Kashmiri recipes are meant to be passed down through teaching, from mother to daughter in cramped kitchens, standing together over pots of sputtering oil. They are not normally held over WhatsApp conferences, shouting over frozen frames and steamed-over camera lenses, from 4,000 miles away. But that is what happened to my family. Kashmiri traditionalists to the core, refusing even to put down our recipes on paper, trusting only our memories and our taste buds, my family found itself brought together by technology.
My parents and I moved to the UK in the mid 1990s, leaving behind my grandmother, who was insistent she would not come. Britain was cold. She did not know the market traders. They might try to cheat her. So, in the early years of the 21st century, we developed a curious tradition. Every time we visited India, we would bring her a new mobile phone, laptop, tablet. She would receive them joyfully, we would sit together, figure out how the device worked, we would promise each other daily conversations, web chats, video calls. Then we would go home, two weeks would pass, and neither my grandmother nor the rest of my family would ever mention the gadget again.
When lockdown began, my family made a concerted, all-hands effort to reach out to my grandmother. In our early years in Britain, living in council housing and death-trap apartments, we had to rely upon exorbitantly expensive phone scratchcards, which provided calls that seemed to finish even before they started. We became too used to silence. Part of it was our unspoken, mutual feeling of betrayal, that we had left to seek opportunity instead of trying to make it in India.
Fear played a large part in our decision. My grandmother lives alone for much of the year. We visit her when we can, but the modern world, as always, interferes. She teaches the neighbourhood children English, the sons and daughters of domestic workers. We begged her to stop, but she is a former headteacher, she does not take no for an answer, is iron-gazed, insistent. She would not let her children down. She would not stop teaching them, feeding them, giving them little gifts of cash to tide their families over when they were summarily fired by their employers. She paid for bus fares if they wanted to go back to their villages, from where millions migrate to Delhi each year for work in domestic service.
We were not taking no for an answer. We wanted to make sure she was all right, we said. We would finally use that room full of expensive electronics. We cajoled and cajoled, but finally resorted to blackmail, of the good old-fashioned Kashmiri inter-generational kind. “If you don’t teach us your recipes, how will my children eat them?” I asked. “If you do not teach him, then his children will grow up eating British food, and they will be sickly and pale,” said my mother. This did it. In the Indian imagination, British food is boiled cabbage, oxtail, suet – sadly, the gospel news of the British culinary revival has not yet reached their shores.
Covid has hit India hard. On social media, parents and relatives clamour for oxygen tanks, for blood donations, for plasma – they hurriedly share details of free beds, and barter and trade for medical supplies on Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter. But for us, all that technology had another purpose. How unexpected that an American chat platform should bring us, Kashmiris, together again, after so much silence, bringing back the memories of our past, passing on cultural memories that would certainly have vanished otherwise, through the digital ether.
We started last May. There was no time to lose. India was under lockdown, the whole country ground to a halt. A three-way video conference between me, my mum and my grandmother was set up. A few hours before, my grandmother called to cancel – “If I tell you my secrets now, then you’ll just get rid of me,” she said, in the usual Kashmiri way, half serious, half not. But, at the appointed hour, the call began, and she answered. After so many decades of begging, there she was, my grandmother, the image ghostly, the signal intermittent, the lighting atrocious, but her voice was strong, her hands steady, and it was time to cook.
My grandmother is proud, obstinate and she has never said the words “I love you”. She cooks to show love. Food is the eternal conversation topic, cause of conflict, motivating force of Kashmiris. If we are not eating it, we are cooking it, planning it, thinking about it. I shudder to think how many brilliant scientists, writers, poets, statesmen have been robbed from the world because we have devoted our brain capacity to food. It is our way of showing affection, of celebrating, of commiserating.
Kashmiri dishes are not particularly complicated: they require fresh, quality ingredients – green and black cardamom, ginger and fennel powders, lotus root, haak greens and, the hallmark of Kashmiri cuisine, the otherwise much-maligned kohlrabi.
But the one thing that you can never replicate with Kashmiri cuisine is its technique; subtle, lightning fast, turning feasts into disasters in moments, passed through centuries of trial and error, experimentation, argumentation, through the minds of Kashmiri women, from mother to daughter, mother-in-law to daughter-in-law – something I thought I would never be part of, being an only son. But times change, the world turns. As my grandmother said when I was 16, “Even Kashmiri men must be taught to cook in this modern world of ours.” However, we were robbed of even this familial closeness when my parents and I moved to Britain, and the closeness that has kept Kashmiri families together for generations, often living often in large multigeneration family compounds, was broken.
The most difficult questions cannot be transmitted via the word – when does the sound of a pressure cooker become a whistle? What is a pinch of something? What colour should fried spices be before one adds yoghurt or water? How sour should an apple be? But now, through the internet, all of these questions were ours to ask and hers to answer, and through video chat after video chat, buffering, pixelation, she did. We could ask as many times as we wanted, we could see exactly what she was doing, the shape of her hands, the colours and timings, something that phone calls and emails can never replicate.
