Pretty close to paradise

by Viktoria Morasch


Versão em português em breve

As a child of immigrants, I have a problem. As soon as I leave my family, as soon as I have driven the 600 kilometers that separate my current home (Berlin) from my parents' home (Bavaria), I am 600 kilometers away from my mother's food, my favorite food forever and ever.

I think that's why the process of cutting the cord is still ongoing. I call my mother every day. We have pleasant conversations, often I am on the way home from work. I am hungry, tired—my mother jingles with dishes or whispers instructions to her kitchen help, my father. 
After hanging up, it is as if my consciousness is moving back from my ear towards my eyes: the sounds of my mother's kitchen are gone, I can see the wet Berlin pavement, the food stalls, and restaurants. I want none of this, everything is wrong. Unfortunately, I didn't learn how to cook. Unfortunately, I don't want to learn it either.

Children of parents who didn't migrate could feel the same, sure. But at least they find places where they try to imitate their home-food. Or they can find semi-finished parts for the dish they crave in the supermarket.

Children of immigrants could also not feel the same as I do. If their parents are from Italy or from China or Vietnam. But I don't think that what you find in Chinese or Vietnamese restaurants in Germany really has much to do with those countries' food. Italy may be an exception.

My parents are from Kazakhstan. There, people cook Plov (a rice dish with meat and, if you like, dried fruit), Beshbarmak (the Kazakh national dish: meat, lasagna-like noodles, onions, broth. "Besh" means five, "barmak" means fingers. You eat this dish traditionally with your hands), Selyodka pod shooboi (a layered salad with fish. Literally translated: herring under a fur coat - isn't that elegant?), bliny (pancakes), chebureki (fried dumplings) and many other dumplings in different folds, fillings, and sizes: Pelmeni, Wareniki, Manti... There is a lot of stuff that includes beetroot, dill, sour cream and lots of meat, good meat.

Kazakhstan is a multi-ethnic country: people there cook Kazakh food, but also Russian, Korean, German, or Uyghur food. Everyone does a little bit of everything. Kazakhstan is multi-ethnic because, in his paranoia, Josef Stalin ordered to deport many minorities who used to live in the Soviet Union there, into the central Asian steppe. He thought they might collaborate with the Germans or other enemies. Previously, the Soviets had forced the nomadic Kazakhs to settle down and take over the communist economic system.

Expropriation and collectivization resulted in a famine, a third of the population died. Then mainly Russians and Ukrainians were settled in Kazakhstan to manage the country. Millions of forced laborers and deportees helped, including my ancestors. The Kazakhs became a minority in their country.

It gets pretty grim when you look at the history of Kazakhstan in the 20th century. And I haven't mentioned the Soviet nuclear tests yet. It is all the more surprising that Kazakhstan today is proud of being home to around 50 ethnic groups. The Kazakhs are now in the majority again.

In September 2019, I didn't travel 600 kilometers to where my parents live, but 6000 to my native city in Kazakhstan: Karaganda. I worked there for a month, together with the Portuguese photographer Matilde Viegas. As we researched in the darkest chapters of Kazakh history and spent our days interviewing people, we were invited to many kitchens where we ate and drank tea. It was not easy to stay professional when the interviewee suddenly offered me fresh piroshki with apple filling.

In the evening, Matilde and I often walked through the supermarket closest to our apartment. It calmed us down. In Germany, I always try to be as quick as possible when I go grocery shopping. It tires and annoys me.

In our Kazakh supermarket, we strolled past a milk shelf filled with cartons of horse's and camel's milk. We saw dozens of smetana varieties, a meter-long freezer full of different dumplings – Russian, Kazakh, Georgian, Tatar... You just had to take the shovel and fill them in a bag - that is pretty close to my paradise idea.

In our supermarket, (which was not a special supermarket), there was also a very, very long counter with dishes that were already prepared and freshly prepared. And not over-spiced, over-greased or overpriced like in Germany. Korean kimchi, salads with seaweed, or raw fish were there alongside German potato salad. Also steamed vegetables, pickled mushrooms, sauerkraut, the dishes I knew from home. It felt like a miracle. My mother's food - I could buy it! The thing, the longing, could be solved with money.

Of course, my mother cooks better than ladies with white caps at the supermarket. Of course, I didn't stop calling my mother when I was in Kazakhstan, although my belly was full, and I was happy. I told her about our walks in the supermarket and how others prepare the borscht. It was suddenly easy to talk about it. Borscht can actually be an everyday kind of thing, I learned. I don't always have to get wistful when I think of it.

But well, I tend to be melancholic. During the first days of our research in Kazakhstan, a woman we interviewed put plates of borscht next to the recording device. She only wanted to continue talking after the meal. She said a prayer, then we spooned quietly. I remembered how my mother stood in the kitchen in the evening, after work, and prepared borscht so that my brothers could warm it up for us after school. Our parents were working, my brothers and I sat down on the sofa with the plate of soup, in front of the telly, and watched the afternoon program. It was wonderful. When our favorite show started, the red broth stains and the white smetana spots on the plate's rim had long since dried. When our favorite show was over, it was time to go to our rooms to pretend we had been doing homework all along. And then it was almost time for dinner.
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