In Khatija’s Kitchen

Nasrin and I had met decades ago, when songs like Madonna’s Borderline and David Bowie’s Let’s Dance were infiltrating pop radio stations and the roller skating rink in Boston where we first became friends. I remember my eighth grade classmate at Boston Latin School, Rachel, and her new friend Nasrin coming off the green line trolley in Kenmore Square to meet me, Nasrin’s roller skates hanging off her shoulder, looking fun and sassy—and so different from anyone I’d ever known. Getting to Nasrin, who is Arabic, was like watching a foreign film for the first time.

On the weekends when we first became friends, Nasrin and I sometimes sat in her bedroom in Brookline talking about the boys we liked, making incisions on our t-shirts and tying lace in our hair to achieve the rumpled look of Madonna. Meanwhile, scents from her mother’s kitchen floated around the house and into Nasrin’s room like a bewitching incense that mesmerized me.

Walking into her mom Khatija’s kitchen for the first time was like stepping into C.S. Lewis’ make-believe world, Narnia, the spices and scents of Arabic and Indian food percolating from the stove. Khatija made food that was as foreign to me as some of the Arabic plaques that hung on their walls. In my home, food was meant to nourish and satiate the appetite, but I wanted to venture into new territory, food and otherwise, and it was in Khatija’s kitchen that I began my quest.

We didn’t attend the same school, live in the same neighborhood, take ballet or tennis lessons or anything else that might have brought us together, but soon after roller-skating on that spring Saturday, Nasrin and I melded like only best friends can, sharing secrets, crushes and the vivid dreams of how we imagined our future weddings and lives. We had no way of knowing the milestones we would encounter together: the graduations, family deaths, first loves and broken hearts, or how our close friendship would span decades and continents.

During those early days of our friendship, we used to sleep and eat over at each others’ homes. I’d already begun my experimentation with trying new food, transforming my mom’s iceberg lettuce salads with cucumber, tomatoes and Wishbone Italian dressing into my own mixed salads that I created with various vegetables I found in our refrigerator. Back then, exotic food involved trips to Boston’s Chinatown. My parents and I liked ordering the pu pu platter comprised of various fried Chinese delights, and that was decorated with colorful paper umbrellas that I collected.

While Nasrin was dismissing her heritage in order to fit in more, even giving herself the moniker “Nicky” so as not to explain her unusual name, I was a detective trying to define the enigmatic customs and cuisine of Nasrin’s family. Being a Muslim, Nasrin
didn’t celebrate the Christian holidays that I did, although she has spent time with my family eating turkey dinners on Thanksgiving and Christmas over the years. I was curious about what she ate during her holidays, and learned that she had to fast during the month-long Muslim holiday Ramadan. During this holiday, Nasrin and her mom can’t eat during daylight, but then eat light meals at sundown. The Shah’s holiday culminates with Eid, the Festival of Breaking the Fast, when Mrs. Shah would set the dinner table with their finest cutlery, their fanciest tablecloths, the way my mom set the table during holidays, too.

Nasrin’s mother, Khatija (or Mrs. Shah as I called her), would call us for dinner, and explain each dish to me, making them sound like treasures I couldn’t wait to unveil: Prism-shaped samosas, lamb simmered in spicy curry, basmati rice with cloves, and warm charred paratha. I took bites of Mrs. Shah’s food,apprehensive at first because her cuisine was so new to me, but then amazed at these new tastes that were spicy and so flavorful in my mouth. Flavors like cardamom, curry and coriander, fragrant, colorful and abundant, surprised my senses, and were completely different from the dried green herbs in my mother’s kitchen drawers. Mrs. Shah’s spices, sitting nameless in clear jars on the counter, were like an artist’s paints and supplies, bright orange and stars that she mixed and melded into kaleidoscopic meals. And what was surprising to me was that Mrs. Shah never consulted a cookbook when preparing dinner. Nasrin recently told me that her mother has never written down a recipe either. When Mrs. Shah was in her kitchen, she made her curries, rice dishes and chutneys according to taste, instinct and memory, according to what her mother had learned from her mother.

For dessert, Mrs. Shah often brought out galub jamun, small round, sweet cake-like milky cheese balls,sitting in honey syrup scented with the essence of rosewater. It was during those dinners, and desserts served with homemade chai, that my eyes and appetite for food and cultures different from my own first blossomed.

Even though we live in different continents, Nasrin and I are still like two attached teenagers, talking on the phone all the time (thank you Skype!), still discussing our fears and dreams, and becoming surrogate therapists to one another during our constantly evolving lives. We are like sisters who share the indelible memories of our younger selves, sisters brought up at the same tables. I hope our young daughters, only nine months apart, will experience the same.

Our little ones at the Public Garden in Boston
  1. Hey Tracey,

    What a wonderful story of friendship and discovery! I have to tell you that you made me really hungry reading your post and eager to want to bake with the wonderful spices you’re introducing your readers to!

    Thanks for sharing from the heart!


