Sirie lives in Khirki with her sisters, away from their family in Ethiopia. The youngest of five sisters, she is fun-loving and outgoing.
They did not know their grandmother, but they remember their mother back home. Sirie says that in Ethiopia, mothers cook for the family till the daughters reach their teens, and from then on it is the girls’ responsibility to prepare food daily. Sirie is not very fond of cooking. She helps her sisters to cut vegetables, wash dishes etc., and when it is her turn to cook she enjoys experimenting with the food and adding new flavours to the traditional dishes. She thinks this comes from assimilating the taste of cuisines from other cultures, a common experience today when there is frequent movement and mixing of urban communities. The younger generation is open to trying and accepting new foods. Sirie’s experimental cooking is sometimes liked by the family, and sometimes they find it awful. But she doesn’t really care, because in her opinion just because someone cannot produce good traditional food, it doesn’t mean that they are a bad cook.
Sirie remembers the one time she tried to make baklav. This traditional sweet is not an Ethiopian dish, but after tasting it in a café and also at a friend’s house, Sirie wanted to prepare it at home. She kneaded white flour with water and made a soft dough, cut out a circle and sprinkled nuts on it, and added three more layers in the same way. She made several small portions like this and baked them in the oven. Removing them from the oven when they were done, she poured melted sugar and honey over them. Quite a few were too hard, as she had not prepared the dough correctly. Sirie was excited about the dish but her family did not appreciate it at all. She also tried to make pizza, another non-Ethiopian dish. She kneaded flour into a dough, covered it and let it ‘rest’ for fifteen minutes. She then rolled it into small flat circles, patting them into shape by hand. She made tomato sauce, poured it on the circles, added some chopped onions and then baked it in the oven. When it was done, she sprinkled grated cheese over the pieces. Everyone in her family loved her pizza.
Sirie accepts the fact that cooking is daily necessity, but she feels that the responsibility of preparing food should be equally distributed among the family members, regardless of gender. She thinks that young women should see cooking as a hobby and not be always tied to the kitchen – they should be free to do other things in life.
Jaana is from Somalia. She is the eldest of her siblings. She loves to cook, and feels bad if anyone in her family doesn’t like her food. She thinks that a woman should go to the kitchen and cook for the family every day, without feeling oppressed by this responsibility. In most Somalian families, girls are given the duty of cooking and other household work when they reach their teens. The kitchen tasks were distributed – one sister would make bread, another wash the dishes, two more start preparing lunch. The first traditional item Jaana’s mother taught her to make was sabaayad, a staple Somali flatbread more or less like the north Indian chapati.
Jaana says she enjoys cooking but not all the time – she thinks that girls should be allowed to take a break from this work. Restaurants in her city in Somalia did not offer the facility of home delivery. Neither were there global chains like KFC and Burger King. But she loved to eat the very popular local brands of fast food. More than 70% of the young working people in her city regularly ate at such outlets to save time, rather than going home to eat. She and her sisters sometimes treated themselves to eating out on weekends, though the concept of ‘weekend’ is not as strong in Somalia as it is in the West.
“I did not learn cooking from my grandmother, but from my mother,” says Aya. She is from Baghdad, and has been living in Khirki for the past two years. She says she was closer to her mother than to her grandmother, and her mother was the one who did all the cooking at home, on an oven fuelled with firewood. Aya is from a big family, which included her grandparents, father and seven sisters and brothers. Her mother was involved in preparing food all day long, but she was never tired even though she cooked for a minimum of two to three hours at a stretch. She motivated her daughters to learn cooking.
Aya was ten and her older sisters in their teens when they began helping their mother in the kitchen and with other household chores. Preparing the oven with firewood was a daily struggle for their mother. Cooking was hard work, but throughout her childhood Aya never saw her mother spoil any food or make mistakes such as using the wrong spices for a dish. Her mother always kept track of her cooking, except for one day when she went into the yard to do some other work, forgetting that she had set a pot of milk on the fire, and the milk got burnt.
Here in Khirki Aya follows her mother’s cooking methods and recipes, making the same dishes but using more spices. The food takes less time to prepare as it is cooked on a gas stove. However, she is confident that she now cooks better than her mother, who used to regularly make kubba, mglama, mgloba, biryani, dolmai, etc. Aya says she cannot forget the taste of the pickles her mother made with cucumber, eggplant and lime. She remembers her a lot, and feels proud when she cooks food in her mother’s style, using her mother’s traditional recipes.
