In Isolation with Simi Kang

Location: Pittsburgh, USA

I am writing this from my dining room table in the middle of a grey rain. The smell of methi is dense in the humid air, and my cat and I are nestled in front of a box fan watching bright green elm leaves dance beyond our window. Here in what is called Pittsburgh, the traditional lands of the Lenape, Shawnee, and Haudenasaunee people, Pennsylvania’s governor has reinstated public health closures due to COVID-19.

I have been largely quarantined for over three months. During this time, I have been seeking comfort by collecting stories from my father and his siblings, and studying the Sikh faith. Via WhatsApp conversations that seem to include every Kang in India and the diaspora,  I’ve learned that my paternal grandmother, my Dadiji, made a habit of walking barefoot in the morning dew before making breakfast. In long phone calls with my father about his quarantine garden, I have surmised that karela grows well in this region. Bhindi, sadly, does not. As we reach for each other from what seem like ever-greater distances, the thing we want to talk about most is food. While this is not unique, it has reminded me that so much of how we inhabit the world—as Kangs, as family, as Sikhs—has food at its centre.

Under COVID-19, Sikh service organisations including the Sikh Coalition, Khalsa Aid, and others, have focused on feeding local community members and essential workers, creating food packages for US homeless and communities in need, and caring for refugees within India and globally. These initiatives are not simply about giving people food; they are acts of seva (or selfless service), a central principle of Sikhism. Ensuring that folks have access to staples and culturally-appropriate meals is imperative to their well-being, both body and soul. In this way, making and taking langar—the free, vegetarian communal meal served at gurdwaras twice a day, and available to all—is life-sustaining work.

For me, taking langar has always been the most incredible and faithful element of my relationship to Sikhism. When my Dadiji brought me to gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship, on our annual visits to India, I loved everything about it. Each ritual, from removing my shoes on the cold white marble and washing my hands in the communal spigot outside, to giving an offering in front of the Guru Granth Sahib Ji (our holy book) was precious to me. 

My favourite part of our visits was langar. After praying, we sat on the floor together at the pangat alongside many others, holding tin plates up for the sewadars, or volunteers, who paced between eaters. Working with efficient grace, they walked down the line, one after another, dipping ladles into buckets full of raita, channa, and sabzi before gently letting them rest on each plate. This was a whole category of food for me—it tasted a lot like our family recipes, but was differently wholesome.

Peeking into the kitchen, I was amazed by the enormous pots that community volunteers stirred with ladles the size of small canoe paddles. Watching folks of all genders roll chapatis into perfect circles entranced me, and I was never more hungry than when the bread was placed on bright hot tawas to puff up and then exhale, steam roiling from their seams so densely I could already taste the warm wheat. These meals prepared by local families were early tastes of my culture and shaped how I conceive of my place in the world. Being Sikh means I am a part of a global family whose work it is to care—for and with—perpetually. Relentlessly.

It’s important to identify my stakes in this discussion. I am the child of a white mother and Punjabi immigrant father; I grew up middle-class in the US Midwest, where I often pass as white. In addition to these privileges, I am a working scholar with a PhD. Growing up, I did not have other Punjabis in my daily life except when my father and I irregularly attended gurdwara. I cannot speak Punjabi and don’t always know what to do during our rites, and yet, watching my Dadiji and aunts in their kitchens, I developed sensorial and kinetic memories of our family’s food, absorbing Sikh culture through our foodways. My early life precludes me from feeling comfortable declaring expertise of the Punjab and Punjabi culture, of Sikhism—of Indian-ness writ large. At the same time, my daily life is shaped by who I come from.

Under COVID-19, I have been craving dishes I’ve never tried to make; overwhelmingly, the things my Dadiji served when we gathered as a family at her table, collected from three continents and tens of cities—like kadhi. My Dadiji would make kadhi only once during our winter visits, using yoghurt she cured for daily use and adding aloo pakoras for heft. I think it became so special to me because of its infrequency. Whereas I could expect to have daal once a day, kadhi was a treat—a reward for my Dadaji and uncles who had worked in the field all morning. A perfect mid-day meal: something warm but light to come home to. I bought yoghurt on our next grocery run, looked up Priya Krishna’s recipe (published by Bon Appétit as “Turmeric-Yogurt Soup”, which, while as close a description as I could probably muster myself, sounds incredibly unappetising to me) and made an enormous pot of kadhi.

