How cultural food empowers Pakistani women across generations

Ifrah Akhtar explores her family’s journey through Pakistani food, and its ability to carry culture and impart narratives.

Pakistani food shapes a family

Okra stir fry - Okra is a vegetable commonly used in Pakistani food.
Photo credit: Kalyan on Flickr.

We’ve all had moments when we are sorting through past memories and come across something special. For me, that was finding an academic paper I wrote during my undergraduate years at Rutgers University. In the paper, I explored how food is empowering, carries culture, and shapes the next generations of a family.

This recalled a memory of when my parents came to visit me in college and we had an emotional day together. It was a day of firsts — my parents trying Malaysian food for the first time, their first time having kakigōri (Japanese shaved ice), and us sitting down to discuss my future plans, specifically marriage. As I look back on that day, I realize that our interactions with food created space for interesting conversations. How we interact with food, and the stories and cultures behind it, influence our personalities.

In the beginning of my senior semester at Rutgers, we discussed how institutions shape us. An institution can be defined as any structure,  practice, or system that has an impact on you. It struck me that food, in itself, could be an institution. It’s something we engage with on a daily basis. I decided to explore how Pakistani food shapes my family, especially the women, and connects them to each other.

Both my parents are immigrants to the United States. My mom was the first woman in her family to come to America, and I remember her telling me how different the food was here. The whole concept of fast food was new to her, and my parents made countless trips to fast food restaurants.

Growing up, out of all my extended family, we were the only ones to go out for dinner every week. It was important to my Mom and Dad to instill a sense that meal time was family time within their children. I personally looked forward to going to Pizza Hut every week; it was ironically as American as I could get. The traditions of food/family time have continued to evolve as my siblings and I grew and when my grandma first came to America.

See also: Communication and complexity: The essence of cooking for others

The food tree: Matriarchal figures

A diagram representing the various members of Ifrah's family, charted as a family tree, with corresponding dishes to each family member
Image courtesy of the author.

In the family food tree I’ve created, I follow the matriarchal figures in my family. The first person is my mom’s grandma, Aziz Bibi. My great-grandmother never came to America and my family doesn’t talk too much about her, but the small snippets of her narrative that come through have to do with food. My grandma opens up about the food Aziz Bibi loved to make:

“Zarda was her speciality. She would make it for special occasions, and it was my favourite food. She loved it so much, my father bought her a special shalwar kameez suit that matched the color of the rice. Everyone would come to eat her rice.”

Zarda, or sweet yellow rice, Pakistani food passed down through the author's family.
Photo courtesy of the author.

My grandma continued her mother’s tradition by making the zarda, or sweet saffron rice, on special occasions. She makes it for our neighbors, her friends, and even for some of our teachers in school. Her zarda varies from her mother’s in minute ways, mainly in how she seasons and garnishes it. My grandma adds raisins, pistachios, and slivered almonds to create various textures throughout the dish. When she’s feeling extra celebratory, she sprinkles silver foil on the rice, making it seem like a celestial star. Her main inspiration for making it still rests in remembering her mother and childhood in Pakistan.

My mother, Aroosa, isn’t a fan of sweets. As a result, she doesn’t really like to eat the zarda my grandma makes. Her favourite dish, as illustrated on the family tree, is kofta. Kofta Salan, or meatball curry, is one of the first recipes my grandma taught my mother.

kofta curry, a Pakistani food dish that has been passed down through the author's family.
Photo courtesy of the author.

She would help my grandma make the meatballs and prepare them for the broth to cook. Unlike my grandma, my mom likes to change recipes drastically. Her kofta are tinier than my grandma makes, because she prefers the idea of a “one-bite kofta.”

My mom also likes to stray from beef and make chicken kofta — she even makes fish ones. Her decisions to change recipes and mix things up definitely speaks to her personality. My mom mentioned that the first time she felt truly a part of American society was when she made kofta and spaghetti for me when I was ten. Successfully combining her culture’s recipe with an “American” family dinner made her feel more at home here.

The food tree: Dishes passed down to siblings

My siblings and I have our own favourite Pakistani food that our mom has passed down to us:

Ifrah: We used to grow okra in our backyard garden. I would be the first to eagerly pick, wash, and prepare it for my mother to make her okra stir-fry with. To me, it was about taking a simple vegetable and making it taste like magic. The okra from our garden always tasted better than what we bought in store. I also admire how okra slices look like stars; every time I eat this dish, it makes me feel like I’m having a bowl of wishes. 

Butter chicken, a South Asian and Pakistani food passed down through the author's family.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Munahil: “I like mom’s butter chicken with rice. I like meat, and we used to go to lots of weddings where they would have butter chicken. It is my favorite part of celebrating.” 

