“A guest coming into our home is a celebrated affair,” my friend, Sakina announced. “We say in our religion that Allah is showing you an extra kindness when he brings someone into your home.” Thus began a very special friendship.
Sakina, from Pakistan, extended lavish hospitality to me each time I knocked at her door (after she had invited me, of course!). From the smells swirling around in her home to the dishes on her table, I could tell she had spent much time anticipating my visit. She treated our friendship with dignity and respect.
Through over a dozen weekly visits, we got to know one another at deeper and deeper levels. Our friendship grew roots – and wings. I found her charming and intelligent, and willing to share about her life both back home and since arriving here.
An OB/GYN specialist, Sakina is proud of her accomplishments. She attended a premier medical school in Pakistan, graduating at the top of her class. She loves her work and admits how this season in the U.S., where she is on a dependent’s visa as her husband pursues a second graduate degree, has not been easy.
“At home, we have helpers. I know this might seem strange to you, but where I come from, it is common. So learning to clean my own bathroom has been very new to me. I don’t want to sound spoiled. It’s just the truth.”
Although many professional and working-class Pakistani families rely on the helpers to create the meals, this is where Sakina distinguished herself.
“You know, Caroline. Food is the heart of the family. Even with my schedule, I have always been the one to cook the food in my home, to fill my family. This is very important to me.”
Here, in the U.S., I too have benefitted from Sakina’s attention to cooking, her love affair with the array of spices that compose any of the hundreds of dishes from her country.
“Our spices are very important. You have to get the combination right. And the time! Much of our food simmers and takes a long time to cook. So, this can be an issue. Really, it is a labor of love.”
In time, I came to plan around the sessions with Sakina, making sure I arrived at her home with an empty stomach, even if it was the middle of the afternoon.
What did I learn from these times with this precious Pakistani friend?
1) Food prepared and served from the heart speaks love to a guest. This is not entirely new to me. I have received this lavish attention before. But the simmering foods create an aroma that invites the visitor into the heart of the host or hostess. Sakina’s creations seemed to envelope me from the moment I stepped through the door.
2) We can learn so much of another person and their culture through food. Again, not a new one for me, but I can see how the types of food and their presentation communicate a great deal about the people and region of the world from which they originate.
Some aspects of Pakistani cuisine may seem indistinguishable from that of India. It’s important to remember that the two countries were once one and share many gastronomic basics. Also important is to realize that cuisine in both countries is very regionalized, especially north-to-south.
One distinction, however, is that Pakistani foods share more in common with the foods of western Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the rest than do Indian foods. So these influences contribute subtle differences to the fare.
Aroma is key. Spices are key. While presentation matters some, it is smell, taste and spice that feature most. Pakistanis are into bold statements through the aromas and tastes of their food.
In contrast, Japanese food is all about presentation, subtle tastes and innuendo.
I believe these differences play out in the character of the people. But that’s for another discussion!
3) Finally, food shared together creates a lasting connection. When we break bread with others, something meaningful happens. We share an experience. We create a memory. We satisfy our stomachs, but also our hearts, minds and souls as we connect with another – or many others – through a shared meal. Friendship grows roots.
And, although we will become hungry again, our memory of the time together does not have to fade. We can capture it – whether through a picture or through a journal entry – and hold it near as time moves on.
Through food shared across the table, across cultures, we cultivate friendship. It is truly an art, a creative expression of connection, a path towards greater depths of relationship, especially as we let the experience simmer and then savor the moment.
Can you share a special food memory, a personal connection with us?
Image Credit: LoggaWiggler on Pixabay, Creative Commons