Growing up in a Punjabi-Malaysian family, I was always acutely aware of my food experiences being relatively niche – nobody else in school (bar my cousins) ate noodles for breakfast. Our tables were filled with everything from fried fish to noodles to chicken curry and, like many others, the women in my family dominate my childhood food memories. This was partly due to growing up in a matriarchal home where my grandmother was head of the household, but also a nod to being surrounded by a vibrant extended family. My grandmother’s food still remains some of my favourite. Her egg curry, my mum's noodles, one auntie’s roasts, another's keema, there are still particular dishes I associate with each woman. The common thread between all the women was that of home cooked food always. It was wholesome and my first realisation that food meant love and being cared for.
My dad first went to jail when I was just a few years old and, as a result, so many of the early food memories I associate with him are related to his incarceration. There’s a particular nostalgia I still associate with the cafe in prison visiting halls: our family would walk in and my sister and I would be given a handful of change to buy juices, cakes and biscuits. I never felt a gap between my father and I at that age, but looking back I see I didn’t have anything tangible to connect him to in my life. Not in my small childhood world anyway.
He was released when I began secondary school, and all of that changed. It was weird for me having to learn about a person who, theoretically, wasn’t new in my life. But slowly, mostly through food, I began to understand my dad a little more. By introducing us to his favourite foods, some of which he’d discovered through earlier travels, he opened up a different world and palette for me and my sister. Until that point our world had been mostly Punjabi, Indian, English and Chinese food, but my dad introduced us to new dishes such as lamb kleftiko and pickled cabbage, and cuisines like Turkish and Jamaican.
Sadly, my dad went back to jail again in my early 20s.
Up until that point I had always thought of food as a currency of love – an invitation into someone’s home and heart. In the 10 or so years my dad was physically present in my life, the thing I remember the most is the food. But really, that food is currency. Yes, it is love, but it is also stories, survival, legacy, discovery and connection. It’s able to become a connection in the absence of any other. Food is an insight into someone’s character and a way to learn about a person who feels detached from your own life. Even in prison.
I discovered more about my dad through the food he loved. My dad’s cooking methods tell me about his patience, the spices he is drawn to speak of complexities and his choice of ingredients signals resourcefulness. Now, he works in the kitchens and he is always telling me about the things he’s cooking – gungo beans, mackerel curry, rice and beans. In prison, his food is influenced by what he’s able to get, the people around him and the time he has.
In turn, it’s a way for my dad to learn about me. I am living alone and share the things I choose to cook, my favourite birthday cake flavour, or my newfound love for Korean food. These seemingly small details are able to provide him with an insight into my life that he’s not present to witness.
It’s one thing to not see your dad in a number of years. It’s another thing for your dad to not physically see anybody he loves for a number of years. So in this light, food helps to bridge that void for both of us. Now he's absent again these are the things we bond over, and until he’s back we’ll keep cooking, eating and healing.