I Tried to Perfect My Mother’s Pullao and Learned to Love My Flaws Instead

Ramadan is always around the corner, I like to say. With one month out of every twelve spent fasting, if it’s not happening right now, it will be here sooner than I think. Ideally, the month is a time for spiritual growth and re-focusing of priorities. But, practically, my productivity dips, I sleep through the day, and I eat until I get heartburn when I break fast; I’m not a perfect Muslim by any means. Still, every Ramadan, I form a niyyah, an intention to be better: to pray, commune with friends and family, attend community events, and lend my support to causes and people I care about.

This year, stuck at my father’s home in Michigan due to COVID-19, the month loomed larger than ever. The mosques weren’t open, iftar dinners were cancelled, visiting family was a no go—my usual large, bustling community of Muslims shrank to just four people: my dad, wife, uncle, and myself. Any hopes I had for better behavior seemed stymied from the start.

The thing is, Ramadan hasn’t been normal for me for years. My mother, the undisputed leader of the house, passed away in 2009. Ammi was a tornado in a shalwar kameez and white doctor’s coat. During the month, she worked full time, took us to the mosque daily, and hosted fabulous dinners with lavish spreads of kormas and kababs for a long table of aunts and uncles and cousins from around the world. In the decade since her passing, we’ve all more or less done Ramadan separately, our nuclear family spread out like an archipelago instead of the single coherent mass we once were. This year, quarantine became an unexpected excuse to try wearing my mother’s mantle.

My unit of four had already been together for six weeks before the first day of Ramadan rolled around. As head chef, I’d already been pumping out easy classics like daal and tandoori chicken and the occasional bread experiment for days on end. But for the first iftar, I wanted to aim high and cook our family’s signature recipe: Pullao, a mix of rice and goat meat simmered in a broth flavored with onions, garlic, ginger, and a dozen aromatic spices. It’s a delicate, half-day dish and you only get one chance to nail the texture and tenderness. I had a whole plan: I would start the broth and meat early in the day and prepare the rice right before it was time to eat. But then that familiar fatigue set in, and I took a nap.

It was a critical mistake. I woke up at exactly the moment fast broke. Shit. What would everyone eat?

I could hear my dad moving around rapidly downstairs, fumbling around in the freezer looking for food to make up for my error. I ran into the kitchen, chopped up some tomatoes, salted them, and mixed with cucumbers, toasted pita, and scallions in an impromptu panzanella-kachumber mashup that has become a staple during quarantine.

I felt guilty. An empty table on the first of Ramadan was unthinkable for someone like my mother. Still, there was food to eat, after all. There has, gratefully, always been food.

I confessed my blunder on the Whatsapp thread me and all my cousins dedicated to the meals we cooked each day: a vegan mushroom Biryani in Ohio, a brilliant crimson aloo gosht in Boston, and leftovers turned into cheesy pasta in Texas. On Zoom calls we exchanged recipes and gossiped while we cooked. Miles and miles away from the usual support and caretaking of our parents, this was our first chance to define Ramadan for ourselves. The outcomes weren’t always as polished as the generations’ before us. Still, we recognized these new practices—and the small disappointments that came with them—as a valuable source of growth.

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