Remembering My Mother’s Table with Fresh Roti in America

updated Jan 21, 2020
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(Image credit: DGLimages/Getty Images)

My daughter is mad at me again. The ground beef I’ve cooked is too spicy for her, and what on earth are the green things in it? I tell her that’s cilantro and I only put a pinch of red chili powder. She’s not pacified; she’d rather have chicken nuggets or a grilled cheese sandwich. Anything but Pakistani food.

“Too bad,” I tell her, echoing my own mother from 30-some years ago. “This is what you’re eating tonight.”

My Dinner Table in Pakistan in the 1980s

My childhood dinner table was different in so many ways, but also somehow similar. The same chicken curry, with runny gravy, few spices, and lots of bone-in pieces, has been passed down through generations. It was Pakistan in the 1980s, and I lived with my two sisters, parents, and grandparents in a little house in a little lower-middle-class neighborhood. Our lives swung the pendulum from boring to worrisome. Military dictatorships, corruption, and poverty were on the news constantly, but the only thing I really cared about was what was for dinner.

Forget korma or daal fry (or literally anything with the word masala in the name) — the food at home was something totally different, much less spicy and more flavorful.

My mother, Ammi, was not a very inventive cook, and we got a regular rotation of goat meat (gosht) cooked with the vegetable of the day: aaloo gosht, palak gosht, bhindi gosht … the list was as exhaustive as it was unappetizing. If we were lucky, money-wise, there was chicken, and we fought like hungry cats over the drumstick.

I, of course, wanted nothing to do with her cooking. I came of age in a time when big multinationals were just realizing that third-world countries have exploding, starving populations. KFC opened a location near my college. Pizza Hut became a household name, although spoken in a hushed tone to confer the respect awarded to everything American. My sisters and I snuggled under the covers at night watching American movies and sitcoms. We watched with desperate envy as blonde mothers on the screen baked apple pies and teenagers ate cheeseburgers at diners. When we finally bought a microwave I woke up in the middle of the night to attempt a batch of brownies, just like in the movies.

Military dictatorships, corruption, and poverty were on the news constantly, but the only thing I really cared about was what was for dinner.

Ammi in the meantime had graduated us from simple cooking tasks to making the dreaded roti. Also known as the chapatti, this thin, round bread is similar to the tortilla and an essential part of Pakistani home food. At a restaurant we might’ve ordered the carb-loaded naan, or at a wedding eaten the super-greasy sheermal, but at home we only ate the roti. And the woman of the house made it, from scratch. I envied those friends who had servants to cook their rotis for them. Ammi probably wished the same. But we were poor, so Ammi did the cooking.

My two sisters and I kneaded the dough, one girl each day, our little hands aching with the effort. Ten minutes, 15, sometimes 20. If I stopped too soon the rotis would suffer, and everyone would know that the dough had not been kneaded sufficiently. Ammi would come up behind me and push a finger into the mixture, checking for firmness, jabbing until satisfied. Then she’d refrigerate the dough for a few hours until it was time.

The routine was as familiar to me as it was hated. Take out the skillet, heat it up until a faint smoke rises to your eyes and makes them water. Make little round balls with the dough, pat them with dry flour, roll them into flat circles, and then place gently on the hot skillet and let cook. Roti-making is an art. You have to wait until just the right moment to flip the roti over. It should puff up thus, filled with heat that will burn your fingers if you get too close. You have to make the perfect circle. And it must always be warm and fresh.

Ammi, of course, couldn’t make fresh rotis all the time because she worked. To a nation of homemakers, this was weird and possibly terrible. She’d cook in the morning before heading out to her afternoon-shift college where she was first teacher and then principal, her clothes smelling of sweat and spices. Then she’d come back in the evening exhausted. No big deal. We would take the rotis out of the freezer, wrap them in cloth, and heat them in the microwave. As I got older, I understood that was the sole purpose of the microwave.

(Image credit: Saadia Faruqi)

My American Dinner Table Today

Now, as an American woman in my 40s, my childhood in Pakistan is nothing but a distant memory. The rotis of my youth are usually replaced by frozen naan produced by Indian companies assured of their sales because of busy immigrant moms.

Now I am the bad mother, serving my children factory-manufactured, unhealthy, and (gasp!) frozen bread. I can imagine that for all the miles between us, Ammi and I aren’t that different. Sometimes one must give up traditions that sap all your energy and leave you a husk of a woman with watering eyes and ungrateful children.

My dinner table has changed. As a child, I often ate alone with my sisters after school. Now I make it a point for the family to eat at least one meal together. Of course, we are lax in our American ways. My father never allowed reading or television during mealtimes; we usually focused on the sounds of spoons against plates (or kicking each other under the table). Now my children have developed a tradition of their own: watching Netflix during dinner.

Then I wonder if every generation has the same worry of disappearing traditions in the face of new ones. From my grandmother to Ammi, and now to myself in a small house thousands of miles away from where I grew up, we all witness a loss of how our own table was set so long ago.

I wonder suddenly if this dying art of roti-making can indeed be passed down to a new generation, one that has not even cultivated the taste of real Pakistani foods.

Some days, I want to feel closer to those early traditions, to Ammi. I knead some dough, just enough for a few rotis. I’m expecting the familiar wrist cramp, but it doesn’t come. My wrist is bigger, stronger. I heat the skillet, make little balls, drop half a bowl of flour on the counter in an attempt to act traditional. The watering in my eyes is the same, at least. My rotis come out stiff and elongated, nothing like the fluffy, perfectly round ones Ammi used to make. My daughter stands next to me, wide-eyed. She wants to know what this is, how to make it. In her excitement, she agrees to taste it, and I see the beginning of a smile on her little face.

“Can I?” she asks. I let her play with the dough, showing her how to knead correctly, how to use the finger to test its readiness. I wonder suddenly if this dying art of roti-making can indeed be passed down to a new generation, one that has not even cultivated the taste of real Pakistani foods.