Instant Quantum

Cooking (in) the Land

This is a story about the cultural contributions of everyday South Asian communities to Scotland and about finding and creating community and connection to the land through cooking food. Written by Gauri Raje and funded through a SCCAN mini grant. 

Cover photograph from Gauri Raje’s upcoming exhibition and event at CCA Glasgow on the 28th of June 2024 as part of Village Storytelling Festival 2024, featuring women from Maryhill who have been working with the Village.

In a time/ world where migration is the condition of a life journey for most people, the question of settling into a new land and a new ecology becomes paramount. ‘How do we make home?’ Is now a question of necessity rather than privilege. This question is not about demonstrating integration; it is about making peace with oneself and one’s roots. In other words, it is an intimate question rather than one of performance.

Through a local project run in Glasgow, I will look at how making home is necessarily local, quiet and intimate in its tone. There is a ‘cooking’ of self that precedes and accompanies embedding. While stories allow an expression of that journey; for women on the margins of their own community their only means of expression flowered within the kitchen spaces. Cooking became the language through which these women familiarised themselves to a new landscape. 

The Project:

Cooking Tales was a project started in July 2022 by Gauri Raje, a storyteller based in Argyll, Scotland, as a way of documenting innovations to cooking that South Asian migrant women had to create when there were few South Asian ingredients available in Glasgow in the 1950s. For this project, she approached and collaborated with the Scottish Asian Ekta group – a group of elderly South Asian women who are widows who meet weekly in Glasgow.

The aim of the project was to honour and give voice to the creativity of South Asian women, who did not have accessibility to make a mark in the public field in Scottish civic life. Their stories are rarely heard since they are regarded as ‘housewives’. In trying to understand how they adapted to and incorporated Scottish ingredients and cooking practices in Scotland, Cooking Tales project was trying to give voice to the South Asian women migrants’ story and the history of their life in Scotland.

‘I found that most of the migrants who wanted to talk about their journey were either men or those migrants who had made something of their life through their work outside their homes or public contributions that had been recognised through awards in Scotland. When I tried to talk to women who were not fluent in English, or had worked in the kitchens in their homes all their lives, there was a silence. Most such women said they had done nothing much and had no story to tell.

One of the women suggested to me that the questions I was asking were all wrong. “Why don’t you talk to them in their own language?”, she said. At first, I did not understand what she meant. I had upto that point conducted the interviews in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, and not English.

This is how I began to create the Cooking Tales project.’

Most community projects on the South Asian diaspora have focused on public faces of the contributions of migrants to Scotland. This invisibilises the lives of many migrants who may not have had the privilege or good fortune to be acknowledged for their work in making home in a new country. Many such migrants, whose stories have not been publicly acknowledged, are women from the early waves of the diaspora – many of them not having the education, literacy skills or the opportunity within their domestic setting to put the time or energy into what is graded as ‘public contribution’. This project focused on such women from the early waves of the South Asian diaspora who settled in and around Glasgow since the 1950s, after the partition of India & Pakistan. Few of them arrived even before then, as children.

They raised a whole generation – with or without opportunities to work outside their home. Most of those who contributed to this project came as young brides, possibly not knowing what they were stepping into – unaware of the domestic, cultural and changes of landscape and ecology that they would need to face. They raised a whole generation on limited and unfamiliar resources. They straddled worlds – keeping certain traditions of the lands of their birth alive while modifying other ways of life, in response to the social, cultural and ecological landscapes of Scotland.

Peddlars outside Tanda & Ashrif warehouse, 23 Nicholson St., Gorbals 1953, copyright Colourful Heritage. From The GlaswegAsian Gems, by Jean Mackenzie for Glasgow & West of Scotland Family History Society. https://www.gwsfhs.org.uk/2023/11/05/the-glaswegasian-gems/

Settling into land as a way of making community:

These efforts required innovations and entrepreneurship. The tenor of their efforts is silent and their scale is intimate. Perhaps these elements come to a head in the sphere of food and nurture – in cooking meals for their families everyday. Many of the women have contributed recipes to this book which were innovated in response to the challenge of recreating South Asian ‘home’ tastes where the basic ingredients – spices and vegetables available in Scotland in the 1950s & 60s were not South Asian at all. Meat was not ‘halal’ meat. Yet, their own, their husband’s and families’ palates had to be satisfied. Their menfolk and children wanted to feel they were eating ‘food from home’.

What does this require besides personal innovative skills? The women lived in Glasgow at a time where there was no internet, and letters to India or Pakistan took 3-4 weeks to travel. Phone calls to their natal & marital families in India & Pakistan were expensive in situations where their husbands were the sole earners and employed in blue-collar jobs.

For many of the women, it meant learning and innovating through observation and social skills – finding a way to talk to Scottish neighbours, shopkeepers, acquaintances about recipes, cooking methods, utensils or food ingredients. For others, it meant learning how to cook in unconventional ways. Some women learnt cooking and recipes from husbands. These men had travelled to Scotland before their wives and longing for a taste of ‘home’ created vegetarian koftes that tasted like meat or eaten fish or meat, although they might have been vegetarian in their upbringing. Sometimes, for the new brides, it was about re-learning what had always been taken for granted in South Asia ways to make yoghurt in the absence of a starter and hot climates for the yoghurt to set; ways to cook jalebis from scratch including creating utensils needed to make these sweets.

New ingredients made their way into cooking, responding to the landscape. Most of the women had come from landlocked regions. They found themselves on an island where fish from the sea was available everywhere. Fish koftas, instead of meat koftas, became part of their culinary repertoire. In the absence of green vegetables, recipes began to create dishes with turnip tops, potatoes and stems of cauliflower. Salads and stews became part of the repertoire and women began to use herbs such as rosemary and thyme in their recipes. Some of the recipes mixed in ingredients such as fish or turnips with spices brought from India to ‘recreate’ a taste of ‘home food’ – tricking their husbands or children who longed for ‘home’ food. Other recipes introduced Scottish culinary tastes to the dining table and palettes of South Asian homes. 

Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

The Legacy:

What does all of this learning enable? A greater sense of the food ecology and culinary practices of Scotland and Scottish culture they found themselves in. They developed a better perspective of what could be saved of their old ways of life; and what needed to be let go without much fuss, although the sadness at the letting go may remain. New friendships grew as did self-confidence of starting from scratch and thriving.

The recipes which the women innovated were created in particular contexts. Times have changed now. Many of the women find newer recipes from the internet; there is a thriving culture of South Asian materials that includes shops, ingredients of the best quality, utensils of all manners, restaurants with South Asian delicacies of all manners and sweet shops with South Asian sweets so that one neither has to create delicacies at home nor does one have to starve of particular special sweets from South Asia. Perhaps, some of the recipes in this book, too, have slipped out of usage or fashion.

Apart from the recipes, the project also collected the stories of the women of how they learnt or where they got the ideas for the recipes. As the women, spoke about the story of each recipe, they also began to reveal their own stories of making home and nourishing their families in a strange, new and sometimes hostile landscape of Scotland. This project has been a way of giving voice to these elderly women about their lives in Scotland, and their journeys from being South Asian to becoming Scottish Asian. It is a project that recognises that integration of migrants does not always happen in public arenas, but first and foremost integration into a new country is intimate and personal – for what could be more evidence of integration than women cooking food that uses Scottish ingredients but tastes Asian? It nourished their children and their husbands, not only physically but, through a nourishment of hearts and souls.

Find more about ‘Cooking Tales’ and Gauri’s beautiful work and ideas.