Closing the Distance With a Dash of Salt and Cumin

A white sketched outline of two people are crouched over a soup pot. One is feeding the other.

Time Zones Week – All Artwork by Vivienne Le

In the middle of a pandemic, 8,000 miles away from Dhaka, Bangladesh, I craved my favorite dish in the world: beef bhuna, a curry made of tender meat and rich, spice-packed gravy. I started dreaming of it almost every night. I was feeling picky about the taste. I couldn’t just take the subway to Queens and get it from a Bangladeshi restaurant — it wouldn’t taste like home. I’ve eaten a lot of beef curries in my life. But somehow it never compared to when my mother or grandmother cooked it.

By the time fall arrived in the northeast, I reached a point of extreme homesickness. I hadn’t seen my family in almost two years. It was frustrating that I couldn’t time-zone-leap like I had throughout the last decade of my life, having attended both high school and college abroad. Jet lag was a regular mental state — but here I was, not even able to leave my Brooklyn apartment, let alone buy plane tickets to go hug my family or pile spoonfuls of rice and beef onto my plate.

Eventually I took the plunge to just try making it. I chose a simple recipe. I went to a grocery store nearby, picked out stew meat and onions, and checked off the spices in my cabinet. I chopped onions, swallowed back tears, and marinated meat with spices and yogurt. When I was cooking the sauce, I noticed the yogurt forming cloudy clusters. Trying not to let this setback get to me, I simmered the gravy according to the recipe and finally, after a grand six hours of marination and three hours of cooking, it was time to taste. It smelled alright, and I was salivating at the thought of finally uniting with the one I loved. I took a spoonful of meat and sauce and gently poured it onto my plate.

It was not good.

Perhaps there was another route: Why couldn’t I just ask my mother? Pride, mostly. I hated relying on parents who created a home where my queerness was never welcome. I was too stubborn to admit I didn’t know how to do something my mother had basically perfected over the years. Everything I knew about Bangladeshi cooking was self-taught until this point. I’d especially started working on my skills over quarantine fueled by the intense longing for a feeling of home, the inability to travel in the foreseeable future, and anything made by my mother or grandmother a distant memory and my favorite beef bhuna a literal dream. I’d started with the basics: daal. Slowly, I expanded my horizons a little bit using YouTube videos. I made aloo paratha, fried flatbread stuffed with potatoes and spices. Shahi tukra, a dessert made of caramelized toast soaked in milk and sugar syrup. Keema, a ground beef curry where all you had to do was add turmeric, cumin, and chili powder, over fried onions and potatoes, and the stove would do the work. It went well, until of course, my disastrous attempt at beef bhuna.

I was back at square one.

I went a few weeks pretending it was okay. It was just one dish. I didn’t need it. I’d be able to visit Dhaka soon enough. Except. COVID cases in New York were on the rise, and vaccines hadn’t been distributed yet. I wanted to go home, even if it meant I would be bombarded by questions of when will you get married? by my relatives.

I debated 50 times before I hit the call button, my stomach in knots. I checked the time. 9 a.m. would be 8 p.m. for Ma, an acceptable hour. But this call required me to swallow my pride. Was I willing to do so — over beef curry of all things? Ma picked up even though it was dinnertime. I got past the small talk and blurted out my question.

“Can you teach me how to make beef bhuna?”

Please don’t laugh or question my cooking abilities, I prayed to the culinary gods. She didn’t do either. She just said, “really?”

I showed her the recipe I’d used. She said: “This is mostly similar, but there’s one other thing. When you fry the onions, make sure you throw in the spices there as well. Not just when you marinate it. Especially the cumin, that’s important. And before you take it off the stove, add salt. Beef needs more salt than you assume.”

“Ohh, okay,” I said, jotting down notes.

“And taste it before you turn off the stove. How else will you know if you hate it or not?”

“Yeah, good point,” I said. “The yogurt formed these ugly clouds when i cooked it — do you know anything about that?”

“You just have to beat it with a fork for a little before you add it and it won’t do that.”

“Oh.”

“You can call me, you know,” she said. “When you make it.”

“Eh, it’ll be around my dinner time — my 5 p.m. is 4 a.m. for you.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “I don’t mind.”

