“I was stuck at home, craving dishes I had no idea how to make”: How the pandemic inspired one Toronto woman to get cooking

“I was stuck at home, craving dishes I had no idea how to make”: How the pandemic inspired one Toronto woman to get cooking

Growing up, it seemed to me that no matter what life threw at you, the answer was always food. When the optometrist told my parents I needed glasses, they funnelled an endless stream of carrots and almonds in my direction. Neighbourly squabble? Fix it over a pot of pulao. Fell off a horse? Drink some rose-flavoured milk. Leaving home for university? Halwa-puri for breakfast. Coming back home from university? Fried chicken from Al-Baik.

Eating well is paramount in my family, and food is laced through all my memories, happy or otherwise. It’s almost as though the act of cooking has taken on an heirloom quality, inherited from one generation to the next, a skill that’s in our blood, invisible until we learn how to use it.

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My parents were born and raised in Punjab, Pakistan. My mother grew up in the Walled City of Lahore, and my father in a little agrarian village five hours south. As a city kid, my mother had an abundance of street food at her disposal, along with scratch-made family meals cooked up by the matriarchs in her multi-generational household. My father, on the other hand, had a more contentious relationship with food: even though his family owned and tended to large swaths of farmland, he was never allowed access to anything that was grown or raised on it. His mother was wed into a family that never accepted her, and as a result, she and her three boys were often left to fend for themselves.

At the age of 24, my father moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, eventually marrying my mother and bringing her along for the ride in a new, oil-rich city. There, they forged a life where food was always a focal point. My father was eager to thrust my two older brothers and me into experiences he never had, and my gregarious mother consistently filled every seat around our large dining table with friends and extended family. Every Friday, the five of us went in search of something new and delicious. Sometimes it was fresh seafood, sold on the shores of the Red Sea, cooked on the spot and eaten while sitting cross-legged in the salty sea breeze. Through experiences like this, I learned very early on that food has the power to transport.

Every new food experience further solidified this belief. It happened whenever I saw my grandmother pickling mangoes and carrots, thick orange oil dripping down her fingers. She’d tell me to open my mouth, and she’d deposit some of the spicy, tangy achaar on my tongue, where it took me on a flight to the mango fields of Rahim Yar Khan. It happened when my father would come home with pounds of crab. My mother and uncle would cook the pearly meat slicked with olive oil, chili powder and turmeric, then serve it with fresh tomatoes and mint, taking us all to the boats of the fishermen who pulled those crustaceans out of the sea. It happened again and again whenever I saw my mother cooking, channelling her own mother and grandmother through her hands but never breaking a sweat, as if buzzing with their energy—the heirloom on full display.

When I left Jeddah at 17 to study psychology and political science at the University of Toronto, this belief system travelled with me across the Atlantic. I made friends with other young women who loved food as much as I did, as though the universe was rewarding me for this set of ideals. We each got an allowance from our parents, which we mostly spent on food. We loved going to Chinatown and devouring congee at King’s Noodle or ordering the chilli-garlic lobster deal at House of Gourmet. Four of us made it a weekly endeavour to go for all-you-can-eat sushi at Aji Sai on Queen West, even bracing intense winter weather to do so. At that age, unlimited sushi was one of life’s most gloriously gluttonous experiences.

Eventually, as we moved from dorms to apartments and learned how to cook, we started a new tradition: Potluck Mondays. My social circle mimicked Toronto in the best of ways, with half of us being born and raised outside of Canada. I have my friends and Potluck Mondays to thank for my love of Filipino food, for Mexican food that goes beyond tacos and quesadillas, for Jamaican food that’s not just jerk chicken, for steamed buns, beef tendon and scotch bonnet peppers. Potluck Mondays lasted well into our mid-20s, through new jobs and marriages and children, carrying on in various iterations.

And then Covid happened.

Quarantine can be deeply isolating—even if you’re shacked up with your husband and two cats, like I was. As a part-time digital editor now working from home, the amount of free time I had was a bit unsettling. My husband and I love socializing and entertaining, so having to refrain from doing either made time stand still. Stuck in our apartment with all this time on my hands, I began to crave food I had no experience cooking. One late March morning, when the pandemic-induced bread-making craze had reached a fever pitch, I decided that I, too, would dabble with dough.

My first attempt was a disaster. I had followed a beginner’s recipe, but made the mistake of using whole-wheat bread flour, instead of white—a telling sign that I had no idea what I was doing. The finished loaf was a rock-hard weapon of sorts. I was disheartened but also enticed—even though the end result was inedible, the process was fun and took up a lot of what would have otherwise been idle time.

