“You don’t know how to do this?’ she said, her brow slightly furrowed. It never occurred to her that I’d never done it before.” A story of culinary legacy.
When I was little, Mama would roll out small disks of whole-wheat dough—atta—thin and flat on the rippled glass cutting board with her long, thin, wooden rolling pin. She’d put the flattened, uncooked circle on a plate and I, on my stepstool, my chin barely scraping the countertop, would grab plastic cookie cutters in seafoam green, bubblegum pink, and baby blue, and smack them down into the circle with all the indelicateness of a three-year-old’s hand. Mama would wiggle the cemented cookie cutters gently to pry the dough animals free, popping the bunnies and birds onto her tawa, the heavy, concave pan that rotis are cooked on. She’d wait until they puffed up, turn them over while adding small bits of butter that sizzled in white-yellow bubbles on the pan, browning the shapes to a deep gold, giving them a slight crispness along with their signature chewiness. My Nani, my Dad’s mother, never made shapes when she lived with us. She only made smaller circles that looked like moons.
Mama and Nani both shooed me away if I got too close to the stove or the knives, but I was allowed to sit in the kitchen and watch. I brought my large Lego blocks—I was too young for the small ones—and made a mess of them on the white linoleum floor while I watched spurts of steam escape from the pressure cooker as goat meat melted into a rich stew inside. The sound of it terrified me: I’d watch the pot shake slightly, hear the soft rattling as the little piece on top shook, and then all of a sudden that small cylindrical bit shot up with a loud hiss and a stream of steam that made me jump. Nani would try to comfort me, or tell me to leave, but I was entranced by the white clouds glowing under the stove lights. I peered over the counter as Mama took that round metal box—the one every one of my aunts and grandmothers have too—shimmied the lid off, and dipped a tiny spoon into small bowls of bitter yellow turmeric, warm brown cumin, sneezy hot red pepper, and beads of dark mustard seeds. I sat at the kitchen table with hands clamped over my ears as she ground cans of whole peeled tomatoes in a food processor; I listened to the soft, thick bubbling of pureed tomato sauce melting into sautéed onions and spices.
I was twelve when I finally asked my mother if I could help her make rotis. I knew she wouldn’t let me touch the knives needed for vegetables and meat—especially when Nani was nearby, worrying about everything—but I figured that since rotis only needed hands and a rolling pin, she might let me.
“You don’t know how to do this?” she said, her brow slightly furrowed. It never occurred to her that I’d never done it before.
She dumped flour, salt, and oil into the large metal bowl that’s older than I am and set the mix on the counter.
“Mix that. If you need more water, add it.”
I had watched her and Nani enough times to understand vaguely how to get the dough to combine until it was a loose ball shape, and then turn and flatten it with my hand. I knew how their matching thin, bony fingers would scoop the dough and press it down.
I copied them, visualizing their hands in motion, but the dough didn’t combine right—the remaining flour and the clods of dough sticking to my fingers made me panic. I had done something wrong. Did I need more water? The dough wasn’t a whole ball and it wasn’t that perfect medium consistency between Play-Doh and clay. Nani hovered by, watching me while my mother watched the pot of hot tomato puree and chicken on the stove, and came to take the bowl from me, softly chattering in Hindi and broken English that she’d take care of it, that she would fix it and then we could show my mother what I made. I refused. Nani retreated. I showed Mama the dough, slightly nervous as I asked for help; her face never changed. She pushed a finger into the sandy brown ball and muttered something about it being too hard—if the dough was too hard, the rotis would be cracker-like and stiff instead of pliable and firm. She knocked the handle of the sink faucet with her elbow, cupped her hand underneath the stream, and slung the water into the bowl. I struggled with kneading the water into the already combined dough, but I still worked my hands in the slippery ball to somehow force the water inside every molecule of flour. Mama had to take over again: after every quarter turn, the dough would grow smoother from the pressure from her palm, and the flour at the bottom would disappear. Nani watched Mama’s arms and wrists bend with the dough, wringing her hands as she waited by the stove for the tawa to heat up.