Tahreem: “Mommy’s roast chicken is my favorite. She’s famous in our family for it. The meat is so flavourful and melts off the bone. I brought it to school with me for a cultural celebration, and everyone finished it really fast. They told me my mom should open a restaurant.”

Reflecting on my sisters’ and my experiences, we each love the food we do for specific reasons. When I was being raised, my parents weren’t in the best financial situation, so it was all about making simple food taste good. 

When Munahil was growing up, my parents had just moved to a new house and started making many friends. We were invited to a wedding or celebration almost every single weekend. Most of these gatherings had butter chicken, and Munahil would drink it like soup. To her, the dish symbolizes celebrating. 

Signature roast chicken, a Pakistani food dish passed down through the author's family.
Photo courtesy of the author.

For Tahreem, my parents had moved yet again by the time she was growing up. This time, my mom threw herself more into cooking, since it was the first house that was truly ours; we weren’t sharing it with relatives. My mom held many dinner parties in the first few years we lived in our house, and Tahreem grew up around this atmosphere. Since chicken is relatively cheap and a great dinner party protein, my mom set out to perfect it. She won’t share her recipe with us, but our family and friend circles consider it legendary. 

The last item on the family food tree is the teacup in the right hand corner. Tea is a major part of Arabic and Pakistani food, and of those cultures. We have it every morning and night. 

The way each of the women interact with tea varies. The women in my family adore tea, and we will argue over whose version is the best. My grandma adds more herbs to her tea and prefers it pungent, my mom likes floral teas and when she makes it, she adds dried flowers to it. My sisters prefer green tea, Munahil likes it strong and with only honey, while Tahreem prefers her tea light and with sugar. I see myself as a combination of everyone else. My tea varies depending on my mood, and will change accordingly. 

See also: Making It: Vietnamese Canadian Chef Patrick Do on a journey through food and identity with Do Chay Restaurant

Power in the kitchen

According to Pat Mainardi’s essay, Politics of Housework, women have power in domestic spaces. While patriarchy relies on controlling womens’ bodies and certain spaces, the kitchen is a complex institution adhering to, but also rebelling against, patriarchal power. 

The kitchen is seen as a domestic space, where the woman rules and the man rarely engages. Cooking food and feeding the family is all part of nurturing children and society. However, when you move outside the home and enter the professional kitchen, the woman doesn’t dominate that space.

In the media, male chefs are all too commonly in the spotlight, and their cooking is represented as valid and professional. This is slightly infuriating, but it’s also an interesting intersection of capitalism and a gendered space — when it’s for profit, cooking is dominated by men. 

In my family, the kitchen has always been gendered. I’ve heard “it’s women’s work,” from relatives all my life. Yet, I want to highlight the importance of the performance space of the kitchen.

In my infographic, the food in my family didn’t just serve a biological function, but it carried narratives and allowed us to interact with the past. The power to create something that tells a story and then literally becomes a part of you is incredible; it’s something that isn’t always realized. 

Pakistani food, family, and culture

I chose to leave my father out of the family tree because he’s often the one who dictates what’s for dinner. He guides the narratives that will be on our plate, and I’m not sure he even realizes this. Highlighting the women was important to me, because it showed our awareness of how Pakistani food has shaped our identity, even if we don’t get to have them every night. 

My culture is patriarchal and men have the final say in many aspects of it, but that doesn’t simply mean the Pakistani women in my family fall into blind obedience regarding food. There is a degree of mutual respect when it comes to the kitchen and the ability to turn ingredients into a nourishing meal gets a high level of reverence. My father sees food as serving a more biological function than being akin to a form of storytelling. Having more conversations on what food means to us as a family has opened his eyes to the meaning behind the dishes described in this article.

In Mainardi’s essay, she criticizes men and how they find housework boring and trivial. I agree with Mainardi’s criticism and my food tree demonstrates that housework can be powerful. It’s the building of narratives, the breaking away from this idea that women’s work is docile or needs to be controlled.

Specifically engaging with food and food culture, the process of creation in the kitchen is extremely powerful. As shown in the family food tree, each dish the women interacted with has become a part of them. 

That’s why food has every right to be on a family tree; it’s a carrier of culture. I am in awe with the ways Pakistani food has shaped me today. The women in my family never let the kitchen define them, and they didn’t accept that work as menial and degrading. 

The proof is in how the rest of my family treats it. It’s empowering to hear how coveted my mom’s roast chicken is, or how our American neighbours will knock on our door and ask for my grandma’s sweet, yellow rice. Growing up with so much inspiration, power, and love placed in the kitchen, my sisters and I have become avid food connoisseurs.

We take it seriously. We understand that behind every piece of meat, grain of rice, or dollop of cream, there is a culture, a story, a woman, coming alive. 

See also: Khabaar: an immigrant’s journey, Bengali food and being at home

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