Putting love on our plates: Cooking with my father

Anita Patel was born in Singapore and lives in Canberra, Australia.  She is as Australian as a banana paddle pop and a pair of sandy thongs and she is also a part of the Asian diaspora.  She has been published in various journals including Burley Issue One, Block 9, Conversations (Pandanus Press ANU) and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.  Her work has also appeared in the Canberra Times and in an anthology titled Pardon My Garden by Harper Collins.

I grew up in a house where no one really said, “I love you”.  Yet we always knew that we were loved.

Love was placed on our plates each night, love was put in our mouths each day,

Love sizzled in the fragrance of onion, garlic and ginger,

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Love smelt like cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns,

Love was the kiss of cumin, coriander and mustard seeds.

We were embraced by the fragrance of rice cooking and spices roasting.

Love tasted like soy basted roast chicken, spicy fish curry,

aloo ghobi, bubur ayam, pulut hitam, dhokla, gulab jamun,

satay, chap chay, sambal udang, papadum, ikan bilis, hot pot,

steamboat, laksa, kichiri, khadhi, curry puffs, chilli crab…

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Love was kneaded and rolled into flat bread – chapatti, roti, puri, paratha

Love was steamed and sautéed and grilled and fried and baked,

Love was dolloped out of soup pots, cauldrons and woks,

Love was in the thud of mortar and pestle pounding shrimp paste and chilli

into sambal belacan  and the sprinkle of kecap on a soft boiled egg,

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Love was pickled vegetables in noodle soup, ice cold lassi on hot summer days

and my grandmother’s Eurasian fruit cake bursting with the scent and flavour of  eternal Christmas.

Love was plates and stomachs filled and filled again, sweets crammed into the mouths of children,

spoonsful of happiness offered at odd times, tables groaning, pots overflowing…

This is the way of so many migrant households, where the preparation, serving and eating of food ties us to places and times long gone, yet still remembered and cherished. The flavours, sounds and smells of faraway homes are brought into our new homes in new countries.

This is how it is for so many of us who have let go of everything except the heartbeat of the kitchen.

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And now…

Love is cooking with my eighty-seven year old father, who once fried piles of crispy pakoras at

Australian school fetes, who concocted kulfi  (Indian ice cream) studded with nuts and

redolent with cardamom, whose chicken curry is legendary and who can still knock up two

delicious dishes in under an hour.

His utensils are battered and well used – blackened frying pans,

bent knives, turmeric-stained wooden spoons and his beloved spice grinder.

And so we cook together – I take notes and marvel at the quickness and certainty of his movements.

In so many ways he has become an old man – his walk is stooped, his hands are shaky and he is unsure on his feet – but in the kitchen, he is still a maestro.


He takes me out to the curry leaf tree to pick aromatic sprigs, he roasts and grinds spices from scratch – “Always remember: one part jeera (cumin) to two parts dhania (coriander)” – he chops vegetables, dices onions, garlic and ginger and creates a fish curry and aloo ghobi (cauliflower and potato curry) to take to his grandson’s house for dinner.

He misses my mother – his old sparring partner in the kitchen – but the rhythm of his cooking never misses a beat.

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In this familiar place of stove top, oven and larder, his bones don’t feel the ache of age.  His eyes are clear, his voice is calm, his thoughts are ordered, his hands are deft, his heart is light…

Nothing has changed.

In this familiar place, he is simply my father putting love on our plates like he has always done.

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© Anita Patel, 2018