Safa and Gloria
Safa and Gloria are now part of the Khirki pop-up kitchen project. Safa is from the Congo Democratic Republic, and Gloria is from the Republic of Congo. They met here in Khirki at the Bosco UNHCR Centre. They both speak French, but with a different accent and grammar. Gloria explained that the Republic of Congo used to be a French colony, while the Congo Democratic Republic was colonized by Belgium. So there is a slight difference in cuisine.
Safa says her grandmother died when she was a tiny child. Her mother was the only one who cooked for the large family, and she taught Safa all her recipes. Her mother never seemed tired, despite the heavy load of cooking and taking care of many children. Safa today follows her mother’s recipes and methods.
Gloria has strong memories of her grandmother and her cooking. Her grandmother was a good cook but prepared meals only sometimes, as most of the cooking was done by Gloria’s mother and sisters. Her grandmother taught her mother to cook salted fish with eggplant, grilled fish, smoked fish in a broth of okra and coconut milk, and to cook chicken with vegetables and plantain. Gloria follows those same recipes here in Khirki. She also uses the tips her grandmother taught her mother – for instance, if there is too much salt in the dish, one can add cut potatoes to reduce the effect of the salt, and improve the taste. Gloria and her sister were very close to their grandmother, and used to be with her all the time. One day when their mother was out, they were chatting with their grandmother when they noticed a strong smell of burning in the kitchen. They had forgotten about the rice on the stove, and it had got burnt. They had to throw away the rice, but their grandmother never got upset or worried if the food got spoilt in any way while it was being cooked. Most of the time she used magic to make the spoilt food edible and tasty.
Laxmi and Radha
We are sisters, and we are from Nepal. We both came to Delhi eleven years ago with our family. First, we stayed in the locality of Punjabi Bagh in west Delhi. After six years we moved to Khirki. Here we work as cooks in a Nepali as well as a Bengali household.
We both remember our paternal grandmother (Dadi) and our mother at work in the kitchen in our home village. I was ten and Radha was eight when our Dadi passed away. But we have strong memories of her daily cooking – aloo dal (potato with lentils), bhaat (rice), tarkari (vegetables), sarson ka saag (spinach and mustard greens). The flavours were so delicious that we never got tired of this food.
Dadi and our mother both got up very early in the morning. They worked all day doing housework and kitchen work. The tasks were so hard and took a lot of time – right from collecting wood for fuel, preparing the clay oven, cutting vegetables and grinding mustard seeds for cooking oil. Dadi and our mother spent the whole day serving the family. They shared the kitchen work as a team – by the time Dadi started cooking the rice, my mother would have started cutting the vegetables; and if my mother had begun kneading atta (whole wheat) for rotis (flatbread), Dadi would have started cooking vegetables or meat or fish. We two used to help to wash the vegetables and pick herbs from the field to use in cooking, but mostly we found excuses to escape into the yard to play with our friends.
Whatever Dadi cooked was very tasty, but our favourite was corn kernels cooked in spices. She made this as a treat for us whenever we wanted. She put the corn in a wok with a bit of oil and spices, and stirred it around. Then she spooned small portions onto pieces of banana leaf and steamed it in a vessel like a momo steamer, in Nepali it is called baguna. She made a very tasty sweet dish called shelpuri, a kind of jalebi (deep-fried sweet) made of makai (ground corn). She also made kheer (sweet pudding) out of makai. She ground the seeds till a white juice came out. She cooked this in water, adding sugar. At times she cooked the same item as a salty porridge, adding chilli and spices.
Here in Khirki, on festival days like Dassehra and Deepavali we often remember our Dadi’s spiced masu (chicken) eaten with puri (deep-fried bread). She would grind the spices and a big chunk of salt in the grinder. To us she was like a superwoman. She cooked a delicious dish of arbi saag (leaf of colocasia root), and masu chudwa (chicken with flat rice) – in Delhi chudwa is called ‘poha’. Dadi boiled the chudwa, drained the water and mix chicken and spices into the chudwa. We sometimes ate this for breakfast and for lunch.
