A Narrative Essay
By Tasneem Jhetam
A lesson I am infinitely grateful for was one from a darling friend and teacher. We planned to go mushroom foraging together, and then the pandemic hit. Thinking about this dreamed-up experience, I am transported to India, a few years ago, when we all sat in the farmhouse and were handed blank pages. “On this page, draw your favourite dish,” Shima requested. Everyone drew something relatively simple: fried tofu, a mango slice, a bowl of guacamole. The vocabulary hadn’t yet reached popular lexicon to explain why I drew what I drew, but we can now attribute it to my pathological desire to be extra. I drew the most complex dish I could think of: Chicken khowse. Making its way into the Indian Delights recipe book (an institution in its own right and a cornerstone of many diaspora kitchens) by way of Myanmar, khowse has firmly rooted itself into my household, my heritage and my heart. “Ok,” Shima said, “now I want you to write down all the ingredients that went into that dish.” Well damn. While listing every ingredient I could remember, and silently cursing myself for convoluting what could have been a simple exercise, I reflected on what made this dish so extraordinary. Apart from the masterful union of sharp spices and crisp coconut milk, it’s really about the goetes as my mum likes to say – the accoutrements that make it what it is. Eating a bowl of khowse is a reminder that we are here to experience all things of importance, individually and as a whole. More than just a series of steps it takes to assemble the dish, it is a ritual. First the noodles, then the full-bodied sauce, some of which will inevitably make its way to your shirt a few moments later. Next are the enhancements which are to be added generously and with much reverence. A little bit of fresh onion and dhania, some fried garlic chips, chilli vinegar, and (if you thought there wasn’t enough onion already) then you shan’t be disappointed by the crispy fried onion. The baked samosa-dough chips, that will likely lance your gums in the most pleasant way imaginable, are the final addition to this marriage of textures.
“The next step is to write down all the processes and resources that went into the making of this dish, from the time the ingredients were grown to the time it met you in your plate.” Why.did.I.draw.goddamn.khowse. The exercise was, of course, meant to be about navigating a system in its entirety, considering how things don’t just end up in our plates. It was to awaken the inquiring mind to all the ways our natural and human systems get used, and mainly abused. It is a lesson I take with me into most meals, a prefix to my dinner. Knowledge from Shima was always gifted with such compassion. He saw things no one else could. He approached each day as if it were ceremonial. I think he would have loved khowse, for all the ways it nodded to his way of life. He gave each moment everything he had, absorbing life in all ways. I didn’t get to see him again before he left this place. Perhaps now he is foraging mushrooms in the sky.