Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood


“I’m coming to New York,” my mother informs me. A week earlier, I had told her that I’d decided to get divorced. She thought I had lost it. No Pakistani girl in her right mind would give up a husband of any sort, let alone a rich one. My reasons didn’t matter; the right thing was to work at my marriage -- forever.

I’ve been living in New York for two years. Since my marriage, my life is no longer under the jurisdiction of my parents. My husband is in charge of me now; my primary purpose in moving here was to accompany and care for him while he completed his MBA. And so my independent life in the United States doesn’t matter to my mother, either. In an attempt to talk sense into me and remind me of my roots, she decided to take a 14-hour flight from Lahore to set me straight.

Since my mother’s announcement, I have been mentally preparing to receive her in all her melodramatic glory. Over the last few days I have managed to bake and consume two devil’s food cakes and three-quarters of another, 700 ml of the icing for those cakes, two pints of peanut butter fudge chunk ice cream, and one large pot of macaroni and cheese, all while watching the first and second seasons of “Girls” -- again.

I eat my last quarter of cake at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday before heading to the airport. My sweaty palms clutch the steering wheel, and the 45-minute drive feels more like a 100-mile trek. Somewhere after the Lincoln Tunnel and before the JFK access road, I start to crave Nihari, a thick stew of meat and spices I consumed every Sunday between the ages of 12 and 19. Even now I enjoy it when I visit Lahore for the holidays.

When my mother arrives, her long dark hair is blow-dried shiny and straight. Her eyes are puffy and her maroon shalwar-kameez hides under a long black trench coat; I don’t need to see it to know that it’s uncreased. Gold bangles decorate her manicured hands. Her wedding ring sparkles. I am grateful that nothing about her has changed, and I surprise myself by sobbing uncontrollably as I cling to her ribs. It has been two and a half years since I’ve seen her. She pats my back and tells me everything is going to be okay, and I believe her.

Later, on the ride home, as I watch her break down in the passenger seat, I worry that nothing will be okay, not ever. Hers is a much more dramatic, or shall we say, free-spirited breakdown than mine. After wailing and cursing herself for being a bad mother, for not raising me to respect tradition, my husband, and a woman’s rightful role, and after many eye rolls (mine), she finally stops.

“Are you hungry?” she asks.

“I thought you would never ask, Ama. I’ve been filling the emptiness inside me with macaroni and cheese, and cake, lots of cake.”

She tsks disapprovingly. “What should I make you?”

“Nihari, Ama. I want Nihari.”

My mother is surprised to learn that I crave such a traditional meal; after all, she’s just written me off as “too modern.” She expects my body to shun the food of my ancestors, because my mind shuns other aspects of their traditions -- like the resignation expected of an unhappy wife. But my desire for Nihari transcends any critique of my culture’s traditions -- I don’t discriminate when it comes to food. Passed down to us common folk from the royal kitchens of Lukhnow, time-consuming, laborious Nihari is the ultimate testament to dedication. And I am about to test my mother’s dedication to me.

“It’s just, with work, I never have the time,” I explain. Nihari does take around seven hours to cook.

“Of course I’ll make it for you,” she answers. Her tone shifts slightly. “I always have time to cook for my loved ones. That’s why my family is still together.”

I maintain the peace with silence for the rest of the ride.

After settling into my apartment and thoroughly inspecting it, finding fault in the way it is organized, arranged, and cleaned, my mother is finally ready to cook. “We should get to work, if we want to eat it today,” she announces. It is 8:00 a.m.

My mother asks me to take out the spices for the spice mix. She is impressed at how well-stocked I am but tries not to show it. Only the slight raising of her eyebrows and pursing of her lips gives her away.  I do as I am told. I know the procedure, having grown up watching her in Lahore; I’ve just never had the courage or time to commit to a seven-hour stewing process. I place fennel seeds, black peppercorn, cumin seeds, cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, coriander, and nutmeg in front of her, and she uses her eyes and hands to expertly measure the amounts needed. I cringe slightly as she puts the spices into my coffee grinder, but she gives them two loud whirls and the mix is ready. She holds the machine under my nose, but she doesn’t have to. I could’ve smelled it a mile away: spicy, sweet, and bitter all at once, this is a reminder of my childhood, most of which was spent perched on my mother’s kitchen counter.

She smiles as I sneeze, then asks the question I have been dreading: “So, why aren’t you happy?”

I am still wording my answer when she continues. “All marriages are hard work.” She lifts a heavy cast iron pot from the cabinet next to the stove to demonstrate her point. Her strength surprises me; her comfort in my kitchen does not. She grabs the lamb shanks from my fridge, recalling how difficult her own marriage has been, and her sister’s, and her cousin’s. She talks about husbands who beat women, and cheat on them, and are controlling, but whose marriages have lasted because of the dedication of those women.

She turns the heat to high, and once the oil is near its smoke point, puts in the lamb shanks. “Why do you think you’re so special?” she asks, her question a perfect fusion of anger and rhetoric. The loud sizzling of the shanks provides the appropriate sound track to her interrogation. I feel my face burn as I watch her add ginger paste, coriander powder, turmeric powder, and some peppercorns. She continues to sear the shanks while I squirm in silence.

