Saturday, April 24, 2010


I’ll never forget the first time I bit into a simosa. It was in the mid 1970’s. We were a young couple, invited to the home of a recent acquaintance from Africa. There was sat, in a social crowd around a long table. I did it innocently. There it was, a tidy little triangular meat pie. I thought it was kind of cute. My experience with meat pies up to that point had been—I now realize—limited to the big round tasteless English meat pies my granny used to have—English meat pies, thick with pastry, bland as tofu. I imagined the simosa to be a little tart, related to the English meat pie the way a lemon tart is related to lemon pie. And so, I opened my mouth and bit right in.
The results were—surprising. At the centre of that little turnover was a ball of pure powdered fire. It hit my tongue. It burned a little. It exploded. And that’s when my high-pressure automatic sprinkler system kicked in. The simosa and some companion liquids shot across the room with the terrifying force of a spluttering cough. Stuff poured out of my nose, my eyes, my underarms. A fine mist escaped my eardrums. I felt profound gratitude for the impermeable nature of my belly button. I made a mental note to myself. In future, be careful around spices!
If you’d asked me at that time whether I knew about spices I would have said, “Of course I do. I grew up in a family that used salt.”
We ate salt on roast beef and beefsteak and ground beef. We ate salt on roast pork and pork chops and sausages. We ate salt on roast chicken and fried chicken and even on canned chicken. We ate it on roast lamb and lamb chops, on peas and carrots and corn and turnips, on fresh tomato halves and cucumber slices. And salt wasn’t the only spice we had either. We also had pepper. We ate that along with salt on eggs and mashed potatoes. What’s more, we ate cinnamon, usually in rice pudding which we had for dessert any time we had roast beef and mashed potatoes. Yes, I would have said I knew about spices.
By and by we had a baby and hired a builder to build us a house. People said to be careful in our new neighbourhood. A lot of foreigners were moving to that part of town. And I didn’t like the sound of their warnings. I made a mental note to be the kind of person who would welcome foreigners to my country.
We chose an empty lot between two occupied houses. I imagined my future relationship with my neighbours would be like Wilma’s to Betty on the Flintstones. We’d have coffee, we’d chat, we’d exchange recipes.
One happy evening we got the key to our new house. We picked up a few things, put them in the back of the car and rushed over. It felt like the best Christmas present ever, our new house. We wanted to walk every inch of the carpet, stand in every room, admire the space in all the closets. But we’d only been there a few minutes when the doorbell rang. There stood a teen-age girl, shy, talking fast, sent over. We live next door, she said. My mother wants you to come for tea. It was getting late. Soon it would be time to put the baby to bed. We didn’t really want to go for tea right now, but it seemed rude to do otherwise. So we locked the door, and went over.
Our house was a perfectly square, black-and-white bilevel, but the house next door was something else entirely. At that time we had no idea that the empty lot where our house now stood was once a communication line between two neighbours. The neighbour on one side would open her kitchen window and if the neighbour on the other side also had her kitchen window open, they would chat back and forth across our lot, in Punjabi. Now we found ourselves in a custom built house like no other we had ever experienced. Towards the back sprawled a long wing of bedrooms. At the front, up six or seven steps, was a six-sided turret with no furniture and a row bright windows facing Mecca. It was the prayer room. The place smelled spicy.
Our hostess was Rasheeda. She seated us and prepared the tea. Conversation felt stiff and awkward. Now our baby gave a little cry and soon enough there was another smell. Uncomfortably we asked for a washroom where we might change a diaper. .
“I’ll take him,” said our hostess. Above our protests he was whisked away, as if on a magic carpet. In only a moment he had returned, laughing and cooing and smelling like baby powder.
Rasheeda was saying: “Every day I pray to God let somebody move in with a baby for me to look after. I love babies.”
She ran a day home. We’d had never been the answer to anybody’s prayers before. It seemed like a large responsibility we were taking on. But given the fact that my baby was smelling fresh, and laughing, snuggling against this woman who lived right next door, I made a mental note to hire her when I returned to work.
