EEven before my son was born, I imagined everything I was going to feed my future children. They came home from school with backpacks on their shoulders and bellies rumbling, and asking what was for dinner. I imagined them with round, cheerful faces, eating the same meals I grew up with. I filled their plates with warm white rice, garlic dal topped with cilantro, and spicy fried fish. They ate with their hands of course, like any well-behaved child of Bangladeshi descent, skillfully picking up small bones and squeezing lime wedges onto the crispy skin of the fish, which they would keep until the end as a treat, licking the prickly juice of their fingers.
I already knew the satisfaction I would get to see them eat; and also knew, the importance of conjuring to choke – the evil eye – saying “Masha’Allah”, thanking God for their good appetite and their plump legs. I would teach them to say “Bismillah” before each meal and “Shukr alhamdulillah” when they were finished, making sure they were aware of the food donation they had received.
Their favorite dish would, of course, be chicken and potato curry – every Bangladeshi kid thinks their Ammu aloo murghi is the best in the world; even now this is my main request when i visit my parents. The thought that I might one day make this “best in the world” dish for my child was one of the things that most excited me about motherhood.
When I married my Ashkenazi Jewish husband, our worlds came together in every way: our beliefs, our families, and our favorite foods. My vision for our future family meals also evolved: Chicken soup would accompany chicken curry at our Friday night table, marking the end of Jummah, the Islamic holy day, and the start of the Jewish Sabbath. Knowing that our future children would carry two strong legacies within them, we are committed to raising them as fully as possible in both traditions. We would celebrate all the holidays; we took our children to Arabic lessons and Hebrew lessons; we went to the masjid and the shul; we sang Bengali nursery rhymes to them and hummed Ashkenazi lullabies, and – of course – we ate food from both cultures.
Helped by the incomparable Claudia Roden and her Jewish food book, I decided to learn to cook traditional Jewish dishes. I grated potatoes to make Hanukkah latkes. For Purim, I tried hamantaschen, the traditional triangular cookie filled with a variety of sweet fillings. My husband showed me how to fold the dough and we stuffed them with the signature poppy seed filling. My first attempt was slightly bitter – a common problem I later learned that can be avoided by using very fresh poppy seeds and milk – but the shapes at least held up. I learned how to mix matzo flour with ground almonds to make kneidlach that swells beautifully when placed in a pot of bubbling chicken soup. I even dabbled in Jewish recipes from other parts of the world, making chraime, a Moroccan tomato fish dish similar to the sour and spicy Bangladeshi tenga I grew up with, and kzitzot, patties. of chicken and beef similar to our koftas. .
These dishes have joined my repertoire of Bangladeshi specialties – aromatic kurma and pulao, bhortas of mashed eggplant, roasted garlic and fresh green peppers, tempered dals with ghee, dried red chili and panch puran – which my husband also learned to cook. My favorite of all is her dim biran – omelet made from finely chopped onions, green peppers and cilantro, with a pinch of turmeric and deep-fried until puffy and crisp around the edges. It’s a dish my dad made for me when I was a kid – even now, when I come home, he’s cooking breakfast for me. My grandmother made some for my father. And now my husband will do it for our son. I am reassured to know that we can now prepare recipes for each other’s culture; rather than having “his” and “mine” we are mixed – the food we cook and eat is ours. Now, some of our signature dishes are only “fusion”: the maach bora, or fish cutlets, are coated in matzo flour for more crispiness before being fried, the strudels are sprinkled with dried coconut – a necessary component of Bangladeshi desserts.
When our son was born, food seemed to take on even greater importance; it is one of the ways in which I feel able to show the different parts of his heritage in the most tangible way in our day to day life. At the time of weaning, I spent a lot of time thinking about what her first solid food taste would be. It is a symbolic moment as much as a milestone in development – and one which is marked in many cultures by a specific ritual. In Islamic tradition, this is called tahnik – where date pulp is smeared on the palate of a newborn to encourage it to suckle. Among Bengali Hindus, the mukhé bhaath ceremony – literally, “rice in the mouth” – marks an infant’s first taste of this sacred basic grain. The meaning of weaning also exists in Jewish tradition, with the story in Genesis of Abraham – a prophet also recognized in Islam – throwing a big party on the day his son Isaac began weaning.
I wondered how we were going to mark the occasion. Now more than ever, celebrating milestones seems important – a reminder of continuing lifecycles in a time of so much uncertainty. Born at the height of the pandemic last year, our son did not have the usual celebrations for his aqeeqah, the Islamic baptismal ceremony, or his brit milah, the Jewish ritual circumcision; both were small events without the presence of extended family or friends. But it was important that we mark them, nonetheless.
I called my mother. He seems ready to start the solids, I say. What should I feed him first? From over 3,000 miles away, his voice told me what I already knew. Start with rice. You can do it yourself. I’ll tell you how.
I did what she asked me to do. I soaked the rice grains in cold water to soften them before grinding them into a paste. I used an electric grinder – my ancestors would have done it using a sheel bati, a heavy slab and a grinding wheel. Along with the finely crushed rice, I added boiled water and cooked it until it looked like a thick porridge. I added breast milk and whipped regularly until the mixture looked like double smooth cream.
Our son’s interest in food grew over the months, often observing what we eat and sometimes trying to get things off our plates. He sits with us at the mealtable, watching us bring the food to our mouths and mimicking our chewing. Now, finally, it was her turn. Sitting upright in my husband’s lap, our son watched curiously as I offered him the spoon. “Bismillah,” I whispered. He opened his small mouth, somehow knowing exactly what to do. I held the spoon firmly as he licked the soft silicone edges, tasting the familiar milk and new rice. When he was done, I offered him another spoonful. More confident this time, blinking regularly, he opened his mouth wider and took the food in the spoon. We repeated this several times before he decided he was satisfied. Taking him in my arms, I kissed his round cheeks, wiping the milk from his chin. This is how we marked the occasion – his first food tasting – as a family of three, sitting around our dining table, the first time in many.
Like all the first – to stand, walk, applaud – one day eating will become commonplace; something my baby will do out of habit, routine, necessity. But I hope that the meaning, the blessing of this act, will remain. The food I prepare for him encompasses the multitude of generations from two different parts of the world who have lived, survived, thrived through thick and thin and have come together in our child. It constitutes the very foundations of its rich and mixed future.
As I peel and dice some steaming carrots for his next meal, I wonder how our son will taste at home. When he’s grown up and gone, what dishes will he ask me to cook when he comes back for a visit? I also wonder what his taste of the world will be like. I hope that’s all a good meal should be: varied, satisfying and nourishing in every way.
Shahnaz Ahsan is the author of Hashim & Family (John Murray, £ 14.99)