Sticky Traces – Priya Jay

Sticky Traces – Priya Jay

I put my copy of Recipes for Resistance in the kitchen a week ago, just to see what would happen. To see what it might come back and tell me if I added it to the rotation of things used, reused and forgotten in the one room that looks almost exactly the same as it did 40 years ago. My mum handed it back to me quite early on saying I shouldn’t leave things lying about but I laid it next to the toaster again saying it was where it belonged. The pages are now wavy, and one or two corners have pasted together. Something sticky, something dried on the back. Maybe jam and porridge. I swore I saw garlic skin small as a fingernail fly out and disappear when I fanned the pages, which makes me think someone secretly used it to gather peeled things. And to commemorate its travels, Kasundi’s page and the part that’s elatedly saying “Your Aldona chillies are fruiting in my garden!” are stamped with yellow like wandering riso ink.

I think Recipes for Resistance and its journey through this kitchen is telling me about traces and remains, and something about the price of endurance. And stained containers, time as an ingredient, and migrant time as its own type of ferment. The ever presence of medicine and therefore poison in the cupboards. If desire lives in a place like this or if it only ever looks like survival. And what eats what or who eats who.

Something I’d like to say loudly, from the beginning, for us all, is god bless the off licences and god bless the fruit and veg shops. The ones who run them are the quiet muses of our diaspora daydreams, even when we’re not talking about food.

I’m imagining that time when my dad, his brothers, parents and cousins lived in a refugee camp in Wales. In and around an abandoned RAF base near the coast, their halfway house between Kampala and the future. And how my grandad (Dada: dad’s dad) found some purpose or pleasure in cooking in large quantities, using British vegetables like cauliflower, carrots and peas, plus precious smuggled powders folded into newspaper scraps, to feed his uprooted neighbours.

Maybe after eating my dad would go with nervous brothers or new friends past the barbed wire that encircled them and past the sign that said “Beware of the firing range”[1], and follow his nose to some wild garlic. Or used a stick to poke a mushroom that looked like a tree ear. Collecting damp things in his pockets. But I suppose he, like I, with no real waterproof shoes, preferred to stay dry and huddled. (There’s a certain sure-footedness to foraging, a sense of ease in getting lost that I’m still looking for.) And I wonder how it tasted when, two halfway houses later, they found a home across the road from an unrelated uncle who was selling gourds, okra and lentils by the pound from his porch. And if my grandma (Ba: dad’s mum) reluctantly accepted them despite their wilting-in-transit.

Now, the high street swells with juicy and seeded things that carry water and sugar from faraway soil. Some of them cherry-picked by Whole Foods and slapped with the label ‘superfood’ to sell quicker. But otherwise, roots to boil and fruits to pickle, crate after crate coded with some memory of Us. Doing their best to make sure we have the rasa to match the stories we tell about ourselves and each other. A different kind of spice trade, seemingly by us for us, still exploiting farmers, still anchoring us in a type of home.

According to oral history, the kitchen I’m in now used to be something like an apothecary-cum- sweetshop. This was my grandma’s studio (Naniji: mum’s mum) where she anticipated and met each body’s needs. People used to come from far parts of England to catch a taste of love. Never too oily. My mum lived here postpartum to eat her katlu for thirty days, made from thirty two seed species plus Babul tree resin and dry coconut to help breastmilk flow, god bless the off licence

When I was small, the kitchen was dizzying. Fried air that stayed in my hair all day, pans and pressure cookers shining above me round and heavy. A constant cycle of plates that were waiting to be washed or drying, and the velan – that thin rolling pin – that really did look like it would end my life if my mum followed through with her empty threats. I have a fading memory of being kept busy and out of the way by play-grinding black pepper in the brass mortar and pestle on the kitchen floor. That container and tool will outlive us all. It’s making itself useful in an era where the pepper mill and pre-ground spice packets should’ve rendered it obsolete. Now it grinds a different kind of remedy. The type that comes as hard hard-to-swallow tablets to keep my grandma’s thyroid small and her stomach acid diluted. There’s a bitter powdery film coating the mortar’s brass belly that would probably numb my tongue if I licked it.

Medicine making was a serious cooking practice with an autopilot switch. My grandma had been locked in a cycle of looking after, one after the other after the other, for as long as she could remember. Her mum passed her the baton before she had her first period, so she became an official caretaker and unofficial expert in Ayurvedic cooking by the time she was seventeen.

Pacifying fiery bellies with watery fennel seeds, or inducing a late period with papaya seeds. Despite all that she saw and mended in the bodyspirits of those around her, so many of her own gaps were left open and neglected.

There must be a hunger of their own that a feeder is trying to satisfy when cooking for others. When survival becomes distraction, when pleasure is kept at arms length and lies in the fullness of others. The holes of disembodiment left by abusive in-laws, forced relocations and years of bleak factory work become homes for invisible leeches. Knowing that something is gnawing at your insides and fatiguing you beyond repair. I think my grandparents and their generation of cooks and storytellers are exhausted by keeping up appearances, of being good and grateful immigrants. A packed thali making their mouth sing, but something in their gut never quite letting them feel settled or satiated. “Excessive care taking, giving indiscriminately, is also parasitic to the self,” said Harmony Holiday[2].

Sometimes when it’s not parasite, it’s poison. Like those times when I’d argue with my dad over the dinner table, probably saying he should leave his job and find an office with windows, and my mum – fearing he’d get up and leave hungry – would tell me to stop and to never speak like that while someone’s eating. “The food will become poison.” The word poison was so pointedly visceral in my preteen mind that it forced me to swallow my words. I could imagine the blue green skin and foaming. And I’d eat and watch him eat in silence, trying to trace the alchemy of a body so steeped in anger that it turns its own sustenance into a weapon against itself. Wondering if the damage was already done.

Years later, in the thickfog months after my dad passed away, I couldn’t shake the sense that the poison fed the tumours found in his gut. How they twisted his insides and kept him from taking pleasure in that one thing he knew was home, once and for all. One evening, when we were hungry, sad and too tired to cook. We found a tupperware box at the back of the freezer full of leftover jinjado – curried kidney beans, like rajma but definitely Ugandan Indian. As the block began to melt in the pan, a smell from another time pressed into the room, a spectre of the fourth person. My dad had made the jinjado not long before he passed, how did his tongue hold onto the memory of a good dish despite the chemotherapy? We ate, no traces of poison. An edible archive of a man tending to his inner child tracing barbed wire fences while coming to terms with the word ‘terminal’. If the postcolonial archive is a site of mourning, then we, like Kamila Shamsie’s Sajjid explained, became ghum-khaur or grief-eaters[3].

I wondered for a few days if my grandad (Nanaji: mum’s dad) had picked up the drifting publication and if he’d read parts. It didn’t seem like it but then the other day he asked me what queer meant. And then when I told him its not straight he said what does that have to do with food. And I told him we are sticky and congealed like the jam we eat. I finished brewing our tulsi tea and we drank slowly as he leafed through the book.


[1] “Miles from any industrial center, squeezed between mountains and the stormy sea, the camp was marked by a barbed-wire fence and a sign that said, “Beware of the firing range.” As Asians in other camps went on hunger strike to protest the quality of food and racial segregation in the dining halls, the Welsh happily adopted the camp shop as their local delicatessen, dining out at Tonfanau to enjoy exotic treats.”

Bailkin, Jordanna. 2018. ‘Britain – a land of camps’. Refugee Week. britain-a-land-of-camps/

[2] “Excessive care taking, giving indiscriminately, is also parasitic to the self. Parasite cleansing to commemorate summer is really about waking the sleeping forces within, demanding that they enter into this season’s light to be named and if need be, dismantled.”

Holiday, Harmony. 2019. ‘An Artist’s Guide to Herbs: Cloves’. Bomb Magazine. https://

[3] “Sajjid stood up quietly and walked over to her. ‘There is a phrase I have heard in English: to leave someone alone with their grief. Urdu has no equivalent phrase. It only understands the concept of gathering around and becoming “ghum-khaur” — grief-eaters — who take in the mourners’ sorrow. Would you like me to be English or Urdu right now?’” p.77

Shamsie, Kamila. 2009. Burnt Shadows. London: Bloomsbury.

Rage, Raju; with Edible Archives, Raisa Kabir, Sabba Khan, Vijeta Kumar, Queer Masala, Nandini Moitra, Zarina Muhammad, YSK Prerana and WAH! Women Artists of Colour. 2020. Recipes for Resistance.

“Just the other day I was reading that resilience is an ecology more than it is an individual trait or possession. If so, dreaming together can weave the context for our healing. That is: a container, an atmosphere, a potentiality. Not transcendence. In fact, I’m not sure how much we’re breaking free of personal/collective trauma as much as we’re brewing adaptogens, recipes for resistance, a kiss and a fist.”

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline and LaVon, Almah. 2015. ‘Collective Dreaming: An Interview with Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Almah LaVon’. The Feminist Wire. collective-dreaming-an-interview-with-alexis-pauline-gumbs-and-almah-lavon/