In our village there was no culture of drinking tea. Dadi did not drink chai, nor did we. Instead we drank buffalo milk and mai (yoghurt-based drink) that in Delhi is called lassi.
All the food at home was cooked over firewood, and my mother still cooks that way today in the village. But we remember Dadi very much, especially when we visit our village once a year, during our children’s school holidays, and enjoy the tasty food prepared by our mother, who learnt many dishes from our grandmother.
I don’t remember my paternal or my maternal grandmother. My father’s mother passed away when he was a child, and my mother’s mother passed away when I was tiny. I only remember my mother, who brought us up in our village in Bihar. I was the eldest of four children. My parents were daily wage labourers who worked in the paddy fields. Every morning my mother got up at five a.m. and cooked our lunch before she and our father left for work. She put our food in vessels, covered them with a cloth and hung them from the ceiling so that it was safe from cats and dogs.
In the morning after our parents left the house work, we children had a breakfast of either a drink of sattu (chickpeas flour) dissolved in water with salt or sugar; or chudwa (fried flat rice) mixed with chopped raw onion and green chillies. Our parents did not work on Sunday, and that morning my mother would make a delicious breakfast of ghugni (curry of spiced yellow or white peas) and murmura (puffed rice). For lunch we usually had dal (lentils), rice and aloo chokha (spiced potato wedges), sometimes mixed vegetables, occasionally fish or meat. There were no powdered spices; one had to buy the whole seed or pod from the market – jeera (cumin), dhania (coriander), chillies, black pepper – and crush them between stones to prepare the masala (spice). Each dish tasted unique. But we did not eat every day. Our parents earned very little money, only enough to survive from day to day. There were miserable times when they had no work or were forced to take a break from regular work. Our poverty often meant a dreadful experience of hunger.
My three brothers and I never went to school. We were on our own till our parents returned from work at 5 p.m. Their daily evening routine was to buy vegetables, rice, atta (wheat flour) and sometimes fish or meat from the market. At the age of ten I started cooking to help my mother. My brother closest to me in age would help me. One day after we had cooked rice, lentils and some vegetables, we noticed that the rice was very watery. We took the vessel with the rice, dug a hole in the earthen floor of the kitchen and buried it. Then we took a bag of atta we found in the corner of the kitchen, ran to the nearby grocery shop and asked the shopkeeper to give us rice in exchange for the atta; and to sell the atta back to our father when he came to the shop in the evening. We came back home and cooked the rice properly. In my haste I burnt my hand while filtering the boiled rice water, and also cut it with a hasul (sharp knife) we used in the kitchen. My father was very angry with us for wasting the rice, and also for making him spend extra money on repurchasing the atta. He gave us a hard thrashing. From that very day I resolved to cook properly, and since then have become very good at it.
When I became older I learnt sewing for a year from an NGO in our village. I started earning a little bit and saved some money. We were able to eat regularly and make other changes in our life. All the homes in our locality were made of mud. Each monsoon the huts got badly damaged, and after the rain stopped all the structures had to be made again. There was no electricity or pumps to remove the excess water. Since I had an income, when a brick factory opened in the area we were able to build a brick house, the first in the neighbourhood, to protect ourselves from the monsoon.
After I got married, my brother started working and supported my parents. I was living with my in-laws, who owned a big paddy field and were quite well-off. But after I gave birth to my first child, a daughter, my father-in-law suddenly disowned my husband and asked us to leave the house. Once again, poverty claimed me, especially after I had more children. My husband earned very little. To make ends meet I started working again, carrying heavy bags of onions and potatoes from supply trucks truck to the local warehouse. Through this work I earned enough money to buy a sewing machine. Through sewing work I was able to save my family from hunger and destitution. But my husband remained unemployed for a long time in the village, so we decided to move to the city. My husband came to Delhi first, and worked as a car mechanic for a couple of years. Then I joined him with our children.
