One of the best cultural and culinary experiences of my life was in a place I least expected it.
It was the winter of 2000, and I was 22 and in Glasgow, Scotland for five weeks. The days were short, the nights were long and the weather cold, rainy and gray. This was my first time abroad, and I left my sunny Southern California behind. I was cold but soon warmed by the realization that people, not weather, make Glasgow.
What brought me to Scotland? I was following a Scotsman.
But this is no love story. It’s a story about Indian cuisine with a side of personal growth.
Before the trip, my knowledge of Scotland was popular culture light: kilts, the 1996 movie Trainspotting and Groundskeeper Willie from the Simpsons. I knew of Braveheart but never saw it. Could I have found Scotland on a map? Maybe, but most likely not.
I was naïve and abroad.
Between touring the architecturally stunning Glasgow; the magical, green highlands; and taking in a pub or three, I was introduced to food I’d never considered. Not the food you might be thinking of — I tried haggis, the national dish of Scotland, and liked it.
I’m talking about Indian food.
I was quick to learn that Indian food is one of the most popular fares in Scotland and the UK. People going for a “curry” is my equivalent of grabbing Mexican food in Los Angeles.
My introduction to the cuisine was not at a restaurant or a take-out, of which there are plenty. It was at the home of the Ali family. (I would later learn that Indian dishes vary significantly depending on culture, religion, and the region in India from where the dish is inspired.)
Ashaque Ali settled in Scotland in the 1950s. As a young boy, he moved with his family from their farm in Pakistan to pursue a new life in Glasgow. In 1966 he would marry Sarwar, who was also raised in Pakistan and moved to Glasgow to be with Ashaque.
I befriended their youngest son, Shahid, and was invited to their home for dinner, along with some of Shahid’s other friends and cousins.
There were many firsts for me that night, and I desperately did not want to embarrass myself (again). I’d already revealed my ignorance of geography to Shahid in a previous day out. When speaking about the UK’s Asian culture, I revealed my surprise to learn that Pakistan was part of Asia.
It was that exact moment I knew I had a lot to learn about the world.
As a guest and the first American in the Ali home, I wanted to ask intelligent questions and get to know more about their family and Scottish Pakistani culture. Instead, I sat and smiled, afraid to ask questions. Shahid’s mother spoke Urdu, and we managed to communicate pleasantries with Shahid translating for us.
When our dinner of tandoori chicken, vegetable Pakoras, pilau rice and vegetable and chicken curries was served, I indulged slowly. I discreetly watched how others treated the food around them. Take chapatis, for example. The whole-grain, thin flatbread looked like a tortilla to me, but I learned quickly to rip small pieces to scoop up bite-size portions of the dishes.
For the first time in my life, I was out of my cultural and culinary comfort zone, but I enjoyed the experience and the food immensely.
Shahid and I have reflected on that dinner many times throughout the years. He’s shared with me that his parents wanted me to feel welcome in their home that night and wondered how I ended up in Glasgow. And, after returning to Scotland and the Ali family on several occasions, Shahid’s gran ended up considering me as one of her own.
In writing this story, there’s something that I’ve long wondered about: Why Shahid’s parents refer to their dishes as Indian and not Pakistani. Shahid asked his brother-in-law Monir Mohammed, chef and owner of Glasgow’s award winning Mother India Restaurant, to share his perspective.
“The cooking procedure and the spices and herbs they use are mostly the same, although India has lots of fabulous vegetarian cooking,” Monir explained. “South Indian cooking is different, using lots of coconut, mustard seed and curry leaves. The cooking throughout areas and districts in Pakistan also varies. During the 1970s when I first started working at restaurants in the UK, the restaurants always represented both countries in their signage, but I think this probably disappeared to save confusion.”
This story has no end. It’s just the beginning of my connection to Indian food.
In the 16 years since that night at the Ali’s, I’ve worked at Monir’s restaurant as a barmaid, lived in London surrounded by curry houses, and back home in Southern California I have sought out experiences related to Indian food and visited specialty produce crops such as Indian eggplant, moringa, chilies and okra.
I have many stories to tell yet so much left to learn.