  2. This post reminded me of my grandmother’s kitchen and all memories evoked when I smell things like onions, garlic and lemon. Whenever I feel the need to slow down and savor the moment, I cut up some vegetables and make soup. I loved reading about the beautiful relationship you shared with your best friend. I found myself hoping your daughters will somehow share the same bond even though they are continents apart. I could also relate to the “little of this, little of that” way of cooking and how I tried so desperately to capture my grandmother’s recipes on paper so that I would have them forever. It wasn’t until I entered the culinary world and learned about flavor balancing that I was able to step out of my need for recipes. Now I get to play in the kitchen with my clients and teach them the skills I learned from my grandmother: a little of this, a little of that. . .

  3. Tracey,

    I can smell this post! Clove, cardamom, curry and coriander–four of my favorite spices and such beautiful alliteration (word geek, I know). This story of a friendship, woven together with food and maintained over time and distance is lovely. Thank you for sharing this reverie!

  4. Tracey, I loved your phrase “kaleidoscopic food” — it evoked images of colors, constantly changing — just like your life-long friendship with Nasrin!  What a beautiful ode to two lives intertwined in a kitchen (and roller rink) — and that picture at the end… absolutely precious.

  5. tracey, i love this so much.  thank you, i am deeply moved every time i read this post, we’re now moving into the third generation of creating wonderful kitchen memories, where so much is shared. i am sure our lil one’s will be dining all over the world with one another all too soon.  in the meantime, homemade chai and skype. 

  6. Hi Marion!
    Thank you for your comment and I’m glad I inspired you to bake with the spices. If you want some new recipes, let me know. And maybe we can get Nasrine to share her mom’s recipes or better yet, cook for us someday.

  7. Sue Ann:

    I’m happy to hear your grandmother inspired you to cook and I’d love to hear more about her kitchen and your memories. I, too, hope my and Nasrine’s daughter get to share a special bond. We are working on making that happen.

    Yes, a little of this, a little of that…I love cooking that way, too.

  8. Shanna:

    Thank you for your sweet note. I’m so glad you can smell the post. I love those spices, too, (and alliteration). It’s so nice to know another word geek. ; )And “reverie.” I love that!

  9. Thank you, Kimby. I’m glad you like that phrase, and it’s how I see so many things: colors, constantly changing. It has been special to share a friendship for so long and for it to have started in a roller rink and in a kitchen.
    Thank you!

  10. Ah, what can I say? I , too, am very moved that we’re entering a 3rd generation of dining together, and friendship between our daughters. Yes, here’s to chai and Skype!

  11. Tracey!  WOW!  I had NO idea you shared this exquisite relationship with Nasrine!  You are two of my dearest new friends and here I discover the depth of the bond between you.  What an exquisite post!  my whole body yearns to experience Katija’s aromas!  exotic flavors!  new textures!  What a gift to be exposed so fully… and, what I consider a very important daimonic event/encounter in your life.  Your Daimon being your calling, your vocation.  Here you are with this incredible passion for food and sharing it through story.  To have this experience as a radiant symbol in your life to eternally inspire and energize your work is truly divine!  LOVE IT!  And… what a gift of friendship the two of you share.  Such a treasure!  
    The image of the two of your children is so precious.  All of your photos make your post a living piece of art.   

  12. Tracey, what a treat to read this beautiful description of your and Nasrine’s friendship! I love how you chose her mother’s kitchen as a backdrop, but wove into it the larger meaning of your enduring connection. And this: “Mrs. Shah’s spices, sitting nameless in clear jars on the counter, were
    like an artist’s paints and supplies, bright orange and stars that she
    mixed and melded into kaleidoscopic meals.” Just beautiful. Best sentence I’ve read all week. LOVE. xo

  13. Helen:
    I’m so glad you found it a treat. We go way back and yet I still remember her mom’s kitchen with fondness (and our Madonna-esque t-shirts). Thank you for your sweet comments! xo

  14. Kathtleen, sorry for this long delay! Thank you for your kind words…I am enjoying my “daimon” and I appreciate your insights. Your incredible passions come through even here in a comment, and that’s why I feel so blessed that you stopped by. xoxo

  15. Yes, Kimby! Our friendship has indeed been kaleidoscopic. That’s a nice image to hold .

  16. Those are four of my favorite flavors, too. I’ll be sure to alert you to any recipes in which I use them. (I’m a word geek, too, which is what I love about you.)

  17. I’m glad I was able to make you hungry! Thanks for stopping by, Marion (and sorry for the long delay).

  18. I love the “little but of this, little bit of that” concept, too. It’s exciting that that’s something you share with your clients because it’s a wonderful way to cook. Onions, garlic, and lemon…my kitchen often smells like your grandmother’s. Mmm….I’m getting hungry!

  19. I can’t wait to see how our daughters’ friendship evolves, whether it’s cooking, dining or just playing with blocks! lol. Yes, homemade chai and Skype…that’s how we roll.

  20. Tracey,
    First- I hope your family and friends in Boston are all safe. Very sad day.
    Second- what a beautiful story. It made me think about being in the kitchen baking with my grandmother. You are a wonderful writer/storyteller.

  21. Your post evoked so many senses…aromas of the spices cooking, initiating a new palate with a friend, and the emotion I felt deep in my heart reading about your friendship with Nasrin. I recently in the past 2 years have been cooking with these spice jewels, not only are they a deliciously new palate but they make experimenting and trying to meld 2 different cultures in my kitchen a heavenly experience…after all isn’t that what cooking and food are all about, the connection which transcends miles and time. thank you for sharing.