’d come in to hold his hand or stroke his hair every few hours, and then go back out in the hallway to give the family space to grieve.
Miraculously, my father started to gain consciousness. It was amazing by all accounts: not only that he woke up, but that he lived for another month. As soon as his best friends heard he was conscious again, they ran to the coffee shop in the hospital lobby to buy him some chewy oatmeal cookies they knew he loved. It didn’t matter that dad wasn’t going to be able to eat solid food; his friends had to get those cookies because it’s what dad would have done for them.
When my father became aware that my mother’s sisters had traveled from the other side of the world to be with him in his final moments, he asked my brother to pick up some kababs and bread from the Afghani restaurant he knew they liked. He was ever the gracious host, though he could barely speak. He didn’t want his guests to go hungry. We all stood there in his hospital room that day, a haphazard dinner party, munching on cookies and kababs, fighting our grief over the inevitable loss of our host.
My most memorable meal with my father was one he wasn’t present for.
My father passed away at the end of March, just a few days shy of Easter. While we didn’t celebrate Easter as a religious holiday, my dad always said it was an excuse to eat lamb, and so we did, every year. A few days before he died, he reminded my mother to order the leg of lamb at the butcher, and told her how he wanted her to prepare it. He also told her to grab some plastic Easter eggs from the dollar store so she could hide them around their house for my kids to find before dinner.
He didn’t make it to Easter, but his plans did.
My mother dutifully ordered the lamb at the butcher and made it according to my father’s specifications. She marinated it for 24 hours in plain yogurt mixed with red chilies and cumin to tenderize and flavor the meat, and baked it until it was a perfect medium. She carved it, serving it with all of his favorite accompaniments – roasted potatoes with cumin seeds, grilled asparagus, cucumber raita, and fresh, pillowy naan. A hybrid Pakistani-Canadian meal, much like my father. Pakistani at heart, with a lot of influences from his chosen homeland.
Our shrunken family gathered around the kitchen table to eat a meal we were too devastated to enjoy. It was a warm spring day; the light shone in through the glass doors, reflecting off the piles of snow in the backyard. The head chair was empty, and the void was physically painful. I stared at the grain in the wooden table, tracing the lines around my plate with my finger.
Everyone had a lump in their throat. Our eyes were bloodshot, our hearts were broken. We kept it together, or tried to, because we didn’t want to upset my kids, who were too young to understand the gravity of what had happened just a few days before.
Before we started eating, I was suddenly furious with him. Tears welled up in my eyes; a fire burned in my belly. He should have been there to cook our Easter lamb. He should have been there to carve it up, and offer me the fatty bits around the edges because he knew I secretly loved them. It wasn’t fair that he would miss this meal he planned from his deathbed. It wasn’t fair he wouldn’t be here to host any more dinner parties. Who would make the perfect menu? Who would take over the kitchen, humming old songs we didn’t know while chopping up onions? Nothing felt right.
He should have been there to make sure no one’s plate sat empty. Instead, he was six feet under in the frozen ground, piles of dirt and snow on top of his new wooden home.
We all got through the meal without crying. It was delicious, like it always was, though I’m sure no one could taste anything. Our palates felt grey without him there, desensitized somehow.
There were a lot of silences at the dinner table that evening, incredibly unusual for our family. The table was the center of our little universe. It was where we gathered several times a day to share stories about work or friends. It was there we laughed together about funny things we’d heard. That day though, the silence was unbearable. I couldn’t think of much to say, and neither could anyone else. We talked a little about my father, about his love of food, and about how much he would be missed.
“Remember how much he loved carving the lamb?” Mom asked.
We all nodded, holding in the explosion of sobs which would have come out had we opened our mouths.
With a kind of unspoken agreement, my family decided that day that we would continue my father’s legacy. We all knew that eating, finding enjoyment in food, and sharing with each other would make him happy. Sitting quietly missing him was just too hard. Making his lamb dish for every not-Easter-Easter was a way for us all to share a meal with him again.
I missed him the most after that meal was over. It had always been my father’s job to clean the meat off the bones and take care of the leftovers. He'd carve everything off with deft fingers and always packaged a little bundle for me to take home. Whenever I’d eat the leftovers at home, I’d call dad to tell him how good they were.
There would be no phone call this time, and it felt like a punch to the gut. I understood his death on a grand level – the big idea. But it was the little things now missing that I hadn’t realized would affect me. There wouldn’t be any more impromptu phone calls to talk about food.
Who would I text when I needed to know what temperature to set the oven at?
Who else would care about the new restaurant I tried?
Who would watch the cooking shows with me and laugh about the millions of tiny little bowls they use to prep the ingredients?
