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Spice Jars

Updated: 4 days ago

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.