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The Sunday EssayMarch 12, 2023

The Sunday Essay: Bring a plate


When Perzen Patel and her mother arrived in Aotearoa, food was at times a source of confusion and shame. Eventually, it became a lifeline.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Tallulah Farrar

It was a Monday in 2002. The bell had just rung and I was trying to move fast as my next class was across the two football fields. I was not used to running between classes like this in India. Aside from the days I had PE, the most physical activity we did between classes was stand up listlessly and chorus together “Good morning Mrs Mistry”, or whatever the name of the teacher was.

To save time, I decided to cut across the football field. A sharp whistle startled me and I could see an old teacher wearing casual blue shorts hurry toward me. What had I done now? How many things could go wrong in this silly new place in just one week!

“Girl, don’t you know that at Macleans walking on the grass equals an immediate detention. Come see me after school,” he said, red-faced, before stomping away angrily. Heart beating fast, I rushed to my next class only to be five minutes late. My hot geography teacher stared coolly at me. But before I could respond, someone piped up.

“Excuse her Mr Mackenzie, she’s fresh off the boat you know.”

I wanted to tell the guy off for speaking for me, but I was confused. Who came by boat? We flew here.

What boat was he talking about?

It took me a further two weeks to figure out what that expression really meant. Turns out, it’s a derogatory way of referring to a new immigrant who’s not yet talking, looking or sounding like a Kiwi.

Given that my mum and I had only moved to New Zealand a month ago from India and were still figuring out everything from getting an IRD number to not pronouncing the letter “v” as “w”, we certainly ticked that box. It didn’t matter that I had never sailed on a boat in my life.

To cheer me up, I asked Mum to cook me tadka dahl that night. As I gobbled up the dahl and munched on my new discovery – potato pom poms – the phone rang. It was our aunt’s neighbour calling to invite us for a breakfast picnic at the local beach, Cockle Bay. Mum was hesitating but I could hear them cajoling her. She didn’t have to look for a job every hour of the day.

Sunday morning came and we bundled into my aunt’s seven-seater and headed to the beach. I was wondering what we might eat for breakfast. Perhaps I’d finally try a sausage sizzle. My aunt turned around from the front seat and asked my mum if she’d remembered to get the chopped tomatoes.

Why do we need chopped tomatoes for a beach picnic?

Turns out we were having an akoori party.

In the words of Chris from geography, “It sounded total cringe.” Just the kind of thing people fresh off the boat would do.

When we got there, the sunshine glistening off the sky-blue water had me catching my breath. That, and seeing that the beachfront was dotted with barbecues. Free for anyone to use and perfectly clean.

All the parts of the barbecue seemed to still be in place too. Unlike Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai where they even had to lock the rubbish bin down to keep it from being stolen.

Chaos descended as six families gathered around one of these barbecues and started unpacking. One uncle had come equipped with two crates of eggs (do 17 people really require 64 eggs?) while mum opened up her prized Tupperware from India filled to the brim with chopped tomatoes.

As Jamshed removed his extra-large wok-shaped kadhai and placed it on the grill, I furtively checked sideways to see if anyone was staring at the group of Indians and sniggering about how they had no idea how to use a barbecue.

I pulled out a novel from my bag to hide behind when the familiar flavour of ghee warming in the kadhai filled the air around me. As the onions started to brown and I heard Kashmira aunty whipping 64 eggs in a plastic box, the aromas of sausages sizzling on another barbecue close by faded away. It had been way too long since I’d eaten akoori, fresh off the boat glances be damned.

While Mum enjoyed the picnic, I could see her forehead lined with worry.

It was our fourth week here and she still didn’t have a job. Since we didn’t yet own a TV and there was nothing to distract us from the sound of the cold wind seeping in through the window cracks, we got talking.

Turned out, we were burning through our life savings, as renting a separate home in the first month here was not something mum had accounted for.

We had a little left but calling it a day and going back home to India was no longer an option. We only had enough for one person’s ticket.

Next day, Mum decided to swallow her pride and take the offer to cook meals at a neighbouring Indian friend’s house. This couple both worked long hours, hated cooking and like in India, wanted to hire someone to cook their dinners and keep them ready.

