• Soaliha's late Nani and sister, Seenam, along with Soaliha (left-to-right). (Supplied)Source: Supplied
You may know haldi doodh as its gentrified western counterpart the ‘turmeric latte’, but there’s so much more to the story.
By
Soaliha Iqbal

6 May 2021 - 8:49 AM  UPDATED 6 May 2021 - 8:50 AM

Almost all my memories of my Nani involve food of some kind. If it wasn’t my favourite foods that she was making, it was a classic home remedy to cure whatever ailment I was suffering from at the time. Sometimes it was Joshanda tea, insistently served the moment I so much as sniffed. Other times it was chicken corn soup, boiled over hours into a healing broth. My favourite though, is haldi doodh - the cure to everything, as my Nani described it.  

I used to watch her make it for me, feverish and cranky, as the warm wafts of spice steamed and shimmered over the stove top. She boiled the yellow, creamy concoction with such care and ease, because while sometimes our relationship was strained, here she was in her element - taking care of her family in the best way she knew how. A sick child was always in need of their Nani’s care and advice, and her home remedies are one of the things I miss most about her.

You may know haldi doodh as its gentrified western counterpart the ‘turmeric latte’, but those are about as much of an abomination to haldi doodh as chai lattes are to authentic doodh patti. 

You may know haldi doodh as its gentrified western counterpart the ‘turmeric latte’, but those are about as much of an abomination to haldi doodh as chai lattes are to authentic doodh patti. 

Literally translating to ‘turmeric milk’, haldi doodh is a frothy, hot, sunshine-yellow drink made on the stove by South Asian grandmothers everywhere. Warming, earthy and maybe even a little spicy, the literal golden elixir is a staple in Desi households to cure sore throats, fevers, colds, and basically any common illness that you would use a home remedy for. 

Growing up, I had a conflicted relationship with haldi doodh. It was certainly something my Pakistani grandmother tried to make me drink on the regular, but I despised the earthy taste of turmeric because to me it wasn’t just a home remedy - it was a reminder of how brown I was. 

Even as a child who grew up in a tight knit Pakistani family that insulated my first few years from racism in this country, I was still insecure about how ‘weird’ and ‘backwards’ my culture apparently was. The fear of smelling like curry, the fear of being dark skinned and therefore unattractive, the desire for any proximity to the ‘normal’ whiteness. It was the textbook experience of ethnic children in white Australia — anything even remotely South Asian was embarrassing and gross. 

Haldi doodh was a symbol of culture and tradition, something I wanted nothing to do with - yet now, my relationship with it has changed completely. Now, it reminds me of my late grandmother. It’s a symbol of not just who I have lost, but the generations of cultural knowledge that I no longer have access to either. 

My Nanijan passed away in August last year. I was blindsided, but it turns out she was actually sick for quite some time - us kids just didn’t know because she never told us. 

There is a unique kind of nostalgia that comes with being a child of immigrants - of missing a culture you’ll never fully get to know, despite it being yours. Language barriers, geographical separation, the difficulties of resisting a colonial society - these all lead to a grief about your own alienation from your roots. A mourning of the things you know you’ll never be. 

There is a unique kind of nostalgia that comes with being a child of immigrants - of missing a culture you’ll never fully get to know, despite it being yours.

Usually, our family are our physical ties to our culture, keeping us anchored so we don’t drift away into the white-washed sea of lost identity. But when you lose that family, or in my case, specific person, the lack of leadership makes culture so much more difficult to navigate and learn. 

And so, quite suddenly, my Nani’s haldi doodh became so much more important in my life. It became imperative to me that I learn to make it. It felt like everything was falling apart, disappearing, fading, and my brain transfixed on to this one symbol associated with her and stuck to it.  

I took for granted never really learning Urdu, or learning how to make aloo gobi, or chole, or learning how to make haldi doodh. I took for granted always having her around to make me Pakistani food, to tailor my dresses, for gifts of shalwar kameez and Pakistani jewellery. 

The panic that came with her passing is unique to people in my circumstance - when your relationship to your culture is so precarious, it’s scary to realise that so much of your identity can be lost so quickly. 

My grandmother’s death created a sudden urge within me to reconnect to haldi doodth. Maybe a part of it was subconscious; I can see how I was drawn to an Ayurvedic medicine taught to me by someone who was secretly sick for a long time. The strength of her spirit and faith, to be so calm and collected when she knew her time was creeping to an end, is eery and comforting at the same time. She knew what she was doing in life, and she knew where she was going in death.  

My grandmother’s death created a sudden urge within me to reconnect to haldi doodth.

Maybe the reason I latched onto this particular soul-warming drink was because the comfort it brought was reminiscent not just of my childhood nostalgia but of her, specifically. And I desperately wanted to reinforce those memories, not wanting to lose them like I’ve lost other parts of my culture, and like I lost her.  

Now, haldi doodh is no longer a reminder of my otherness. Instead, it’s a symbol of warmth, love, family and healing; the ever-present, ever-caring grandmother as she boiled haldi doodh over the stove for me when I was sick.

Embracing and enjoying haldi doodh has become a way for me to keep alive both the memory of her and consequently, my culture.

It’s a shame that it took her passing for me to see that, but with tragedy comes growth. Now it’s my turn to make it for my siblings when they have colds, or for my partner when he’s tired and overworked. It’s my turn to spread the warmth and love of her, and keep it alive for generations to come. 

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