Joshna Maharaj describes herself in three terms “Chef. Writer. Activist.” In truth, she is that and so much more. She is a leader in the good food fight who effortlessly marries the best of the past with the best of the present, and at her core, she’s a teacher who loves to share her passion for quality food lovingly prepared. Enjoy this latest instalment in our Apron Strings series.
My mom and I at a family wedding. It’s a family tradition for one of the pre-wedding events to turn into a small food fight, and that’s what’s all over us.
I come from a family where the kitchen has been the domain of women for countless generations. As a child, I remember being in the kitchen with my mom and my aunties as they cooked our food, giggled, shared recipes, confided in each other and gossiped about each other. The kitchen was (and continues to be) where the action was, the source of tempting smells, the joyful clucking of a group of women and delicious things to eat. This team of women catered every special occasion and family gathering we had, frying samosas, rolling rotis and making chutneys with a sort of dutiful generosity.
As I grew older, I was put to work in the kitchen too. One of the first things I remember doing was sealing samosas with a flour water paste and my little 6-year old finger. As a kid and teenager, I was the prep cook in this kitchen, peeling potatoes, trimming chilies, grating carrots and grinding spices and aromatics for my mom and my aunties. I say prep cook, because I never worked at the stove, where the magic really happened. I was part of the labour force behind processing all those raw ingredients. But there was always the thought/hope in my mind that at some point in the future, I’d be a mother and an aunty and would also know how to put vegetables, aromatics, meat and spices together in this same way.
When I was in my teens, I started to pay more attention to the conversations in the kitchen, and would be told stories about how my mom and aunties were forced into work in the kitchen at very early ages by their parents, and didn’t have as much freedom as I did. My mom was cooking for her whole family at age 10, and one of my aunties was a bride at 16, and thus cooked for her in-laws at that age. It was just expected that women knew how to cook, and would do it, the way their husbands and families liked it.
I would hear about how my aunties didn’t hang out with friends or take piano lessons like I did because it was expected that they would be in the kitchen, helping to cook. My mom has stories of taking her book into the kitchen while she made tea, and of the series of times the tea boiled over the pot because she was lost in her reading. I remember marveling at the fact that I didn’t have that kind of responsibility, feeling simultaneously lucky and like I was somehow missing out on a piece of tradition.
What was clear in the messaging from those years in the kitchen with my mom and aunties was that they cooked because they had to. Some of them liked it, while others, like my mom, would have preferred to spend their time doing other things. Luckily for me, my mom has a pretty solid work ethic. She believes that if you’re going to do something, you should do it well, and she always produces delicious, loving plates of food.
When I came home from living in India for a year, and started cooking school, I paid special attention to those times in the kitchen, asking lots of questions, so eager to learn everything I could about my family’s cooking. The cool, formal sterility of the professional kitchen I was learning about in school was in very stark contrast to the loud, fragrant, use-every-bowl-in-the-house sort of action that was happening in my kitchen at home. I’d watch my mom chop everything with a paring knife over the pot, and know the right amounts of spices by the way it looked in the palm of her hand. (Side note: when I was younger, my mother told me that if I couldn’t chop without a cutting board, I was going to be useless in the kitchen). There was a different sort of intuitive alchemy that seemed to be happening in the Indian kitchen, and I was determined to understand and learn it myself.
Over the last 7 years, my love affair with food has continued and grown. My mom has enjoyed handing the kitchen over to me, and leaving magazines open to pictures of things she’d like me to make. For me, cooking is a source of joy and comfort. I find peace in the kitchen, and have become a compulsive feeder. I feel connected to the long line of women before me when I roll out rotis or fry onions, garlic and ginger into an aromatic paste to build my curries on. But I also know that it’s different with me, and I’m enjoying this with a freedom that my foremothers did not have. Plus, I’m a professional…I get paid to do this, which is also a first.
In the spirit of duty with which my mom and aunties cooked for their families, I’ve chosen a really simple, get-it-on-the-table-fast recipe to share. On busy weeknights, or as a weekend snack, my mom would make toasted cheese sandwiches for us. In a nod to our colonial roots, my South African Indian family made lots of sandwiches that were eaten with tea. Naturally, an Indian flare was added to them to appease our spice friendly tongues. Cucumber tea sandwiches got a slather of coriander mint chutney, and toasted cheese sandwiches had tomato, onion and green chilies inside them (oh right, and cheese!) The key to success with these sandwiches is to slice the tomato, onion and chili as thinly as possible, and put cheese on the insides of both slices of bread to sandwich in the vegetables and prevent any sogginess.
Any bread, cheese combination will do here, folks. Today I’m lucky enough to have a lovely loaf of white bread from Dough on the Danforth, and some of Monforte Dairy’s Goat Tomme. Traditionally, we’d use multigrain sandwich bread and medium cheddar cheese in my house, but I like to mix it up and try new things. I spent a few summers with my aunt in California, and we made these sandwiches with sourdough and pepperjack cheese!
Here’s the bread, buttered side down in a pan on medium heat. I’ve added one layer of cheese, then the tomato, onion & chili. Another layer of cheese and the second slice of bread go on top, and you cook it slowly until the one side is a buttery golden brown. Flip the sandwich carefully (sometimes I use a small plate, or my hand to keep it together) and do the same on the other side. Slice in half and serve with a green salad or a cup of soup. The very fine onion provides a nice tang, while the green chili gives a perfect little surprise explosion when you bite into it.
I make these sandwiches often, always delighted at the play between the rich cheese and the fiery chili in my mouth. Like the women before me, I cook to take care of people, and my mom and my aunties get a big kick out of how much I enjoy learning those family recipes. And as much as they’ve worked to give my generation of women more choices and less obligations in the home, I think they’re also pretty happy to know that at least one of us is interested in keeping those food traditions alive.