It is so wonderful to find a reliable sitter when you go back to work. And yet, there remains some part of you that believes your baby ought to be a tiny bit sad to see you go. My baby hid his sadness with great courage, and put on a laughing face. What I didn’t know, at first, was that my baby’s early life was spent eating in two solitudes. At home he ate pork chops and mashed potatoes. At the home next door, the home of Aunty and Uncle, he chowed down on simosa and chicken so hot you had to serve it with yoghurt. I began to suspect something when Rasheeda took on the task of bringing together the two solitudes. Soon enough that food was pouring out of her house and into mine. I’d be frying up a pan of pork chops when the doorbell would ring. There would stand aunty with a bowl or a plate. “Just some food for all of you, she’d say. My Markie loves my food.
“Eat your pork chops,” I’d say to MY Markie. But my words went unheeded. He was wolfing down nan bread and Rasheeda special rice. He was offering a taste to me.
By the time he was ten my kitchen had changed a little. In the cupboard was a small jar of curry powder that I occasionally sprinkled on chicken, and I had grown accustomed to Rasheeda’s special rice—flavoured with onions simmered in cinnamon and cardamom, tossed with cubes of something Rasheeda called cow meat. I had come to see this delicacy as a one-dish variation on the old roast beef and rice pudding dinner.
I had long since given up the notion of welcoming foreigners. Granddad would come to visit. Standing at our living room window, watching the inevitable game of street hockey, he would exclaim: “Looks like the Little United Nations out there. Where do all of them come from?”
“Born in Canada,” I’d reply. “Their parents are from India and Pakistan and Kenya and the Philippines, and Hong Kong and other places too.”
For dinner we’d have roast beef. Mark would reach for the pepper shaker and hold it above the mashed potatoes. “Oh no,” Granddad would gasp. “The top has come off the pepper. Get that boy a new plate. The potatoes are black with pepper.”
But Mark would guard his plate in rigid defence. “No,” he would cry. “I want this much pepper on my potatoes.”
“He’s used to eating spicy food,” I’d say mildly. “He eats it at Rasheeda’s.”
The 21st century brought changes. The kids grew up. The day home closed. Rasheeda moved to Ottawa. Mark dropped by our kitchen on his way home from playing a game of hockey. He was opening a package sent by Rasheeda. And then, a cry of pleasure. He held up a book and read the title: “Muslim Cookery
4th Edition, compiled by Ottawa Muslim Women’s Auxiliary.
I was cautious, though wiser about spices than I used to be. . I felt it was my duty to warn. To use this book he would need cumin, coriander, several colours of cardamom and black pepper corns. Bay leaves, tippali, long peppers, short peppers, medium peppers, chili peppers. He would need cinnamon sticks and whole cloves and nutmeg. He would need ghee, whatever that was.
“Mother,” he said, “Ghee is clarified butter. And I have most of that stuff in my cupboard. I can easily get anything I don’t have.”
Now he was reading the preface. The cookbook was a Muslim cookbook. The preface said you wouldn’t find any pork, bacon or lard in here.
Unlike most of my cookbooks, organized by category, salads in one spot, cakes in another, this one was organized by country. There were recipes from Albania, Bangladesh Guyana India Iran Iraq and Indonesia. There were recipes from Malaysia, north Lebanon Syria Saudi Arabia, Algeria morocco Tunisia, South Africa Tanzania turkey and the West Indies. The two largest sections were reserved for Pakistani recipes and Canadian recipes. The Pakistani section held some recipes we knew from Rasheeda’s cooking. The Canadian section sported salads, and beefsteak, burgers and barbecuing suggestions.
As Mark danced out merrily, Muslim Cookery in hand, I made a mental note to remember the little Canada where I was born, the Canada in which I grew up, the Canada where everyone looked the same, and talked the same, and ate the same. And I made another mental note to think of Rasheeda, how she came knocking at the door of my little Canada, how she took my baby and took my hand and invited me into a newer, bigger Canada, how she fed me spices, fed them one at a time, slowly so I could get used to them. I wanted to remember how, when she ushered me into the bigger newer Canada, she also made me feel—made me feel welcome there.

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