Now I have a small food shop in a basement in Khirki Extension, and I am happy to live my life freely here. Unlike my life in the village, there are no in-laws, relatives or neighbours interfering in my daily existence. I can raise my five children properly, especially my daughters, send them to school and college. My shop caters to local working men and women, providing tea and daily meals. I am free to cook and sell whatever I like. I am a good cook, but I cannot make dal vada (fried lentil balls) the way my mother could. It might be the spices she ground fresh at home, or the particular dal we got in our village, that makes the difference in taste. Or maybe it is her touch, which matters a lot. I remember the aloo chokha which my mother used to lovingly prepare, though in those very hard times it was a struggle to feed us. The food she cooked in our village will always be more precious to me than anything I now easily make in my shop in Delhi.
Fariba is from Kabul and has been living with her family in Khirki for some time. She has a strong memory of her grandmother, who was very active and in charge of the daily cooking while Fariba’s mother did household work and looked after the children. Her grandmother cooked on a wood fire, and the lunch and dinner took hours to cook. She regularly prepared shorba (Afghani meat stew), slow-cooked and so tasty that Fariba cannot forget it. This method of slow cooking freed Fariba’s grandmother to help her mother with heavy chores like washing the family’s clothes.
If the women became hungry after a long morning of housework, Fariba’s grandmother roasted a few potatoes in their skin in the fire, and served them with salt, chutney and tea. To Fariba, this tasted like food from heaven, though the recipe was so simple. Till today she thinks that those potatoes roasted in the last fire of the morning is the most special Afghani food she has ever eaten.
Fariba learnt to cook mostly by following the recipes of grandmother, who passed away when she was a teenager. One day when no one was home, she experimented by making a pulao (rice cooked in butter, garnished with raisins). She was not sure if she had used the right spices, and also thought the dish was a bit sweet. No one in the family liked that sweet pulao, except her father who enjoyed it so much that he rewarded her with 30 Afghanis – worth a lot of money in 1960 – and asked her to make the pulao for dinner very often. She was so thrilled and excited that she could not sleep that night.
Hoor is from a village outside Kabul. She never met her grandmother. She and her siblings were raised by her mother, who used to cook delicious food. Her mother woke early each morning and put firewood in the tandoor (clay oven). Then she would start cooking breakfast. The tandoor was kept burning till night. Each time the fire became low, she would add logs. The men in Afghan families collect the wood and stack it in the yard, but it is the women who manage the tandoor all day long. Hoor’s mother struggled to manage the tandoor along with other household work.
Hoor recalls that her mother used to follow a strategy while preparing the day’s three meals. She made three compartments in the tandoor. After making flatbread in the morning, she put the vessel with stew for dinner at the bottom of the tandoor; in the middle section she put the lunch vessel; and on the top section she would make breakfast. The lunch and dinner cooked very slowly while she was doing her other household work. After dinner, when the fire was very low, she put beetroot in the tandoor to grill, which the family ate with their breakfast.
Rabia has no memory of her grandmother, so does not know whether she ever met her. She was very close to her mother and remembers her very well. Her mother used to prepare food for the entire household. As a child, Rabia was always curious about how her mother made dough for soft flatbread. Her mother would boil water in an earthen vessel, mix it with flour and knead it into dough. This process was a wonder for young Rabia. Later she tried to copy her mother’s method, but she was not successful as she was always a bit afraid of burning herself with the very hot water.
Mari is from Kabul. She does not remember her grandmother, who perhaps passed away before Mari was born. Her mother did all the cooking at home every day, as is usual in Afghan families. She learnt most of her recipes from her mother.
Mari eagerly tells of the food her mother used to prepare at the weekend family picnic, once in every two months, in a small forest not far from their home. They carried a big kettle of tea, and vegetables and potatoes to be prepared over a wood fire. The family would have tea and chat and the children would play, while the unpeeled vegetables were grilled over the fire, and potatoes roasted in their skins. When the vegetables and potatoes were taken out of the fire, they were as soft as butter. They were eaten with home-made pickle made of chillies, coriander leaves and lime. Mari later tried grilling and roasting vegetables and potatoes in an electric and a gas oven, but could not create that special taste of the picnic food.
One memory of those times that is still fresh and sharp for Mari is when her mother was serving tea from the kettle, and spilled some on young Mari’s thighs. She suffered a big burn but did not tell anyone about it. She sometimes wonders how she had tolerated that sudden shock of the hot tea pouring on her body, and how she had kept her pain a secret during the picnic and afterwards as well.