When it came to rolling the rotis, mine resembled amoebas instead of circles. My palms got an odd, uncomfortable vibrating sensation from rolling the thin stick of wood under my hands for so long trying to get the right shape. Lumpy and sticky, mama peeled them off the board, rolled them back up into balls and started over, running them over with the rolling pin so they were evenly flat. Whenever Mama wandered off to check the laundry or lean against the doorframe to watch the Indian dance competition playing on the TV in the other room, Nani would gently nudge me out of the way and whip out perfectly circular rotis, adding them to the pile while Mama wasn’t looking.
I was awed by their ease and speed: they broke off small balls of dough, flattened them into convex disks, dipped them in flour, then rolled them, flipping them over, flicking them around, shaping them into perfect circles every time. Mama’s hair got frizzy in the process—probably from the steam rising off whatever was on the stove—her eyes grew intense, sinking back into their sockets, as she focused on the circle she was rolling. The bags under them grew darker. The lines around her mouth grew deeper, and her thin mouth struck hard in a downward arc. Her mind seemed to be somewhere else, lost in the rhythm of the rolling pin. I was reluctant to bother her when she seemed to be thinking important thoughts, but when I did, she sparked out of wherever she was to her normal bright face with that smile that always seemed slightly tense.
I was much better at cooking the roti than rolling them. I burned the first few, sure, but I quickly got the hang of watching to know that when the uncooked dough circle began to grow bubbles in its surface, it needed just a little while longer before a flip. Four flips for a perfect roti.
I became a regular in the kitchen. I think my mother liked that I could help. She’d come home from work—tired from a medical field that wasn’t challenging enough or interesting enough for her, that kept her on call late into the nights for mundane problems instead of something exciting that would be worth the constant ring of the phone—and innocently ask me if I wanted to make atta. Of course I wanted to. I loved being able to sit in the kitchen and watch her cook; I loved that I could help. The work that she used to split with Nani was now split between the three of us, letting Mama relax a little more. Nani, however, seemed lost.
With less of a role in the kitchen, she ended up watching me work. She would stand in the doorway, wrapped in soft cotton cloth in pale colors as I set the bowl on the floor to knead the dough on my knees for better leverage. I rejected her offers to take over; I didn’t want her to do it and stamp my name over something that wasn’t my work. Her blue-ringed eyes always seemed empty while she watched me; I avoided looking at them, but guilt crept up my arms anyway, tensing my shoulder muscles. It irritated me.
Later, when I was fifteen and by then somewhat of an expert at a soft but firm dough, my friend Eunyoung—my Korean friend as my Nani insisted on calling her—came over after school, and we were hungry. I had an idea.
“Do you want to make roti?” I asked.
Eunyoung lit up; she’d stayed over for dinner last week and remembered watching me flip them on the stove while my mother rolled.
I slung flour into the metal bowl.
“Two bowls,” I told her as I dipped an old Winnie-the-Pooh printed bowl, the yellow bear cracking off the plastic surface, into the huge case that we kept flour in.
“But how much flour is that? In cups?” she asked. I moved on.
“Some oil,” I said, pouring what looked like enough into the bowl.
“How much is that?” she asked.
“Pinch of salt.” I flicked it into the bowl. “And water.”
I couldn’t have told her how much of what was in the bowl, even if I had wanted to. Mama and Nani both measured flour in the Winnie-the-Pooh bowl, salt in the palm of their hand, oil by the eye, water by the glass. The atta turned out perfect. I rolled it into near-perfect circles. I flipped it as my Nani watched in the doorway, eyes fixed on the stove while she waited for my mother to come home from work and give her something to do. I watched as Eunyoung followed me: I had to finish her dough like my mother used to do to mine; I tested it to see if it was too hard. I watched her struggle to roll them, and I helped her make them evenly thick. I watched her burn two of them. The golden smell made us hungrier, eager for the flatbread. At the end of it, we tore the rotis into smaller pieces, bending them into boats with our fingers and using our thumbs to fold yogurt onto the hot, buttery bread, greedily popping the pockets of chilled yogurt into our mouths, with my Nani still watching from the side.