My strongest childhood memories are not from my own childhood. They belong to my father. I think of them often — children picking mangoes straight off the tree, chickens running free around the house, men measuring their wealth by the cows they own, and a village taking care of its many, many children — but I think of them most when I braise chicken in curry.
The chicken curry itself is a recipe passed down by my father. Each time he'd prepare it, and we'd sit down to eat as a family, the stories would flow. It became how we understood where he came from: not just through his stories, but in the ritual of eating in the same traditions.
I grew up in a New England college town, raised by an African father and American mother. My father had two entrées in his dinner repertoire: Hamburger Helper, a quick and easy, just-add-beef staple from the '90s, which in my family signified my mother was out for the evening (or she would be cooking dinner). On the opposite end of his culinary spectrum, my father had curried chicken and nsima.
My ada, father in Chichewa, grew up in Chituka, a farming village in Malawi. The middle of five children, he was 15 when my diplomat grandfather moved his family of seven to the suburbs of New York City. My parents met while attending college in the same town I was born and raised in, and while a few of my aunts and uncles moved back home to raise families, my parents chose to stay on in the U.S., and my African father took on the task of raising American children.
My earliest memory of eating his curry and nsima is from when I was 8 years old and our family of six was still just four. My father worked as a college soccer coach and most evenings he was at a practice or a game. But occasionally I would come home from school to the aroma of warm curry filling our house. My father would be at the stove, over a pot, scooping wooden spoonfuls of a white cornmeal porridge into the patties we knew as nsima. These would later be smothered in chicken stew.
Nsima, a staple in Malawian cuisine, is essentially cornmeal mixed with hot water to make a thick paste, and then formed into balls or patties that firm as they cool. While I enjoyed the taste of nsima, it was the ritual of eating as a family that I enjoyed more. Even more exciting in my young mind, it meant we would be eating like they did in the village — sans silverware.
My father was raised with very different values than the ones I was being exposed to. The languages we grew up speaking were different. But my father had his curry and nsima, and with it, the connection to his childhood. It seemed like every time my father made curry, he was transported back home.
He would talk of his parents, whom he would go years without seeing. He would tell my sister about traditional marriage dowries in which cows and goats were the highest form of currency. It was a story I'd been told from a young age, and I enjoyed being transported to a place and time so much a part of me, yet so foreign. My position in the family was always reiterated during these meals: I was the oldest daughter. The oldest daughter was expected to help look after the younger children and also, critically, know how to cook — a second mother.
The meat would be left for hours to slowly braise in a pot with tomatoes, carrots, celery, onions, and curry powder, the chicken turning so tender that it would eventually self-shred and fall off the bone. The two got served separately, but came together in the sauce. We'd rip pieces of nsima with our fingers and use them as a utensil, dipping them in the stew, trying to soak up the liquid while also scooping up chunks of meat.
My sister and I loved being free to use our hands to eat, my mother pleading unsuccessfully for us to stay clean as we ate. We would watch with a mix of envy and revulsion as my father took our discarded bones and sucked the marrow out of them. He'd explain that that wasn't just the best part, it was a delicacy that Malawians always save for last.
For the next 10 years we would eat curried chicken and nsima as a family. And then my parents decided to separate.
Like most 17-year-olds faced with upheaval, I needed someone and something to blame. I chose my father and his foreign roots. The cultural differences I once relished became the target of my resentment. I did not know how to forgive him, so I kept my distance. We'd go months without speaking, and sometimes, years without seeing each other.
It was during a holiday break about four years after the divorce that my siblings and I found ourselves staying with my father at his new home — a one-bedroom apartment that felt sad and lonely compared to the home we had shared as a family. It was during this visit that my father returned from the grocery store one day and asked me if I wanted to learn how to make his chicken. By then I had been working in kitchens for a few years and was always eager to learn a new recipe.
For the first time ever, my father and I stood together in the kitchen and cooked. I chopped the onions and then watched him patiently, slowly, sweat them in oil. I observed as he waited until just the right moment to add the tomato paste. We sat around watching TV — a new version of our family — as the chicken simmered silently through the afternoon.
We sat together to eat, each of us using both hands to nudge pinches of chicken onto chunks of nsima. When my father began to speak, it wasn't another story about his childhood. My father told us something that I needed to hear. He said that he loved our mother, and always would. He explained that sometimes relationships don't work out. That sometimes, a person makes mistakes and when they are ready to say "I'm sorry," it is too late.
I could feel forgiveness flooding through me. I was an adult now, living on my own, and making many mistakes of my own. I was able to see my parents as humans, trying to figure out life and relationships the same way that I was. I knew in that moment that I would be able to let go of the past. That night, as grown children, my siblings and I shared not just the tradition of the meal with our father, we began to share parts of ourselves as well. Our tiny village still intact.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: The Chicken Curry That Put My Broken Family Back Together Again