“My mummy cooked food for other people her whole life. Work is work,” mum told me, stubbornly lifting her chin, tears glistening in her eyes.

A couple of weeks later, mum found out that our local Parsi organisation was having a function.

A committee member had heard of my mum cooking and called to ask us if we wanted to have a small food stall there. Having never done something like this, both Mum and I were nervous but decided to give it a shot. We decided to sell kheema cutlets (like these kebabs but made into flat patties) stuffed in bread – a Parsi version of the sausage sizzle.

How much mince should we buy? How spicy should we make them? Why does this silly coil stove keep cutting off the heat? We had so many doubts and only badly educated guesses as answers.

Despite the odds, the stall was a runaway hit.

With our first profits we bought a microwave. With the next stall came a sofa.

As winter neared its end, our weekends got full with cutlets prep. After a treat dinner at the Pakuranga foodcourt on Friday night, mum and I would come home and marinate large mixing bowls of mince until late at night. Saturday, we’d wake up early and fry them six at a time until the entire house was filled with the aroma of deep-fried meat.

Selling cutlets, mum cooking at a couple homes, and me getting a job stocking shelves at the local dairy after school saw us through her job search and the 79 rejection letters she received in the mail.

In September 2002, Mum scored her first “real” job.

It was a steep learning curve. Deciphering new accents, navigating shoddy public transport from East Auckland and learning new software were just some of the challenges she spoke about.

I’m sure there was plenty more she kept to herself. Each of us was having a hard time adjusting and neither wanted the other to know.

One spring night, two weeks into her job, Mum’s ears turned red at dinner. She admitted shyly, “I did something silly at office today.”

Apparently, she was told to “bring a plate” to work. Not one to question authority, Mum obliged by taking one of our yellow Warehouse plates we didn’t use much. She took it with her when her colleagues told her it was time to go to the staffroom. It was only as she entered the room with an empty plate that she saw the trestle tables laden with food the other admin assistants were setting up. Internal horror mounting, she realised quickly that “bring a plate” really meant bring a plate of food to share.

“And then, one of the Kiwi ladies came up to me smiling and told me that it was OK. It happens a lot with those of you that are fresh off the boat.”

What boat is she talking about, Mum asked me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her and pretended to not hear.

Selling so many cutlets came with a price.

Mum continued making cutlets for a while even after she found a job. We were too scared that something might happen and Mum was using her cutlets fund to squirrel away some savings.

She became known within our community as the “kebab and cutlets” lady, an honour that was once reserved for my grandmother.

The good news was that every time a shared lunch or a fundraising stall at school came about, we always knew what to cook. The cutlets were a crowd pleaser among Indians and Kiwis alike.

But, Mum and me stopped eating cutlets, aside from the mandatory tasting bite. They were still delicious, but just the aroma of the meat marinating and frying started to make us nauseous.

When Mum got married again a few years later, in 2007, she told my step-dad that she’d cook him anything except for cutlets. Poor guy, even though he had nothing to do with our entrepreneurial ventures, he’s not had Mum’s cutlets more than a handful of times over all these years.

In 2011, a year before getting married, I moved back to India.

It was supposed to be my year of emancipation. The year I learned to live alone, cook for myself – what was I thinking?? – and enjoy my independence.

I was lucky. Unlike Mum in a new country, I managed to get a job in 10 days. Except that I had to accept a 300% pay cut. Because, even though I might have studied in New Zealand, this time, I was the one who didn’t have “relevant working experience”.

I gracefully took it in my stride and started work. Soon, it was time for a shared lunch.

This time I came prepared. After scouring many local shops I managed to find puff pastry. I stayed up late and made a box full of sausage rolls to take to the office.

But at lunch they remained untouched. I realised, my chest tightening, that the entire office was vegetarian. I lied and said they were made of chicken because that was a lesser sin than admitting I had used pork mince.

I laughed awkwardly and tried to cover up.

“Sorry, I’m fresh off the boat.”

Keep going!