Living Between Cultures

Courtesy of the author

Cooking From Memory

Preparing food for my daughter has become an act of passing on our dreams and desires.

Written by Mahira Rivers
The Food Issue 2022

My daughter is standing on a stool, gripping a rolling pin in the cramped kitchen of our New York City apartment. My mother and I watch as she sprinkles loose flour over a ball of dough, which not too long ago was just a shaggy mess of atta (whole wheat flour), oil, and water. It’s nearly dinnertime and we’re making roti to go with my mom’s masala-braised chicken, which is already on the table, resting.

In our house, my daughter calls my mom Nani. That’s what I called my maternal grandmother in Pakistan, where my family is from. My parents don’t live in Pakistan, though, they live in Hong Kong, where I was raised. And for the last few years — separated by Covid and quarantines — my daughter has only seen Nani on screens, a smiling but distant face that would appear on my phone in New York every Sunday morning.

I’m out of practice so it’s tricky to roll the dough into a decently flat and round shape, but together my daughter and I manage. The floppy roti goes onto a ripping hot tawa, the cast-iron pan I bought years ago but have somehow never used. After a few moments, my mother picks at the edge and deftly flips it over. The sweet, toasty aroma of fresh bread wafts about the three of us, cooking together at last.

Mountain Dew at my 14th birthday party was the height of luxury, and my love of Lunchables runs inexplicably deep.

My family moved to Hong Kong in the 1970s and again in the 1980s after a short-lived return to Pakistan during which I was born. Those were heady times for expatriates like us. Hong Kong was the gateway city to a new economy in China, one last glittering jewel in the waning British empire’s crown, and it attracted starry-eyed families from all over the world. Looking back, it was an extraordinary combination of East-meets-West living.

I attended an American international school in Hong Kong so our years were dissected by Chinese, American, and English holidays, which were celebrated, invariably, with the customary foods. Spring will always be a time for Cantonese banquets and foods layered with symbolism, in keeping with the Lunar New Year traditions. With fall comes memories of lacquered Thanksgiving turkeys and holiday lamb roasts, mulled wine, and mincemeat pies. Even our weeknight dinners skewed West: easy El Paso taco kits and filets of breaded fish with tartar sauce.

Pakistani foods, though, were hardly around.

I know there’s a logical explanation for this. Back then, it was difficult to find the ingredients for garam masala, a core spice mix in Pakistani culture, or the proper lentils and flours for our daal and bread. It was likely much easier to shop for the recipes in my mom’s Betty Crocker cookbook and the glossy pages of Australian Women’s Weekly. I had also developed the palate of a typical 1990s American kid. I was happiest eating imported American candy, Mountain Dew at my 14th birthday party was the height of luxury, and my love of Lunchables runs inexplicably deep. Like most parents, my mom fed us what she had access to and, perhaps more importantly, what she knew we would eat.

Conspicuous consumption, that distinctly aspirational concept, is a public display, usually of wealth, that signals membership to a particular social class. For my family, consumption in the literal sense was like a conspicuous alignment of ideals; by eating Westernized foods, we were living up to some indelible fate of becoming a globalized, Westernized family.

My daughter’s roti is nearly done. It is marked with charred spots like blackened craters on the surface of a speckled moon. But before I can remove it from the tawa, my mom takes a kitchen towel and presses it firmly over the roti, searing it against the hot pan. She says this will make the roti puff up and give it lightness. When she lifts the towel, as if on command, the belly of the bread rises. My daughter’s eyes grow wide and bright with excitement and I can see the connection between her hands and that bread forming in her mind.

No matter how much I try to affix myself to one place, the nagging tug of rootlessness is never far away.

I also see that my mom is fulfilling a grandmotherly rite of passage, but I’m worried my place in all this is a little less clear. When Nani leaves for Hong Kong in a few days, will I be able to re-create this moment? Or will my claim to this culture be exposed for what it is — tenuous and, as it sometimes feels, fraudulent?

I often asked my parents if they ever wanted to move back to Pakistan, but they always said it was better for us kids in Hong Kong. What was left unsaid was that they believed our futures in Pakistan — our careers, social life, personal growth — would be limited. Equipping me and my brothers with an American education was another pivotal choice; it all but stamped our passports for a one-way, 13-hour flight across the Pacific.

Indeed, life in America has been good for me. My work as a writer indulges my creative and introverted tendencies. I met my husband who anchored me to this place in the best possible way, and together we had our daughter. And yet, no matter how much I try to affix myself to one place, the nagging tug of rootlessness is never far away. There’s an unshakable feeling that my life has been cleaved in two — before America; after America. Each is a disparate universe and the only one who can bridge that gap is me.

Lately, I have assumed the role of feeding my family. I cook dinner often, a labor I love, but it’s rarely Pakistani food. My menu cravings and inspirations aren’t rooted in the urban sprawl of Karachi, where I was born, but in the bustling streets of Hong Kong, the city that made me. It’s awkward to admit, but my daughter will sooner see a bamboo steamer basket filled with shrimp dumplings than a bowl of daal on our dinner table. I fed her Cantonese-style congee before I even tried to make kichadi, its loose South Asian equivalent.

As a mother, I can’t help but see how the food I give my child is seasoned with my homesickness.

In a way, I’m channeling my own longing into my daughter’s food, seeding in her a taste for my past, just as my mom preempted my future with a taste of the West and America. Doing so soothes my restlessness; that ceaseless search for the locus of my life’s design, the one true, but unachievable, place where I belong. Maybe I’m reading into things too much; it’s just food. But then again, for people like me living between cultures, sometimes food is the most reliable, not to mention satiating, link that fastens us to one identity or another. As a mother, I can’t help but see how the food I give my child is seasoned with my homesickness.

When we finally sit down to our masala chicken feast in New York, I’m not entirely sure my daughter will eat any of it. This food is unfamiliar to her palate and I am flooded with guilt. It’s a silly anxiety, really, because she sees us enjoying the food and, of course, she wants to eat the fruits of her labor. So, she nibbles at the chicken, already a victory in my eyes, then she rips the bread apart, dips it in raita, and chews. Soon, she finishes her disk of bread.

I, for one, am beaming. My mom and dad likewise watch their half-Pakistani granddaughter, in full, fleshy real time, with so much pride and love. For a moment, the dissonance of being a third culture family eases. I imagine their thoughts, “Here is our granddaughter, worlds away from where we began, eating roti. All is right in our world.”

I know that I won’t be able to re-create this moment for my daughter, but maybe I don’t have to. When I cook for her, I’m using food to share my story, which contains some of my deepest feelings. And because my history is complicated, untidy, parts of that story will be rough. But perhaps that just means we’ll have an opportunity to work it out together, like we did today, three generations in one little New York City apartment, cooking our hearts out.

Mahira Rivers is a freelance food writer and restaurant critic based in New York City. Her writing about chefs and restaurant culture has appeared in The New York Times, New York magazine, Food & Wine, and Bon Appetit. She has also worked as an anonymous restaurant critic for the Michelin Guides in North America — a job that was just as cool as it sounds, but also a lot of hard work.

Born in Pakistan and raised in Hong Kong, she has a Master's degree in Food Studies from NYU and she currently resides in Manhattan with her husband and her five-year-old daughter. Despite not being a working critic, she is still always on the hunt for her next great meal. And now, her daughter gets to join in on the fun.