“Don’t add salt at this point,” she tells me. “Add it right at the end, after the stew has been reduced.”

I nod agreeably, relieved at this segue from recrimination to instruction.

She cooks the meat till it is half done. Then she adds seven cups of water, brings it to a boil, and informs me that the stewing process has begun. “Basically, you have to let it stew for however long it takes for the meat to tenderize, the gelatin to fuse with the gravy, and the tendons to soften a bit. This could take up to seven hours. Now, let’s talk.”

I start to wonder why I picked Nihari, out of all the home-cooked meals I could have asked my mother to make. Why not a fried egg instead? But it’s too late now; the dreaded moment has arrived. And when my mother says “Let’s talk,” what she really means is, “Listen to me.” I’ve lost my appetite.

For the next three hours, as the Nihari stews, I listen to horror stories about divorced women: women who were miserable after their marriages ended, fated to lives of loneliness, poverty, and mental illness; women surrounded by mysterious powers that made everything else go wrong in their lives, like the death of loved ones.

Finally, I find my voice. This makes things worse. There is no convincing my mother that I have tried hard enough, that there is no hope for my marriage, and that I am being sane and logical when I assert that no marriage at all is better than a shitty marriage. She won’t hear it, and at some point it all becomes my fault. My fault, for not wearing enough make-up, not being a good cook, for being emotionally unavailable and too independent. I fall silent, resigned to the fact that I’ll never change her mind Meanwhile, the meat continues to stew. My mother checks it every two hours.

By now the smell in my apartment has changed dramatically, from raw and meaty to tantalizingly spicy. The aroma mingles with the tension in the air, and my hunger returns. While my mother naps, I distract my stomach with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, relieved at the temporary silence. Traditionally, the heaviness of a meal like Nihari necessitates a nap afterward; but perhaps the weight of our silence has required my mother to rest before the meal, too.

With impeccable timing, my mother wakes up two hours later, checks the simmering stew, and proclaims it done. She is disappointed that New York living will not allow us to dig a hole in the ground to install an oven-like apparatus and make our own naans. But although I’ve eaten Nihari by itself or with rice, admitting this would be too sacrilegious for my puritanical mother; deciding that I’ve shocked her enough for a lifetime, I call in an order of three naans from the Pakistani restaurant around the corner.

The naans arrive just as my mother finishes her evening prayers -- perhaps as God’s way of saying that food is the answer. She has already prepared the condiments: finely chopped green chillies, ginger, lemon slices, coriander, and caramelized onions. The only thing left to do now is eat, and so we sit down.

Before us is the rich, dark brown stew, thickened with gelatin that has slowly seeped out of the lamb bones. Red highlights run through the Nihari. It looks unappetizingly thick, with its layer of oil floating on the top, but I have eaten it enough times to know better.

When I dip my naan into the bowl of Nihari, I can tell that some of the meat has dissolved into the fragrant perfectly spiced, sticky gravy. The rest dissolves in my mouth, so tender that it’s fallen from the bone. There is no bite to it, and the fatty stew slips smoothly down my throat, along with tender pieces of meat. The lemon juice and fresh ginger provide an astringent counterpoint. I close my eyes and imagine the stew sticking comfortably to my insides; the spice kicks at my tonsils and I feel a warm, unparalleled fullness in my belly. This is comfort food.

When I open my eyes, my mother is looking at me. The silence that began with her nap has been maintained -- deliberately -- since she woke up. Now she breaks it. “I just want you to make the right decision,” she tells me. “I worry for you.”

“I know,” I say, my voice tiny.

She goes on, “I may never understand your reasons, but I just want you to be happy.”

As always, my mother doesn’t wait for a response and is careful not to let her words linger too long in the air -- unlike the aroma that has wafted from our bowls. “How is it?” she asks, nodding toward the Nihari.

“It’s great, Ama,” I tell her. But she already knows this.

“Happy?” my mother asks, beaming proudly.

And at that moment, I am.

Zainab Shah writes short stories and is completing her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. She lives in Manhattan and teaches at WritopiaLab. Please visit her at; she would love to hear from you. Follow her on Twitter @zainabshah.

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Beautiful. Perfect homage to comfort food and moms:)
This was so wonderful to read and especially today. I spoke with my mother this morning, telling her about a good but "hard" visit with my adult son. Then we reminisced about her visit to me years ago which began with her arriving on my doorstep with air mattress, vacuum cleaner to blow it up with and a lot of questions about just why I'd stopped telling about things. The visit ended two days later with confessions, understanding and acceptance. This was a beautiful piece about what our parents can and cannot give us and what we must do for ourselves.
@Tramia - Thanks :) ! @Elizabeth - Well said. Sometimes it's difficult to see our parents as having limitations on what they can give us, we are so one with them, that their limitations translate to limitations within ourselves as well...perhaps thats the hardest part about confronting reality.
I could smell that Niharhi, and now I want the recipe to make for my family. How many bridges are built over food? How many fences are mended? We tell stories together when we're at the table, our memories of each other, happy, funny, challenging. The food makes it all ok. May your future be nourishing, too.
Thanks Cynthia! I agree - the food does make it all OK. I'll be sure to send you the recipe :)
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