I don’t remember much of that first conversation on WhatsApp, after my grandmother’s attempts at Zoom had failed on an old laptop with a broken battery. We made dum aloo, boiled potatoes fried in mustard oil, then cooked in a yoghurt-thickened sauce of cumin, cardamom, ginger, fennel and – the substance that gives Kashmiri cookery its classic flavour and look – Kashmiri chilli powder, gloriously red, mild, used much more for colour than heat. I don’t remember eating it. I was concentrating much more on her face, her hands, her voice – as the call kept cutting out, my mother and I shouting out for repeated instructions – on the fact that we were there together, brought together by unimaginable circumstances. Afterwards I nearly wept. Why hadn’t we done it before? What had kept us from doing something so simple as arranging a video call?
Over the next 10 months, she took us through her greatest hits, dishes that have been the background to my entire family’s lives. She showed us her rogan josh, mutton cooked in red chilli powder-laced oil until just tender – hint, go hard on the black cardamom; her chaman kaliya, slabs of the freshest paneer cooked in a turmeric sauce – hint, use as much asafoetida as you can tolerate; her old family recipe for noon chai, a tea that is salty, pink, life-affirming – hint, boil three times and cool to concentrate the flavour, and use the freshest, roasted almonds as a topping.
What we really wanted was her recipe for lamb yakhni. We weren’t obvious about it, of course, my mother and I. We cooked together the recipes we were given. We made no hints. We ate fish with apples, sour aubergine with tamarind, minced lamb kebabs embedded with dried plums. But the yakhni was the dish we were hoping for.
The recipe is an old family secret. It was taught to her by her mother, born and brought up in a Kashmiri family, temporarily and unhappily exiled for base capitalist reasons in Lahore. Yakhni is an unbeatable winter warmer, thickened with yoghurt, enriched with a dash of cream, a few strands of saffron, and ghee at just the right moment (I am forbidden to tell you exactly when), unctuous with mutton fat and bone marrow. A dish to celebrate life, banish darkness, to smack lips and drown in, in a post-prandial haze.
First, whole spices must be fried in oil – clove, cardamom, cinnamon, bay. Fried too little, and the dish will be lifeless, without fragrance. A second too much, and you will be left with nothing but bitterness and regret. The yoghurt must be fatty, thick. Dried mint, just a pinch, must be added right at the end to freshen the dish. Without WhatsApp we never would have known how much or when – but my grandmother cooked, and we watched and learned, and replicated, and gloried at a recipe we thought our hands would never make.
We had nearly a year of our conversations, held every Saturday afternoon. For that year, once a week I felt the 4,000 miles between us vanish; it was like she was there with me in the room, the years we had spent apart had never happened and I was finally playing my part in keeping our traditions alive. Every Saturday, these recipes, dozens, some of them hundreds of years old, and their secrets, argued over, perfected, generation after generation, information that could and would have been lost, were mine, for nothing at all. Borders all over the world were closing, air travel shutting down, but I had a conduit to the food that had nourished my family throughout the years. These secrets are written down now, the videos recorded – they’re no longer consigned to the inside of one person’s head, destined to be forgotten.
In March this year, what we had been dreading for the past year finally happened. My grandmother caught coronavirus. Our conversations were silenced. For a while it was touch and go. It seemed as if we would never hear the rest of her stories. We did not know what would happen.
But she got better. She survived. The cooking continues. “I’m glad,” she says, “that we talked to each other. I’m glad our culture won’t die. I’m glad you’ll tell people about us. I’m glad my mother’s recipes will still be remembered and tasted.” She is more frail than before, but every week she regains more of her strength. The colour in her cheeks returns fully just after we have finished cooking, when the meal is about to be plated in three locations across two continents.
As we eat together over our WhatsApp calls – free, endless, unimaginable! – we talk about Kashmir, our vanished homeland lost to violence. We might never eat lamb kebabs cooked fresh on a charcoal brazier on the side of Dal Lake, never bite into goshtaba and rista and tabak maaz at Ahdoos again. We might never eat freshly roasted corn and lotus root seeds and apples, sold by housewives on the sides of tulip fields and saffron farms. My grandmother roots through her house, through metal wardrobes and old wedding clothes, pulling out photo albums of people long gone. She has thousands of photographs that one day I will digitise, thousands of stories that must be written down, and that’s what we started to do, with her painstaking corrections texted afterwards through a too-small digital keyboard.
My grandmother, my mother and I, we talk about our lives, how busy we are – our talk moved from just food to every other aspect of our lives, as happens the world over – how ridiculous it is that something like a global pandemic would bring us together after all this time. We say we love each other. We talk about the memories brought back by the meals we cook, the divorces, the marriages, the deaths, the first days at school, the last days we saw each other. We talk about the distance between us, we talk about my grandfather, who is no longer with us, and what he would have made of all this, what recipes he would have shared. We even tried to cajole my grandmother into a YouTube video series, but that was a step too far. She has taken to emojis – my recent attempt at a yakhni was described as “fire”. That was enough.
How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina is out now (Little, Brown (£14.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply