In a piece for Dardishi, I wrote about the gifts of food that travel between my Algerian and English family.
Food connects the Algerian and English sides of my family; over the last 30 years, recipes and food have moved across borders where people cannot.
As is customary on my trips to Algeria we fill our suitcases with English foods my family have developed a taste for: Cadbury’s chocolate, strong English cheddar cheese, and my gran’s “tea time treats” - palm-shaped nuggets filled with jam, dessicated coconut, and currants. The chocolate is placed on a high shelf where the children can ogle but not quite reach. They’re distracted by other delights in the moment, but later they will be dancing underneath the jar imploring my aunties to let them have one. The cheese is hidden in a bag at the back of the fridge and used sparingly on pizzas by my aunt Sonia; hard cheeses are scarce in Algeria. Sonia visited England once, and has incorporated a lot of the dishes she tried into her repertoire
There’s a moment of anticipation when we begin unpacking our suitcases and the tea time treats are plated up. They’re presented in the central courtyard where everyone congregates under overhanging vines and lemon trees. Sonia rushes over to grab one and then returns to climbing the trees, picking lemons and ‘Tisane’ tea leaves. She calls my name and points to a kitten that’s basking in the sunshine on top of the veranda in the usual spot.
Family members begin appearing from the corners of the house. We have the tea time treats with sweet milky coffee and homemade donuts - Lakhfaf, hot and stringy from the pan. Sonia brings out a small plate of her grape jam from last year’s harvest to have with them. The fruit of the jam has become plump and chewy, and the sugary syrup has a thick caramel texture.
We have the tea time treats with sweet milky coffee and homemade donuts - Lakhfaf, hot and stringy from the pan.
This moment is a transition for my Dad. He slips back into a complex family dynamic that he left when he was 18, just after Algeria gained independence from France. He’s the only family member that has left. He holds hands with Mani (my grandmother), and flits between the conversation with everyone and the private conversation with her. Baba Sidi (my grandfather) watches on with a hint of jealousy. My dad will sit besides him at the next mealtime.
My aunt Nacera sits around the table with a large bucket between her legs, peeling potatoes. The preparations for the next meal are always underway. My other aunts are marinating sardines in a spicy tomato puree and chopping onions, rubbing their eyes with their aprons. Nacera holds each potato in one hand and a knife in the other, imitating a potato peeler. My Dad berates my aunts for not using the peelers he’s gifted them and they tell him they’re creatures of habit.
My aunt Nacera sits around the table with a large bucket between her legs, peeling potatoes. The preparations for the next meal are always underway.
Nacera is joyous having just returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca. She tells us that on the night of her return, the airport was congested with crowds eager to hear stories from the holy land. In the frenzy someone smashed the car park barrier to speed up the exit. She gifts me a soft lime green prayer mat and my brother water from the ZamZam holy well. As gifts are being exchanged, I pull out a set of salt spoons I’ve made and give one to each of my aunts. Sonia beckons me into her kitchen and points to a whole shelf of spices. She winks at me and places the spoon besides every jar in turn, coaxing me to now make one for each.
My uncle Hamid leans in watching our mouths and hand gestures. He lost his hearing when he was a child. I catch his eye and gesture an eating motion and then put my thumb up, and he gives me a thumbs up back. Amina, his wife, appears, shaking a plastic bottle of milk to make butter. “Schoof” (watch), she says, and then hands it to me to continue.
Conversation is suddenly interrupted by my uncle Ahmed reciting the Adhan (call to prayer), from the mosque opposite. My dad throws his hands up and everyone trickles away. The plastic chairs we’ve been sitting on are stacked up and put to one side.
In the kitchen, Sonia asks me to bring some Indian spices next time we visit. She shows me a big stack of M’hajib (flatbreads) to pass on to my grandparents when we go back to England, along with dates and oranges Baba Sidi has selected from the market. I will place them in my suitcase with the notebooks of family recipes I’ve inherited.