Late night calls on either of our time zones weren’t a regular occurrence, but with both of our reckless sleeping schedules, we did subconsciously know we could call the other at strange times on the clocks on our respective ends. It was something she had normalized, with a family scattered across time zones. And while I didn’t usually call Ma randomly in the middle of my day, I realized there had been times when I’d woken up from a nightmare and knew she was awake, which gave me reassurance I could talk to someone at 3 a.m. if I wanted to. Even though it was unspoken, she had willingly internalized time as a sacrifice in order to breach the gap — in a way, perhaps I had internalized it, too.

The next day, with Ma on my phone nested on the counter, I tried to cook as she slowly gave instructions. We both pretended she wasn’t struggling to keep her eyes open. As she instructed, I beat the yogurt before adding it to my marinade. I fried the onions with all the spices and made sure I added plenty of cumin. I timed it to precision, checking my phone frequently, but knowing I needed to have patience. And finally, before turning off the heat, I added salt, and tasted it to make sure it was okay.

“Moment of truth,” I said, noticing the sun coming up behind her.

I picked up my spoon and pretended to give her the first bite before taking my own. When it hit my tongue, I was overwhelmed by the rich flavor and heat in the sauce and the fact that the meat melted in my mouth. It was the right amount of spicy and honestly, delicious. It wasn’t as good as my mother’s or my grandmother’s, obviously.

“I’ll rank it a solid third,” I said.

“When you come home, it’ll be the first thing I’ll feed you,” she said.

“Can’t wait,” I said, trying my best to hide my tears.

She snored lightly in response.

This evening started a regular twice-a-day FaceTiming routine that extended beyond just “how are you’s” and “I’m alive’s.” Once during her day and my night, once during her night and my day. Sometimes at random off-hours. I took Ma to get mochi donuts with me to Chinatown. She called me in the middle of watching a movie to ask where else she’d seen every other actor. She took me to get her first vaccine shot.

As we started bridging the time zones through more regular calls, I started gaining hope that someday I could talk to her about my queerness, which I’d never felt like I could do before. In between conversations, I snuck in details about never feeling like I could marry a man — and that I found certain celebrity women attractive. The shift didn’t occur overnight, but as we confided in each other about our days and daily ups and downs, I felt that we could have more intentional conversations about my identity sometime in the future, even if it took multiple sittings and patience on both of our ends.

I finally received my own vaccination in April 2021 and booked flights to visit Dhaka in May. Ma waited outside the arrivals gate and I jumped into her arms. It felt surreal taking in her presence — it’s still weird that I’ve been three inches taller than her for a few years now. But she’s such an adult in my life the physical size difference doesn’t matter. The hug conveyed what words couldn’t — it was a huge relief to be able to close the physical and time gap again. It was also different from any of our other “welcome home” hugs. The pandemic had thrown timezones upside down, and in not knowing when we’d physically seen each other, we had grown closer than ever emotionally.

At the apartment, Ma brought out the beef soon after I’d showered. The first bite was as divine as I remembered, even in my jet lagged state. I tore a piece off with my hand, mixed the gravy, and made a little ball of the sauced up meat with a bit of rice and took it into my mouth. I could taste the individual spices — the cumin and chili powder bringing the heat, the coriander and garlic and ginger adding the much needed pungent punch while onions added a layer of sweetness and finally the sprinkles of salt and pepper completed it all. I looked at Ma, and she was watching me eat intently, the joy of having me back here eating her food clear in her eyes.


Time Zones Week is a series of essays curated and edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya.


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Padya Paramita

Padya Paramita is a Bangladesh-born, New Haven-based writer, editor, and pop culture enthusiast. Their work has appeared in Teen Vogue, them., Color Blog, VRV Blog, and Dogwood Journal, where she was a finalist for the Dogwood Literary Award in Nonfiction in 2020. They are the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Dream Glow Magazine, a literary journal inspired by the artistic project of BTS. To learn more about her work, visit padyaparamita.com or follow her on Twitter @padyatheleo.

Padya has written 3 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. I love, love, loved this. I recently had a very loaded homecoming to a sort-of-estranged queerphobic Bangla home and talking to my mum about nbness,for the first time minus the usual hostility etc was something else. What I’m trying to say Padya, is your piece nearly made me cry <3

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