While I had accepted his death, I hadn’t gotten used to its ripple of ramifications.
My father didn’t make it to that dinner, but I know he must have been watching.
The Not-Easter-Easter lamb, eaten just days after he passed, is a meal that will forever remind me of him and everything he loved. As I used the naan to break apart the shreds of lamb and dunked it slowly in the raita, I remembered the many times I had asked him for this recipe. Each time I wanted to make it, I’d spend a few minutes talking to him before I left to do my grocery shopping, making sure I had everything on my list. Then while I was making the marinade, I’d have to text him several times just so I had the quantities right. And finally, when it was time to put it in the oven, I’d need to call him again because I could never remember what temperature to set the oven.
In all the times I made it, it never once occurred to me to write down that lamb recipe. I took for granted that he’d be there the next time I wanted his help. He’d know how much ground red chilies I needed, and what kind of yogurt to buy. He’d tell me how long to bake it and how to check that it was done just right. He was there to help me figure out how to carve it and what to serve it with.
He never wrote any recipes down either, so my memories and my mother’s memories are what we’ll depend on going forward. He didn’t see the point of writing anything down because he knew everything by heart. Much like my Dadi, my father was an intuitive cook. I’m much the same. We don’t worry too much about getting it perfect. Instead, we focus on making the food satisfying. It’s not the same every time, but it’s just as good.
My father’s last few months taught me that food is as much about love as it is about sustenance. The food my Jubaily aunties made for my family, and still continue to make every now and then, is what kept us going through my father’s illness. Not only was it one less thing to think about when our minds couldn’t take much more, but it showed us how much my father was loved. The community of aunties supported our family, and my father, by making sure we were never hungry. It mirrored the love my father put into each dinner party he cooked for. It gave us a boost when we were in despair, and it gave us something to look forward to on those helpless nights: at least dinner was on the way.
While I have always used food to show love to my family and friends, I take special care to do it now because I know how much it means when you’re on the receiving end of it. When someone has a new baby, when someone moves into a new house, when someone has a bad day, when someone gets a new job – I am there with a casserole or a basket of baked treats because I want to pay it forward. My father taught me that food is love, but his death taught me all the other meanings, too: community, friendship, comfort.
Biting into a dark, dense brownie is akin to getting a hug after a hard day at work. Dunking your spoon into a steaming bowl of beef and sweet potato stew is the same as an encouraging word when you’ve been up all night rocking a crying baby. Tearing off a piece of fresh naan is the equivalent of a kiss on your forehead from a father who’s no longer there.
I can’t bring myself to cook my father’s lamb recipe yet. His death is still too raw – too fresh – in my mind. His lamb recipe was like his shining star – it is what he was known for, what he was synonymous with. I can’t separate his memory from that roast lamb, and I don’t want to. I have never once made it without calling him midway to ask a question about how much of something to put in the marinade. He was who I turned to when I forgot how long I should let the lamb sit before serving. I can’t imagine making it without him there to guide me. I already know it won’t taste as good.
As with everything, I know time will change the way I feel. One day, I hope I’ll have the courage to make my dad’s lamb recipe all on my own. And instead of an empty, stabbing ache in my chest, it will feel like he is there with me.
And when I do, I will think of him as he often was, standing over the stove in the kitchen in Canada, wearing one of his funny aprons, humming a song from his childhood just like my Dadi had in that small, stuffy kitchen in Karachi, Pakistan.
Dad’s Yogurt-Marinated Leg of Lamb
4-6 lb leg of lamb
1 cup full fat plain yogurt
10 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons dried red chili powder or flakes
2 tablespoons cumin powder
Salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the marinade the day before you plan to cook the lamb. Mix the yogurt, lemon juice, olive oil, chili powder or flakes, cumin powder, and salt and pepper in a bowl. Pat the lamb dry with a paper towel, and rub the yogurt marinade all over the meat, ensuring each part is covered. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.
After the lamb has been marinated, remove it from the refrigerator about 2 hours before you plan to roast it. Use a spoon to scrape off the marinade and discard it. Using a sharp knife, make 1-inch incisions all over the lamb, and place a clove of garlic inside each opening. Place the lamb on a rack in a large roasting pan and let come to room temperature. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Heat the oven to 425 F. Roast the lamb for 30 minutes at 425 F, and then lower the heat to 350 F. Cook for around 70 – 85 minutes, or until the internal temperature of the thickest part of the leg reads 135 F, for medium-rare to medium meat. If you’d like it more well done, add another 15 minutes or so.
Remove from the oven and let rest for 20 minutes before carving. Don’t forget to serve it with raita.