The minute I tasted the finished product, I could smell my grandparents’ dining room—the tile floors cold against my feet, windows cracked just enough to let in the rich scent of a burnt sugarcane, a cacophony of spoons against Corelle echoing off the white-washed walls. Krishna is not Punjabi—her family is South Indian—but her recipe felt like my childhood. I immediately took a picture and sent it to my father, who complimented me and decided to make it himself. When my partner tried some she simply nodded, understanding that this food was pure comfort even if it could never transport her the way it did me.

Any other time, making kadhi would soothe me. In the present, it has helped me suture small pieces of my memory back together under COVID-19’s weaponisation against Asian Americans and structurally underserved communities in the US. This, in turn, has given me a greater understanding of who I am within my family’s faith and culture, grounding me in the present as the myth of certainty disappears for all of us. This is somewhat fitting; Sikh history is a series of stories about how we have responded to violence, displacement, and erasure—how we have leaned on each other and survived as a community. My grandparents went through Partition; my father’s generation survived targeted genocide in 1984 India, and while my brothers are too young to remember what it was like after 9/11, I do.

This moment is nothing like those and yet, exploring our foodways has forced me to reckon with the things that have lived in my bones for generations. This includes thinking through our hardest moments and triumphs as a people, grappling with losing my Dadiji, our family’s matriarch, many years later, and loving my family over a variety of distances. It is this latter piece—of trying to stay present with one’s people or at least, what they make—that Valerie Kaur, a civil rights lawyer, memoirist, filmmaker, mama, and Sikh voice in the North American landscape, is doing beautifully and visibly right alongside me.

During the pandemic, Kaur has been cooking with her mom on Instagram live once a week, making family dishes—aloo gobi, daal palak, chohl, and more—as her mother sips chai, advises her daughter on next steps, and answers viewer questions from miles and miles away. Their rapport brings me back to India, where we would gather on lawn chairs and charpois in the late afternoon, drinking chai, eating biscuits, and debating politics or telling stories. It also makes me miss my mother, who, when I was very young, begged my Dadiji to modify some recipes with ingredients accessible in the Midwest in the late ‘80s so she could feed me Punjabi food. (My father, incidentally, is an excellent cook in his own right). Watching these two powerful women share food and love reminds me of food’s function in care work—be it langar for thousands displaced by Modi’s own regime or family (given and chosen) feeding one another—and its ability to heal pasts and presents. 

Last week, I received distance reiki from a friend and after my session, she called me to share what she had learned in journeying my nervous system. When she finished explaining where my body was blocked—my heart, unsurprisingly, is carrying a lot of grief right now—I heard her smile before saying: your ancestors are with you; you are very protected. I began crying and thanked her for her gift. After weeks of calling them in in the kitchen and at my altar, it meant everything that my friend had not only felt my longing for them, but had witnessed my ancestors’ care for me.

That night, I washed rice for dinner, running the grains between my thumb and forefinger. Watching face-masked neighbours walk past my kitchen window, I wondered how many times my kin had carried out the same ritual in the middle of chaos—how often the simple act of making our food had calmed them as it has calmed me. How much it carried them through their own impossible times. I would like to think that this is what we still share, whether they have passed on or are just very far away: the ability to make food as the world changes and violence increases, and giving relentlessly of ourselves in communal need.

Author’s note: This piece was written prior to the US and global uprising against anti-Black racism that has followed the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. While the above does not include an analysis of this ongoing moment, I want to be clear that I unequivocally support the Movement for Black Lives and am with the movement in love and in labour from my small place in the world. In addition to Dining In Place editor Nadia Bailey, I would like to thank Bao Phi, Vidhya Shanker, and Parag Khandhar of ‘Unmargin,’ where this piece was first nurtured, as well as Sun Yung Shin, for their collaborative and generous editorial engagement.

By Simi Kang