Even before my son was born, I used to imagine all the things I would feed my future children. They would come home from school, backpacks hanging off their shoulders and tummies rumbling, and ask what was for dinner. I pictured them round-faced and cheerful, tucking into the same meals that I grew up with. I would heap their plates with hot white rice, garlicky dal garnished with coriander, and spicy fried fish. They would eat with their hands of course, like any well brought-up child of Bangladeshi origin, deftly picking out the tiny bones, and squeezing wedges of lime over the crispy fish skin, which they would save until last as a treat, licking the tangy juice off their fingers.
I already knew the satisfaction I would get from watching them eat; and knew too, the importance of warding off chok – the Evil Eye – by saying “Masha’Allah”, thanking God for their hearty appetites and chubby legs. I would teach them to say “Bismillah” before every meal and “Shukr alhamdulillah” when they finished, making sure they were aware of the gift of nourishment they had received.
Their favourite dish would, 当然, be chicken and potato curry – every Bangladeshi child believes that their Ammu’s aloo murghi is the best in the world; even now it is my top request when I visit my parents. The thought that I could one day make this dish “the best in the world” for my child was one of the things that excited me the most about motherhood.
When I married my Ashkenazi Jewish husband, our worlds merged in the fullest of ways: our faiths, our families and our favourite foods. The vision I had of our future family meals evolved too: chicken soup would sit alongside the 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 in them two strong heritages, we pledged to raise them as fully as we could in both traditions. We would celebrate all the festivals; we would cart our children to Arabic classes and Hebrew classes; we would attend masjid and shul; we would sing them Bengali rhymes and hum Ashkenazi lullabies, and – of course – we would eat the food from both cultures.
Aided by the incomparable Claudia Roden and her Book of Jewish Food, I decided to learn how to cook traditional Jewish dishes. I grated potatoes to make latkes at Hanukkah. For Purim I tried my hand at hamantaschen, the traditional triangular biscuit filled with a variety of sweet fillings. My husband showed me how to fold the pastry and we stuffed them with the signature poppy seed filling. My first attempt was slightly bitter – a common issue, I later learned, which can be avoided by using very fresh poppy seeds and some milk – but the shapes held at least. I learned to blend matzo meal with ground almonds to make kneidlach which puff up beautifully when dropped into a pan of bubbling chicken soup. I’ve even branched out into Jewish recipes from other parts of the world, making chraime, a Moroccan tomatoey fish dish not unlike the Bangladeshi sour and spicy tenga I grew up with, and kzitzot, patties made of chicken and beef similar to our koftas.
These dishes have joined my repertoire of Bangladeshi specialities – aromatic kurma and pulao, bhortas of mashed aubergine, roasted garlic and fresh green chillies, dals tempered with ghee, dried red chilli and panch puran – all of which my husband has also learned to cook. My favourite of all is his dim biran – omelette made with finely chopped onions, green chillies and coriander, with a sprinkle of turmeric and fried until puffy and crispy at the edges. It is a dish my father made for me when I was a child – even now, when I go home, it’s a breakfast treat he makes for me. My grandmother used to make it for my father. And now my husband will make it for our son. I am comforted knowing that we can now prepare recipes from each other’s culture; rather than having “his” and “mine” we are blended – the food we cook and eat is ours. 现在, some of our signature dishes are uniquely “fusion”: maach bora, or fish cutlets, are coated in matzo meal for added crispiness before being fried, strudels are dusted with desiccated coconut – a necessary component of Bangladeshi desserts.
When our son was born, food seemed to take on an even greater significance; it is one of the ways I feel able to demonstrate the different parts of his heritage most tangibly in our day-to-day lives. When it came to weaning I spent a lot of time considering what his first taste of solid food would be. It is a symbolic moment as much as it is a developmental milestone – and one that is marked in many cultures with a specific ritual. In the Islamic tradition it is tahnik – where date pulp is smeared on the palate of a newborn to encourage it to suckle. Among Bengali Hindus the mukhe bhaath ceremony – literally, “rice in mouth” – marks an infant’s first taste of that holy staple grain. The significance of weaning exists in the Jewish tradition too, with the story in Genesis of Abraham – a prophet also recognised in Islam – holding a great feast on the day that his son Isaac began weaning.
I wondered how we would mark the occasion. 现在, 比以往更, celebrating milestones feels important – a reminder of the continuation of life cycles at a time when there is 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 naming ceremony, or his brit milah, the ritual Jewish circumcision; both were small events without extended family or friends in attendance. But it mattered that we marked them, nevertheless.
I called my mother. He seems ready to start solids, 我说. What should I feed him first? From more than 3,000 miles away, her voice told me what I already knew. Start with rice. You can make it yourself. I’ll tell you how.
I did as she instructed. I soaked the grains of rice in cold water to soften them before grinding them into a paste. I used an electric grinder – my foremothers would have done this using a sheel bati, a heavy slab and grinding stone. With the rice crushed finely, I added boiled water and cooked it until it resembled a thick porridge. I added some breastmilk and whisked steadily until the mixture resembled smooth double cream.
Our son’s interest in food has grown over the months, often eyeing up what we eat and sometimes trying to grab things off our plates. He sits with us at the table for mealtimes, watching as we lift food to our mouths and mimicking our chewing. 现在, at long last, it was his turn. Sitting upright on my husband’s lap, our son watched curiously as I offered him the spoon. “Bismillah,” I whispered. He opened his tiny mouth, somehow knowing exactly what to do. I held the spoon steadily while he lapped at the soft silicone edges tasting the familiar milk and new rice. When he had finished, I offered him another spoonful. More confident this time, blinking steadily, he opened his mouth wider and took the food from the spoon. We repeated this a couple more times before he decided he was satisfied. Taking him into my arms, I kissed his round cheeks, mopping the milk from his chin. This is how we marked the occasion – his first taste of food – as a family of three, sitting around our dining table, the first time of many.
Like all firsts – standing, walking, clapping – one day eating will become unremarkable; something my baby will do out of habit, routine, necessity. But I hope that the significance, the blessing of that act, will remain. The food I prepare for him encompasses the multitude of generations from two different parts of the world who lived, survived, thrived against all the odds, and ended up joined together in our child. It forms the very foundations for his rich, blended future.
As I peel and dice carrots to be steamed for his next meal, I wonder what our son’s taste of home will be. When he has grown and moved away, what dishes will he ask me to cook when he returns to visit? I wonder too, what his taste of the world will be like. I hope that it is all the things a good meal should be: varied, satisfying and nourishing in every way.
Shahnaz Ahsan is the author of Hashim & Family (John Murray, £14.99)