Growing back to our roots
No matter how much or how little land we have, gardening for food and pleasure is an integral part of Bangladeshi culture
When I moved to London after graduating, my mum came to visit — or, more accurately, to inspect the flat I was sharing with my best friend. It was on the top floor of a small block of flats in Mile End, east London, where Bangladeshis make up around 35% of the population. After deeming the kitchen satisfactory and the living room neat and clean, even though I had apparently neglected to dust the skirting boards, she went over to the window and looked out at the high-rise blocks opposite.
“You can tell which flats are occupied by amrar manush,” she said, using the Bangla for “our people”. To prove her point, she pointed at the balconies where neat arrangements of pots and grow bags stood, beans climbed up bamboo poles and trellises were covered in clinging vines that would soon bear gourds.
“It doesn’t matter how little land we have,” she added proudly. ‘You’ll always see that we’ve grown something on it.”
I’ve seen this throughout my life. Our ancestral home in rural Sylhet, Bangladesh, is surrounded by paddy fields that supply the family with rice all year round and a sizeable kitchen garden, where my paternal grandmother grew bottle gourds, purple-green speckled beans, mustard greens and red spinach. I remember picking long, slender aubergines and watching Bibi-ji slice them, scoring the skin lightly to allow the spices to penetrate the flesh, mixing them with turmeric, chilli and salt, then frying them in a cast iron skillet over a clay fire pit. We ate them hot from the pan with rice, the smoky scent of the wood giving a depth of flavour that I still dream about.
That all changed when my father relocated to the UK. His first home, in the heart of Bradford, had no outside space at all. When we moved to a bigger house in a neighbouring town, we were delighted to have a garden for the first time. It came with three vegetable beds, in which Abbu grew radishes, onions, spinach, and potatoes. We enjoyed the crops through the year: peppery red radishes sliced in salads with lettuce and cucumber; spinach leaves sauteed with chilli, onions, and crispy fried tuna; onion leaves, chopped and lightly fried with finely sliced potato, garlic and lemon juice. One year, Abbu spelled out my mother’s name in coriander seeds in one of the vegetable plots, a secret only revealed when the tiny green shoots emerged, demonstrating his characteristically Bengali sentimentality.
My father’s love of gardening is by no means an exception. A quick scroll through “Brit-Bangla” Twitter shows how integral the act of growing things is to our culture and what it means to be “deshi”. We’re in the middle of harvest season in the UK now, and British Bangladeshis are proudly sharing photographs and videos of their harvests online. Prize lau (gourd) and khodu (squash) are also exchanged as gifts between families. Recently, my sister dutifully delivered two gigantic gourds from her in-laws to my parents.
The season is, of course, reflected on our plates. My uncle is renowned for his allotment-grown pumpkins and, to me, autumn is always heralded by the harvest that he generously shares out. I make my haul into a warming, aromatic soup, slowly softening grated ginger and garlic in butter, adding turmeric, cumin and a touch of chilli, then the pumpkin and a little water, and simmering slowly. Once the pumpkin is tender, everything is blended until smooth and served with a swirl of coconut cream. Another favourite way to cook pumpkin is with juicy king prawns, adding so much turmeric and chilli that the vibrant orange jhol (gravy) almost disguises the pumpkin.
“Matir tan” is a phrase in Bangla that literally means “the pull of the earth”. Another is “matir maya” or “the love of the land”. Both are in the running for the name of the community gardening project run by Dr Romena Toki and her team at Central London Youth Development.
Toki is a clinical psychologist and community activist, who works with young British Bangladeshis on initiatives that aim to nurture intergenerational connections. The idea is that by listening to and recording the experiences of parents and grandparents, the younger generation will feel more grounded in their own identities. The organisation’s previous projects have focused on early migrants to the UK; women’s contributions to the Bangladeshi independence movement; and favourite family favourite recipes. Now, it is turning its hand to growing produce.
Toki and her team of assistant psychologists train young people in how to interview their relatives and collect their stories, anecdotes, tips and tricks. Why people grow things, what it does for their wellbeing and what it means to them. These accounts are written up and collated into a book, co-created and co-owned by all the project participants. When it is completed, everyone involved receives a copy and it will also be available to the public online free of charge or in print for a small donation.
The project is an effort to preserve centuries’ worth of history and knowledge for younger generations of British Bangladeshis: the names of vegetables, the methods used to grow them and to cook them, even how they can be used in home remedies. At the same time, it documents the stories of older generations, many of whom have found a sense of continuity and purpose in gardening while adjusting to new lives in the UK. In some cases, Toki explained, “people have literally taken seeds from their motherland”, brought them to British soil, planted them and given them to their kids.
In Bangladeshi culture, land is an extension of the home. A visit to someone’s house invariably involves a tour of the bagan (garden), as well as the building itself. This isn’t about bragging. It’s joyful and something to share. Visitors are often sent away with plastic carrier bags of beans or homegrown chillies and tips on how best to cook them. However little or much you have — whether it’s a balcony in east London or a field in Sylhet — the act of growing your own food is integral to Bengali ideas of purposefulness, nurturing, and nourishment.
I’m also realising how integral it is to my own sense of identity. When my husband, son and I moved into our current house, the first thing I did was have two raised vegetable beds installed. In them we planted chard, potatoes, beans and peppers. On my garden decking sits an array of pots — ceramic, terracotta, plastic and wood — in which I have planted coriander, mint, oregano, basil, rosemary and thyme. My two-year old loves playing in the soil with a tiny shovel given to him by my pumpkin-growing uncle.
“I digging Ammu!” he tells me. “I pick the herbs!”
While he appears to be a natural, I am still learning. My chard is sometimes riddled with holes, where the slugs have got to it, and my coriander just will not grow. But I try. Perhaps it’s my inherited sentimentality, but I feel that gardening connects me to my heritage, to my father, my grandparents and beyond. To me, tending a garden now represents the best of things: devotion, commitment, care, time. Qualities that many of us could do with more of in our lives.
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