Bread and bonding: The emotional power of chapatis
by Stephen Glennon
We had just moved to London when Rena found a folder of her mother’s old recipes in a dusty cardboard box that had been forgotten in the back of a wardrobe for years. Her mother, Purnima, had passed away over a decade before we even met, when Rena was in her early twenties and just out of university. Rena said that the little yelp of excitement that she made on rediscovering the recipes was exactly the sort of sound her mother would have made too.
We had only been together around a year at this point, and food – especially Indian food – had always been a way for us to bond. These recipes were a treasure trove: a way for Rena to maintain a link to her mother, and a way for me to learn more about the influences that had shaped Rena’s life as the daughter of Indian refugees in Canada.
Discovering the recipe
There was one recipe in particular that quickly became a mainstay of our lives: chapatis, a soft, unleavened Indian flatbread around the shape and size of a tortilla. This recipe had travelled with Purnima from India, where she was born, to Uganda, where she grew up, to Canada, where she arrived as a refugee after Uganda expelled the country’s entire South Asian minority in the seventies.
The recipe is simple. Atta flour (a type of flour with a high gluten content that allows the dough to be rolled very thin), warm water, a splash of oil. When she was a kid, Rena would watch her mother expertly rolling out the dough into thin circles, but it was only when Purnima became ill that she began to really pay attention.
“Once she got diagnosed with cancer, she was told she had six to nine months to live. I felt real pressure to learn things like this,” Rena explains. Purnima actually lived for two years after the initial diagnosis, and Rena remembers that difficult time with a bittersweet fondness. “It meant I had extra time when I wasn’t taking things like this for granted,” she says. “We would make dinner together, which always involved making chapatis. We would make some other dish as well, and then eat and have a chai together.”
Now, in our kitchen in London, we have resumed this family tradition. Just like Purnima was, we’re both far away from where we grew up, and we’ve learned that home has less to do with geography and much more to do with who you’re with and what you share with them. Rena is in charge of rolling the dough now. She can never quite get them to look like Purnima’s perfect circles, but I think our vaguely triangular chapatis are charming.
I’m in charge of cooking. There was a lot of trial and error involved in this part. After Purnima passed away, Rena stopped making chapatis, and ended up forgetting a lot of the details. “Little things like how long to cook them for and when to flip them over – I didn’t remember a lot of that stuff, which makes me a bit sad,” she says, but we’ve more or less managed to figure it out. The pan needs to be really hot and dry, and if the chapatis have been rolled thin enough, they’ll quickly start to puff up. They’ll also burn quickly, so you have to be quick to turn them and then transfer them to a plate to be slathered in butter.
Our new apartment started to quickly feel like a home soon after we started making chapatis together. I am tremendously honoured that Rena trusted me enough to incorporate me into her family tradition, especially because there was no history of migration in my family – at least there wasn’t until I moved away – and food to us, like most families in rural Ireland, was always just a means to an end.
But by now I’ve spent almost half my life far away from where I grew up, bouncing from Ireland to Italy and Germany and now London, and with that comes the realisation that food is so much more than a way to avoid being hungry. Sharing and making food creates bonds, and bonds create an anchor and a sense of self.
Rena agrees. “Because you didn’t know my mom, you only know the things I’ve told you about her,” she says. “It’s nice that we can recreate this bonding experience. Even if the person I shared this with is gone, the experience is still here and the fact that we can share it with each other…” She breaks off because one of our chapatis has puffed up particularly well. “That one’s really good!” she exclaims with delight that makes my heart puff up just like the chapati.
“When I think about the times we would cook together, it’s not just the food, it’s the time that we spent with each other,” she continues. “It’s nice to have that again.” Tonight we’re having aloo baingan (potato and aubergine curry) and khata imlee chana (tamarind chickpea curry) with our vaguely triangular chapatis. Rena is an expert at tearing off chunks of chapati one-handed and using it to scoop up vegetables. I’m still learning. Maybe someday we’ll also manage to get them perfectly round like Purnima did, but for now that doesn’t matter. It just matters that we made them together.