• The author with her siblings. (Maryam Johnson )Source: Maryam Johnson
With food, I am not a cultural misfit but “Pakistani” enough. I am refuelled and feel at home in myself again.
Maryam Johnson

20 Apr 2020 - 3:15 PM  UPDATED 5 Aug 2021 - 12:54 PM

The start of the school year is a shock to my system. I feel like a parent robot going through the motions, just trying to keep up and stay afloat. My Anglo-Australian husband and I try to manage our two kids and jobs in suburban Sydney and not get ground down in the rush and monotony of it all.

What saves me? The food I grew up with. In these moments, I feel a craving to desi food – invoking memories and smells of a world I’m connected to through food. My need for Pakistani food is visceral, it feels like a second skin.

I have been an immigrant my whole life (first half in Saudi Arabia and now in Australia) but food has always led me back to myself and where I come from. It's the best pick me up when I feel lost, worried or just out-of-sorts.


With food, there's no judgements associated with other parts of the culture. I’m off the hook for mispronouncing my Urdu or for blundering the subtle nuances of ‘appropriate’ behaviour.  With food, I am not a cultural misfit (which I have often felt) but assuredly, “Pakistani” enough.  I am refueled and feel at home in myself again. 

Here are my top five: 

Biryani: Togetherness 

My favourite memory of biryani is the first time my Anglo Australian husband Casey tried it. Casey grew up in a home where food was experimental and  his mother incorporated cuisines from all over the world on their dinner table. Despite this wonderful relationship to food, when he met me, he had never tried biryani. I remember him having his first spoonful and his eyes widened. “This is amazing” he said. I loved introducing him to a dish that has meant so much to me - and  now It has become a favourite for him too (thankfully, otherwise it might have been a dealbreaker). 

Biryani is the dish I crave the most. It is the one my mother makes on birthdays and Eid. Biryani is a luxurious layered rice dish usually made with tender meat, fragrant spices and fresh herbs and melted together in an oven.  It is the star attraction, requiring no additional side food. The smell of it is synonymous with family and celebration to me. Biryani is the dish we eat when our whole family is coming together, all of us five siblings sitting around the table laughing and teasing each other, feeling connected.  The magical thing about biryani is that even in our loud household with all the banter and bustling, it inspires stillness and quiet. It is just that good, we all drop down to eat it in quiet appreciation.  I love how extra biryani is. One plate is never enough and  with some raita (mint yogurt)  on the side, I’m in heaven. 

Chai: Communication 

Traditional Pakistani chai is a made on a stove top with loose leaf tea, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and cardamom.  My earliest memory of chai is on a visit to Pakistan when I was about seven years old.  I remember walking through the streets and there was a little corner where a man worked over an open flame. He was pouring chai from one small pot to another to mix all the spices and tea in the hot milk before pouring it expertly into several glass cups for customers.  Groups of people gathered around on makeshift tables deep in conversation, sharing the tea. The smell was intoxicating. 

It's a ritual I share with one of my closest childhood friends who does not live in Sydney anymore. The last time we met, she came to stay for a late night chai.  It was well past my bedtime (and I am a bit precious about my sleep)  but it had been months since I had seen her, so brewing a hot pot of chai was necessary.  We laughed and talked till  the early hours of the morning.  For us chai is a portal to connection, communication and timelessness. 

Roti: Mindfulness

I love how simple roti is. Just flour, water and oil, rolled out and cooked on a skillet.  We grew up eating roti, sometimes with kormas, omelets, or sprinkled sugar.  My favourite was freshly made with no condiments, just satisfying carbohydrates. In my family roti has always been made with wholemeal flour and made mainly in the month of Ramadan. Our family would wake up to the smell of freshly made roti for dawn sehri (the meal before the fast). I can only imagine what it felt like for my mum, as a mother of five and waking up before the day begins, in the stillness to get the flour out, knead the dough and put it on the skillet to make bread for us before dawn. 

When my mum showed me how she made roti, I remember being mesmerised at the twisting and rolling of the dough and the way she could make a perfect, round, flat bread. It is such a tactile and meditative experience to make my own roti and always makes me feel grounded and connected to my heritage.  

Gajar (carrot) Halwa: Indulgence and celebration  

Growing up we would have these big parties where everyone would get together and there would be long tables of food, a revolving feast of appetisers, snacks, dinner and desserts.   There was always a dessert table for kids and one for the grown ups.  When I first saw carrot halwa on the adults' dessert table, I knew I wanted to try it. It was such a bright orange, sprinkled with green slivers of pistachios, I remember thinking it was so beautiful.  My older sister kept guard as I sneaked a bowl piled high with halwa. That first mouthful of the warm sweetness, I was hooked. 

Pakistani desserts don't hold back on the sugar at all, so they have always meant indulgence for me. One of my favourite cakes is carrot cake. It's only fitting that one of the desserts that most calls to me, is carrot (gajar ka) halwa. It's a simple recipe of cooking grated carrots with milk, ghee, sugar and cardamom. This is topped with nuts and eaten warm.    

Whenever there is any good news in our family or friends, there is always “mithai” sweets. The idea is events become sealed with gratitude and celebration when you “sweeten your mouth”, and sweeten life, just that little bit with the joy of food, family and new memories. 

Maryam Johnson is a freelance writer.  You can follow Maryam on Instagram @maryamjohnson_.

This article is part of SBS Voices emerging Muslim women writers’ series. If you have a pitch, please contact sarah.malik@sbs.com.au.

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