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A Letter to my Mama in Kashmir

Onions here are different too. They don’t make me very teary.

By Featured, News, SAIC

Illustration by Ketaki Kulkarni

Dear Mama,

I know we did not talk about this. Because we donʼt get to talk often, and you are not fond of speaking on the phone, I thought of writing you a letter. This way, I can talk about cooking and other little things without having to cause you the annoyance of dealing with technology.

Iʼve been having a hard time cooking. I ask myself why since it ʼsnot my first time living alone. But perhaps it is the first time, and it is so many new things together. A new country, a new degree, new weather, new people and new tastes.

Iʼm glad I scored those spices from our storeroom while packing. And I kind of wish I had listened to you and packed more. After moving into the new apartment, I was glad I had all that food with me. So, the other week, when I decided to make paneer pyaaz, I only had to buy salt and onions.

The thought didnʼt come out of nowhere. I bought a gallon of milk, thinking I didn’t know what. It was a lot of milk — and it tasted good.

So, I did what you would do. I decided to make cheese. Or should I say paneer now, because this place really wants you to be very specific. When I bought milk for the first time here, I was expecting cow, buffalo, and other animal milk to choose from. But it was a whole aisle of milk. 

Honestly, I just bought what looked best from the packaging. Well, the milk was different; it didnʼt curdle when I added lemon. I remember how you always warned us against letting a spoon dipped in lemon touch milk because it may curdle it.

I added two big lemons, and it didnʼt work. I added in a lime, too, and nothing happened except for visible curd droplets forming at the crust. I donʼt know if the lemons or the milk here is the problem.

Lemons, I would hope. Milk is essential and should be good. I ended up emptying my whole pack of lemons into the milk pot, and thatʼs when I saw some action. It came out well. I donʼt know how much I liked the lemon taste in the final recipe, but I did love the creamy flavor.

Onions here are different too. They donʼt make me very teary. Just a little, like how I tear up in the hall when you chop the onions in the kitchen. Itʼs almost as if someone is doing the dirty work, and Iʼm cooking in glory. The onions here are bigger as well. They taste static; not unreliable. I know exactly what taste to expect in my dish when I add them. So free of surprise. But maybe that is too simplistic. Maybe I am too ignorant to understand the complexity of their taste. If I blend them, I can say theyʼre creamy, but that could be because I associate this taste with the Lays American Cream and Onion chips we get back home.

My pans are lightweight. Thatʼs all students in this country who arenʼt swimming in dollars can afford. So, my pan doesnʼt let me fry the paneer like I would want it to. Itʼs like I have to be gentle with everything here. Gentle with the frying, with the oil, with spices, with salt, with the clothes, the house, with handling my things, with handling people. “Handling people”?! “Handling me” would be more fitting. Iʼm learning to handle myself gently and treat myself with good food even when Iʼm not sure I deserve it, even when Iʼm on the verge of being broke. The other day, I woke up from a long nap and felt like eating tacos. It was 9 p.m. Trader Joeʼs — the closest grocery store to my apartment — was closed. So I walked 1.2 miles to another store to get some parsley and tomatoes for my taco. I am becoming what you would call “spoiled.” But letʼs talk about paneez pyaaz and save tacos for my next letter.

My chili powder doesnʼt taste the same here. I canʼt figure out the quantity. Cooking for one person is tough; thatʼs probably why people donʼt cook much here. There are  two arguments, what cooking means, and why cooking for one person is tough. I think cooking for yourself is tough because I am stuck in a constant dilemma of cooking things how I like cooking them, and cooking them how I like them cooked. When cooking for people other than me, one outweighs the other, and it gets easier. Talking about what cooking “means,” mother, as you would say, is a process that involves cleaning plus cutting /chopping plus adding spices plus oil/butter/water plus frying/boiling/steaming/broiling/roasting plus presentation minus one or two steps. As we both would agree, anything less than that is not cooking.

So going by that logic, I eat at home almost every day, but I cook once a week; twice at most. I do the dishes, and it seems easy. My fingertips donʼt crack. Here, they make dish soaps that are suitable for the skin. Human skin, at least, I can say for certain.

My paneer pyaaz tasted good. But I did end up emptying my salt shaker again. Something felt less. Something always feels less. But no, I do not miss home. I do not get homesick. Iʼm in America. Everything is great. Everything is supposed to be great. The weather doesnʼt disappoint — the weather prediction doesnʼt disappoint. Nobody is ever dressed inappropriately. Iʼm dressing appropriately. I monitor the weather constantly. But Iʼm having a difficult time controlling the temperature in the house. Itʼs either too hot or too cold for me. Not the warm that I like; itʼs not the warm that I want. I wish I knew the exact degree of warmth that I felt at home. I wish I could create a home for myself here.

Lovingly Yours,


Khytul Abyad (MFAW 2023) is a visual artist who draws and writes about the toll of conflict on human life in Kashmir.

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