Kids Corner

The author’s mother, Surjit Kaur


Cooking With Mummyji





To say I grew up in Wolverhampton eating Punjabi food would be to understate things.

Food wasn’t just about sustenance for my family in the Eighties and Nineties. It was the medium through which we socialised (if there is one gesture that epitomises the overbearing hospitality that defines Punjabi family life it is someone declining yet more food by spreading fingers out over an already overwhelmed plate); passed leisure time (weekends were visits to food markets, where Mum would compare prices across at least five stalls before committing to any single purchase); and worshipped (one of the tenets of the Sikh religion being the provision of a free meal to anyone who attends a gurdwara).

Through it we indulged in nostalgia for the homeland (coconuts, guavas and mangos were among the foods guaranteed to make my relatives wistful) and wished for a better afterlife (scattering waste food for birds having been a morning ritual at home for as long as I can remember).

If my parents, who emigrated to the West Midlands in the late Sixties, weren’t cooking Punjabi food they were working to pay for it, or planting vegetables in the back garden of our terraced house to provide the ingredients. When I think of my mum it is almost always with her standing in the kitchen — her salwar kameez imprinted with flour, some saag bubbling away on the stove — kneading roti dough.

And the truth is I often resented this obsession with Punjabi food, which sometimes meant that even the cat got curry. It seemed that there was no occasion — from birthdays to gurpurabs — that my mother couldn’t half-miss in the kitchen. Also, being overwhelmed with Punjabi cuisine — with its gummy jalebis, spongy gulab jamuns and mains of flour, fat and spicy gravy — it was bland western food that my siblings and I longed for.

British staples like fish and chips, delivered a couple of times a year through the hatch of a van that occasionally ventured into our grimy part of town, and sausages from a local butcher on Fridays crept on to our menu, any meal with an English element being dubbed “dinner”. But we kids were mainly left to improvise, using knowledge gleaned from free school meals and, in my siblings’ case, home-economics lessons to come up with an array of Frankenstein creations, such as baked-bean curry, yellow-lentil curry with tomato ketchup, mashed potatoes with mince (basically, chilli-free keema), keema pasta and a breakfast of hot, sweet chai poured over cornflakes or Weetabix.

Growing up in what was essentially a ghetto, I was late to many western classics. My first taste of McDonald’s came at a teenager’s birthday party where I was utterly dazzled by a Filet-O-Fish, the texture of the supernaturally soft bread resembling an actual cloud to me.

My first experience of a Chinese takeaway occurred in the factory where I worked during the holidays — it was actually not Chinese food at all, but chips in curry sauce, which I continued to classify as oriental cuisine for years afterwards. And having worked out that my white classmates at grammar school would pay top dollar for the aloo gobi parathas that my mum would stick in my packed lunch, I first experienced pizza and kebabs during sixth-form lunchtimes as a result of the cash that came my way.

My views on food changed, of course, as with pretty much else, when I left home for Cambridge and found myself suffering crippling homesickness, mainly in the form of missing my mum’s food.

Sometimes I’d try to relive the smells and tastes of home by popping into a Punjabi grocery store, taking in the aromas of methi and mirch, or visiting the local curry house, where of course nothing bore any relation to my mum’s food or anything ever cooked on the subcontinent.

Sometimes, Mum would send me curries in the post and I would devour them as quickly as a packet of crisps. At its worst I succumbed to a kind of culinary Stockholm syndrome: having grown so used to the stodgy pasties and pies and stir-fries on offer in the student canteen, the merest whiff of any kind of spice could send me hurtling into a calamitous depression, and it was sometimes easier to avoid Punjabi flavours entirely.

It was probably around then that I began to appreciate that my family’s obsession with food was actually a blessing, that some people had parents who didn’t cook fresh curries for them every day. That endless cooking was not, as I had thought, a technique for emotional avoidance, but about compensating for historical poverty.

My parents’ respective families weren’t desperately poor by Indian standards, but my father remembers going hungry in his youth, when he laboured on the family farm. Food became scarce during the sweltering summer months, mustard oil replacing ghee, rotis being eaten dry, cow’s milk replacing buffalo milk and, at worst, tea being taken with powdered milk.

Nowadays my only real problem with my mum’s cooking is that when she inflicts it on me in incredible quantities I cannot stop myself from eating everything. When I go home there’s always a steaming selection of sabzis and daals waiting for me, alongside parathas, lightly brushed with butter, and freshly made samosas and pakoras.

Usually no more than 20 minutes will pass after a big meal before Mum is asking, “Can I get you anything to eat?” or remarking that I am “wasting away” on my London diet.

And she has of late developed a habit of squirrelling away food in my luggage or car without telling me. I’ll get back to London and find a Tupperware box of saag at the bottom of a bag or, as happened the other month, get a call from a PR agent who lent me a luxury sports car to review asking if I wanted the vegetable curry they had found wrapped in clingfilm in the glove compartment.

I was momentarily exasperated, of course, but mainly touched, for I understand now what food is really about for my family.

It is about love.

*   *   *   *   *


Gobi Paratha

Ingredients (roughly):

Roti flour and water
Cauliflower (gobi)
Handful of green or red chillis, according to how macho you feel
Vague quantities of ginger, cumin, jeera powder, coriander
Salt, according to doctor’s advice about your blood pressure
Ghee, according to doctor’s advice about your heart
Onion, plucked from your garden and chopped


1  Prepare, knead and roll dough as you would for roti. Chop the cauliflower, mix with the chillis, onion and spices.
2  Roll mix into the dough — keeping much thicker than for a roti.
3  Heat a heavy iron griddle, smear with ghee until it sets off your smoke alarm.
4  Place square of rolled mixture on to hot griddle.
5  Flip using fingers made of asbestos.
6  Serve with soothing Punjabi yoghurt and eat in front of a Punjabi soap opera, complaining about how the chillis in Britain don’t have the same kick as they do in Punjab.

[The BBC Two adaptation of Sathnam Singh Sanghera’s award-winning family memoir ‘The Boy with the Topknot’ airs at 9 pm on Monday, November 13, 2017.]

[Courtesy: The Times. Edited for]
November 11, 2017

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), November 23, 2017, 7:08 PM.

Sathnam Singh Sanghera writes with brutal honesty. Punjabi food can indeed be a challenge regarding health but the beauty of living in the western world is that we can have a universal choice of food and eat whatever we like but still have our favourite Punjabi foods like mutter paneer with tandoori rotis ... a heavenly luxury here in Bradford at the 'Three Singhs' restaurant!

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