Iqbal’s first batch of bagels turned out perfectly. Photograph courtesy of the subject

I did a bit of research (whole wheat flour requires a lot more moisture than white flour, so mystery solved), and then decided I’d give bagels a try. After five hours that included rise time, a water bath, egg washing and seed sprinkling, my first-born bagels came out of the oven basically shouting, “You did it!” They were perfect, which propelled me into ever more elaborate bread-making. Focaccia came next and became something of an obsession. A labour of love and restraint—what with the 24-hour rise time and the willpower required to not eat the whole thing in one sitting—focaccia has become a staple in my home and we eat it with gusto whenever we feel like practising extreme self-care.

Her habit-forming focaccia, before and after it comes out of the oven

Buoyed by my success, I began to think of all the other foods I constantly craved. I thought about Emad Bakery in Jeddah, where the puffed pita breads would come straight out of the hot oven onto a conveyor belt that snaked around the entire place, landing in a basket where the owner would quickly pack up four or five into a bag and shove you on your merry way. Is there anything better than a cranky, no-nonsense baker whose bread is so good it makes your eyes roll to the back of your head? Not for me. I spent a few days reading recipes and eventually settled on one that seemed like it would yield the Emad standard. I spent a whole afternoon tending to my levain and then my dough, rolling it all out by 6 p.m. An hour later, I had a stack of glorious pita bread that sent me spinning with nostalgia. I stuffed them full of sheet-pan shawarma, and with each bite I was back in Jeddah.

Her sheet-pan chicken shawarma
And here’s that same shawarma, stuffed into one of her homemade pitas

Now I wanted more food from my childhood—the dishes that I associated with my mother or grandmother. These plates of food lived in a special, undisturbed chamber of my heart. I never made them myself for fear of ruining my memories. But since I couldn’t see my mother anytime soon, I sought to make them myself. I made khichdi for the first time, which is essentially a pot of rice and lentils cooked together with mild spices and alliums; my grandmother used to make it for me whenever I had an upset stomach. For my take, I added tons of green chilies, cumin seeds, garlic and ginger, topping it off with crispy turmeric potatoes and a drizzle of cilantro-chili butter. It hugged me from the inside. I sent my mother a photo of it, excited to get her reaction. “You have the flavour etched in your hands,” she told me over the phone. Perhaps I was beginning to come into my inheritance.

I eventually felt confident enough to attempt my mother’s biryani—her crowning glory. Her biryani is the talk of our entire extended family, on both sides. I began by listening to the saved voice memo she sent me in 2015, detailing the process. It’s always been daunting because she never measures anything but rather gives approximate amounts, or tells me to just “go by the look and smell of it.” I couldn’t find some of the ingredients, like the kewra water that goes in near the end, but I decided to try anyway. I have attempted it three times now, and each time I get closer and closer. More than anything, I want to perfect it to the point where I can write it down and save it for posterity, so that years from now, no matter who makes it, they’ll be transported right into my mother’s arms.

Her mother’s famous biriyani starts like this…
And, voilà, the finished dish

Now that we’re allowed to have a bubble of 10 people, I’ve been inviting a dear friend over every weekend. On these weekends, I turn her, her four-year-old daughter (who calls me G-Ma, short for godmother not grandmother) and my husband into my guinea pigs. Sometimes it goes really well, like with a piping-hot lasagna I made in a cast-iron pan. Sometimes it goes awry, like a Palestinian makloubeh that stuck to the bottom of the pot, refusing to tip out like a cake. In any case, I feel grateful that Toronto gave me these people, people who don’t shy away from trying new foods; people who understand the transformative experience of eating.

At 17, I thought I knew exactly what diversity of cuisine meant, but Toronto took me in her multicultural arms and opened my eyes even wider. With half the population of the city born outside of Canada, 200 ethnic groups and 140 languages spoken, I was reawakened to my long-held belief: food can and should take you outside of yourself.

In case you’re not hungry enough yet, here’s the whole incredible spread

In Toronto, there exists a natural symbiosis between the people eating, the people cooking, and the people writing about those who eat and cook. Whether it’s Nuit Regular’s pad thai, Lahori fare from the Karahi Boys, or Maha Barsoom’s foole and taameia, the cultural ancestry of these dishes is fundamental, and we appreciate the chefs, who have an intimate stake in the food they cook, because cooking is so very personal. This way, when we seek to be transported by the food we eat, we know exactly where we’re going. This is important for any community that hopes to find strength in diversity.

The food culture in any city is one beautiful indicator of how much value is placed on cultural pluralism. At 29, I feel lucky knowing I still have so much more left to discover.