Updated: May 29
My mother drops cinnamon sticks, cardamom and curry leaves into the silver pot on the stove. I stand on my tiptoes to see what she’s brewing for dinner.
“Why do you add those?” I ask her, pointing to the leaves and sticks and seeds. “You always pull them out after the meat’s cooked anyway.”
“For fragrance,” she explains, stirring the pot with a wooden spoon. “Here, try.” She motions for me to smell the spices with her free hand.
I wrinkle my nose at the scent. “It’s so strong.”
“That’s good,” my mother laughs. “That’s what draws out the taste.”
For the rest of the afternoon, I question her in the way that only a curious five-year old can. I ask her about the different dried spices that fill glass jars in the cabinet. She holds each one out for me to smell and tells me to guess their names. I list each one off: paprika, cayenne, cloves, star anise.
Sometimes I am wrong and she corrects me, the golden bangle on her wrist glinting as she returns the spices to their shelves. My mother teaches me new names, new spices and the fragrance that corresponds to each one. I store the memories away for later, as if tucking them into little jars that will gather dust with time.
Once the sun sinks and the sky darkens, it is time for iftar. We are now permitted to eat after a full day of fasting. All four of us — my mom, dad, sister and I — sit at the kitchen table and stack our plates with food. My mouth waters at the sight of all the dishes there are. Though some are from the South Asian grocery store, most are my mother’s recipes.
On the table, there are samusas stuffed with spiced potatoes, pretzel-shaped jalebi soaked in sweet syrup, fried potato pakoras, chickpea chotpoti, fried eggplant, both chicken and beef curry, kebabs, basmati rice and chilled salad. After piling my plate with a bit of everything, I whisper bismillah to bless my food.
While I tuck into my plate of rice and potatoes, I think about my day at school. The students in my class spoke about Ramadan like it was the Keto diet or some brand new juice cleanse — and not a holy time of fasting, prayer and reflection.
“Why can’t you have gum?” someone asked me for the fiftieth time. “You’re not technically ‘eating’ it.”
“I would never be able to fast,” another one of my classmates added. “I play soccer so I need my energy.” (Many Muslim athletes continue to play sports while fasting!)
My culture was being held under a microscope — and I couldn’t even say anything about it. Who would side with me? I had high school teachers who only spoke of Islam in the context of terrorism and classmates who argued that we shouldn’t help Syrians because they were just a bunch of ISIS members.
Even when I did try to interject, I wasn’t considered “Muslim enough” to have an opinion (according to non-Muslims). I wasn’t Arab and therefore, I didn’t count.
It wasn’t like I could find solace in being Asian either. When I told a classmate of mine that I was, I was met with a derisive snort. “Don’t you have to be Chinese or Japanese to be Asian? You’re not Asian Asian, you’re Indian.”
I wasn’t Indian — I was Bengali. But was I even that? I had gone to Bangla school when I was younger, but family friends still detected flaws each time I spoke Bengali. She’s a local now, they would laugh. You can hear the English in her accent.
I tried telling kids I was American too — and why shouldn’t I be? I was born in Texas and my earliest memories were in the U.S. But having the highest English marks in my class and the ability to list all fifty states from the top of my head didn’t make me American. It just made others think I was a nerd.
Who was I then? Had I pulled myself apart only to find that I was no greater than the sum of my parts? I was simultaneously too much and not enough.
I realize I've barely touched my plate. “I’m not hungry,” I say to no one in particular. I shove my plate away, the fragrance that once felt like home now stifling.
I can smell spices wafting from the kitchen. My mother sings in Bengali as she stirs the pot, the warm notes floating through the air with the scent of curry leaves.
I watch her cook, thinking about the hours we used to spend in the kitchen when I was younger. I would teach her to make fried chicken after she showed me how to use ghee for curry. But now, I no longer eat meat or ghee — methane emissions — and don’t know how to tell her how ashamed I feel each time I forget a prayer or fail to understand my grandmother’s rapid Bengali. And so I don’t.
“What are you adding in the pot?” I ask instead, propping my arms on the counter. I used to have to stand on my tiptoes to see the contents of the stove pots. Now, I’m taller than my mother.
“I'm making your vegan tofu,” she tells me, pronouncing vegan like veh-gan.
“Vee-gan,” I correct automatically.
“Vee-gan,” my mother parrots back to me. She plops a few diced onions into the pot.
I tell her which spices I think she should add: cayenne, paprika, chili. She draws the glass jars from kitchen cabinets and I add a pinch of each into the pot. I want to tell her that I will miss her once I go away for college. I want to tell her everything.
But I just close my eyes and let the smell of her cooking, warm and vibrant, wash over me like an embrace. I picture the spice jars on the shelves and hope that my fingerprints will stay pressed against the glass even after I am gone.
Anthropologists believe that food is critical in unlocking our cultural identity. I think of that each time I inhale the scents of the South Asian spices I’ve grown up with. Each fragrance unlatches a flood of memories: days spent stirring pots with wooden spoons alongside my mother, nights spent setting the table for iftar.
But spices, to me, are more than mere memories. To me, they represent the parts of my culture and heritage that I thought I had lost forever. I used to unspool the different pieces of myself — Bengali, Asian, Muslim, American — into separate little jars, storing each one away until it was fit to use. But now I pour the contents of my identity into one big pot, letting them meld into something wonderful and full and free.
"Spice Jars" is a love letter to the vibrant Bengali and South Asian spices my mother introduced me to at a young age. Cooking with my mom has not only taught me about how spices are used to add fragrance in various dishes, but also instilled in me the importance of preserving my heritage. As a Bengali-American Muslim, food has helped me make sense of being a second-generation immigrant and a woman of color – for all the joys and troubles this entails.
Biography: Hi! My name is Nadia and I am a high school senior living in Waterloo, Ontario. My writing has been internationally recognized by organizations such as The New York Times as part of their NYT Summer Reading Contest, and Write the World. In my spare time, I can be found analyzing screenplays, listening to Taylor Swift and watching 2000s teen dramas.
Cover Photo Source: https://smittenkitchen.com/2010/02/how-to-make-an-overly-obsessive-spice-rack/