The smell of fenugreek filled the air that hung thickly in the kitchen. The white ceiling lamp was reflected in the window, in which everything else had faded into the black of night. Yasmin could vaguely make out her impression in the glass.
“Thanks”, she said and looked at the cook stirring the pan. It didn’t sound enough. She was more grateful than that. “Thank you,” she added, still bound by available language.
“Why?” Her brother laughed into the steam which was sweetened with ghee, golden, glistening. He inhaled and exhaled it, breathing his own sweetness into the food, unknowingly.
“Thank you for cooking – for cooking this.”
Her brother didn’t know how much it meant that he was cooking her that dinner, the almond korma her grandmother used to make with halal chicken that she travelled on two buses to buy; its cardamom and creaminess that reminded her of school nights under the painterly colours of the television screen when it was cold outside. It reminded her of laughter and sweet tastes, and of grandmothers – a grandmother now gone – from a time when nothing had really mattered at all.
Chicken is a food close to most of our hearts: a dish our mother or grandmother, father or brother, used to make.
In the late 1950s the first halal butcher opened in Birmingham, selling the first halal meat in Europe. But halal chicken and meat has of course not been made readily available, particularly beyond large cities, until relatively recently. Chicken is the most common type of poultry in the world, and so somehow unites us all, through memory. It is the most familiar meat (less familiar meats popularly “taste like chicken”). Simple or rich, chicken comforts us, because we associate it with home.
For the younger amongst us, halal fast food captures memories of a not too distant youth when all that mattered was the chicken grease on our fingers, and the salty taste on our lips. Chicken is bound up with simpler times.
Chicken in other guises is familiar to us now too, as world restaurants expand halal offerings: chicken with buttermilk, green thai chicken, chicken pho. We know chicken, and we now eat it a thousand ways. A staple of regionalised cuisines the world over, it fits our globalised pallets. But it’s the chicken we know best, the chicken we go back to again and again that is the most evocative – chicken that’s home-cooked. Eating readily-available halal chicken at home makes recasting these memories possible. It’s the food we want to eat in the place we want to be. It’s the first bite. It’s how the oil sits in the sauce. It’s how we pass the bread. It’s the ritual of preparation, or of waiting. It’s the conversations over chicken. It’s how she used to make it; this way, no that way; adding just the right amount of cream, spice, herb, salt, fire.
Chef Thomas Kellar said a recipe itself has no soul, and that the cook must bring soul to the recipe. Recipes remembered, passed down, and kept secret include a part of the person who used to make them, and the people who make them now. They say something about another time or place mingling with the present. They are about heritage, and honouring them by making and remaking them reconnects the past to now.
Food is about the times that bring us together, the memories and experiences of being with people we love, which, over time, makes us who we are. Food can divide us too, as it continues to be used as a legal and political tool. But just as food connects us to the people with whom we eat, so too can it unite us with the people with whom we don’t eat. Being a foodie, a lover of food, goes back to the fact that there is love in food. Food, for all of us, is a gift, something we exchange as an act of kindness. Food, in the end, is about the people who eat it, and recipes are about the people who make them. There is something universal in that.
Use Haloodie’s halal chicken to make “mum’s recipe” for almond chicken korma, from internationally-published food writer Sumayya Usmani’s excellent blog ‘My Tamarind Kitchen’. Here Sumayya draws together recipes from her native Pakistan, some of which feature in her book of contemporary Pakistani recipes, Summers Under the Tamarind Tree: Recipes and memories from Pakistan (2016).