Written by Lur Alghurabi
When I asked you what you wanted to have for lunch, whether you would like the garlic, basil and pecorino pasta or the lemon, parmesan and parsley pasta, you said you wanted both. Why did that feel like you said yes to all of my life, and not just parts of it? That you wanted to be in all of it, that you accepted all of me, and you wanted twice of me, all the time?
When I had problems in my home, you let me crash at yours for a week. I made you chicken musakhan: chicken thighs pan seared with cardamom, cumin, sumac and cloves, and then baked with some caramelised onions and served with pine nuts and hot bread. I also make tabouli, hummus, and cauliflower roasted in the same spices and then drizzled with garlic tahini and pomegranates. You ask your son if he likes the food. He learns how to pronounce musakhan instantly, and he perfects it. The next day, when we say we’re having the leftovers for lunch, he taps his feet onto the floor in a happy dance as true and as genuine as a child can be.
When I left my partner of five years, I suddenly found myself without anyone to eat my food on a daily basis. Someone I could go to at lunch time to say ‘how does a little pesto pasta sound?’ or perhaps ‘would you like some oven roasted beetroots, with feta and walnuts? Would a wholegrain mustard dressing go with this, do you think? I might add some spinach. Would you like that? Crusty bread? Should be ready in fifteen.’ For the first few days I cooked for my new housemate. Aubergines baked with tomatoes, pomegranates and black limes. Vermicelli cinnamon rice with toasted pine nuts and mint and garlic yoghurt. Dessert spring rolls filled with rose water cream and covered in lemon syrup, pistachios and roses. But then the housemate left to his own hometown and I was left with a kitchen only I inhabited. What good was a kitchen like that?
When you get surgery and someone has to remove something from your spine, I ask you if you can move properly. You say you can’t, that you need to take it slow for a few days, that you can’t properly sit down for long periods of time yet and you had to quit your job and your life has been changed. I have never wanted so badly to cook for someone as much as I do now. I am so far away from you. I regret going away. I ask my mother if she would, and she says, is this your bride friend? The one who taught us how to look after the lemon tree? Yes, yes I’ll make the lamb biryani and the cardamom and cream bread pudding. I’ll drop it off. What’s her address?
This cookbook we have both been anticipating is about to sell out, only a couple of weeks into its release. You tell me you spoke to the publisher and the second print run will take months. So you buy me one of the last few copies, and you tell me it’s a gift. All I need to do in return is cook from it with you. We agree on the banjaan borani, braised eggplants simmered in tomatoes and topped with mint yoghurt, the ashak, fried dumplings stuffed with leeks and topped with a lamb kofta sauce, and maybe we’ll also make a falooda, a dessert of rose syrup, maghoot jelly, ice cream, milk and nuts and pistachios.
When we lose our physical connection and we are all, suddenly, trapped in our homes, we ask each other what we’ve eaten that day. We respond with photographs of our food, or recipes, or elaborate descriptions, and sometimes the response is ‘why don’t I live with you’, or ‘will you marry me’, and sometimes it is ‘that looks great, good enough, you got out of bed and made it, there is nothing you cannot do.’
What is the right portion of a salad? We all agree, online, that a salad doesn’t adhere to portions. You can have an infinite amount. Smaller bowls are unnecessary, just eat it straight out of the big plastic tub you mixed it in. Salads don’t obey. Salads are the freedom from everything we think we should be worried about with food.
When I talk to you in a discreet message one time we share the names of all the people we want to warn each other and other women against. You tell me you want to gift me a copy of your own cookbook. I ask you if you would dedicate it to my mother. You write her name on the front page: To Sahar. My mother bursts into happiness when she sees her name written down. She looks at your headshot on the back cover and she says you’re so beautiful. She says she never sees her name written down. She looks at it for hours, her smile so wide, and so true. She doesn’t even read any of the recipes. She just looks at you, and she looks at her name.
I don’t want to be in a kitchen I cannot shelter you in. I don’t know how to feed myself. When I start to live alone for the first time in my life, after a rough break up and a turbulent year, I forget to eat. I find myself hungry at 10pm because I haven’t put anything in me since breakfast. I have cereal for dinner. My sister tells me the essentials are: a can of chickpeas, for an emergency salad with some chopped tomatoes, lemon and olive oil; a can of tomatoes for late night shakshuka; always have milk in the fridge for bechamel; a bag of lentils and an onion are all you need for lentil soup, let there be several bags of bread in the freezer, and always have bananas on hand. This will get me through the week.
When I am a sad and anxious mess, and you are a guest in my home, I make my most pathetic omelet. I forget the milk. The vegetables are soggy. The eggs are grey and the whole concoction tastes of cardboard dipped in crushed black pepper. I haven’t showered in a few days and I am having a depressive episode. You finish your plate. You say it is fine. You send a box of chocolates to my home to get me through a big deadline. I send pastries to yours, congratulations on us having made it through. When I buy your favorite flavor of ice cream I feel as if we are eating it together. When I miss you, this is all I have. When I want to cook for you, I eat my food alone and I send you photos, and I become more elaborate in my cooking: garlic and goats cheese tart with 21 caramelised cloves, a nine herb salad with black sesame and sage oil, saffron-infused, Shiraz baked rice with candied pistachios and barberries, pan seared paneer marinated in thyme and topped with mangoes and bird’s eye chili, a Persian love cake with lemon and cardamom, charred tomatoes with cumin, thyme and lemon peel served on a bed of strained lemon yoghurt, sticky bananas grilled with a miso butter caramel served with lime and creme fraiche, forbidden rice slow-cooked in coconut milk with blueberries, almonds and vanilla seed, sourdough bread pudding with shredded coconut, raspberries and lemon curd. How else do I will you into returning, and this time, into staying?