Zeba did not meet her grandmother, and when she was twelve her mother passed away. She remembers her mother encouraging her older sisters to learn cooking from the time they were young. But she does not recall her mother cooking. Her mother would sew and work on cloth while her aunts and sisters cooked, and they were the ones who taught Zeba to prepare food. Zeba has clear memories of the ‘doll’s house party’ she and her sisters had every Friday during their childhood. Their parents would ask them to cook a mini-meal with small amounts of vegetables and meat and other ingredients. The girls made kabuli pulao, meat korma, cake and other dishes. They were allowed to use a kerosene stove, not the wood fire on which regular meals were cooked for the household. Zeba thinks this weekly event was their parents’ way of training them to prepare traditional Afghan recipes. They would play with their dolls while they cooked. They used to invite family members to these ‘parties’, and as a small child Zeba accompanied her sisters on their rounds with the invitation card.family ate with their breakfast.
From Mari’s mother’s recipe book
Afghani Korma Kachalo
Ingredients: Onion, Potato, Tomato, Salt
- Heat the cooking pot on the oven.
- Cut the onions into pieces and put in the hot cooking pot and add some oil.
- Heat the whole mixture and along side wash the potato with the skin carefully in the water and chop each of them in two pieces with skin.
- Cut tomato into small pieces and keep them aside
- Mixed the potato pieces with the onions and cook them for sometimes together in the cooker.
- When the potato is well cooked, add the tomato pieces in the cooker and mix with the potato and onion.
- Then decrease the pressure of the fire on the gas and cook it in low fire for sometime.
My mother never added any kind of spice other than onion and tomato and it used to taste so delicious. I never thought potato with skin would be so tasty. I was always curious, how she made the preparation delightful with potato skin and without adding any other flavors. I tried several time, but it was not good as my mother’s preparation.
Dolly’s mother’s recipe
Bihari Chicken curry
Ingredient: 500g chicken, Two Onions, Jeera( Cumin whole), Dhania
(Coriander whole), Four pieces of Chillies, Kali Mirch (Black pepper whole)
Two pieces of Haldi(Turmeric whole), Mustard Oil, Salt
- Chop the onion finely and then wash the chicken pieces.
- Crush, one table spoon Jeera( Cumin whole), one table spoon Dhania ( Coriander whole), one table spoon Kali Mirch (Black pepper whole), four pieces of chillies and two pieces of Haldi(Turmeric whole) on a stone and grind the spice very evenly.
- Heat the wok on the gas fire/ wood fire and put the oil. Heat the oil and fry the onion and mix the spice prepared on the stone.
- Cook the spice and onion for some time and then put the chicken in the spice. Add salt and then 1 cup of water.
- Cook till the chicken becomes soft.
Dolly says that there was no spice powder; one could buy from the market, her mother used to use whole seed like jeera, chillies, black pepper and crushed on a stone to prepare the spice( masala). Each dish used to taste unique.
Laxmi and Radha’s Grandmother’s recipe
Masu Chudwa’ (chicken with flat rice/ Poha
Ingredient: 1 kg chicken, Two Onions, Jeera (Cumin whole), Dhania (Coriander whole), Six Chillies( whole), Kali Mirch (Black pepper whole), Two pieces of Haldi (Turmeric whole), Rye Oil, Salt
- Boil 500 g flat rice and then drain the water and keep it aside.
- Grind the spices on the stones .
- Heat rye oil in the wok and put the spices and cook for sometime. Then add the water. Cook the chicken till it gets well cooked.
- After the chicken is cooked well, add the boiled the flat rice with the spicy chicken.
- Dadi used to prepare sometimes, to eat in the breakfast and also lunch.
Rabia’s mother’s preparation of bread
Indgredients: Makki ka Atta (Corn Flour), White Oil, Sugar
- Put oil in 500g corn flour and add two big table spoon of white oil. Then add boiling water to it .
- Mix the all the ingredients and use hand to mix that properly.
- When the atta is mixed properly then make a dough.
- Make a design with a comb on the soft dough.
- Take an egg white and in the inner part of the dough properly and then put it on the outer side as well with a brush.
- Then put the dough into the oven/ tandoor.
- Keep in there for an hour and serve it. My mother used to use clay vessel to make the bread.