I first met Jen during my first meeting of SAGE (Students Association for Graduates in English) at the University of Waterloo. She was the secretary of SAGE and it was my first semester. The department only accepted four international students that fall term and all four had the same question to ask: How bad is the winter? I was wearing a grey fall coat and I confidently asked Jen, “This will do, right?” Jen looked slightly horrified and in a calm voice she said, “Sonia, you will freeze in that Jacket. “ I wasn’t convinced, “what if I wear more layers underneath?”, I asked. And again she calmly replied that no number of layers will be enough if I don’t buy a proper winter jacket. She probably realized that I had no idea what would hit me and offered to take me jacket shopping.
And she did. Sometime in November I got an email for her. At 9 am sharp she was there and I woke up 5 minutes to 9. I somehow changed into my jeans and right after I said hi to her I said: Coffee. Jen got me coffee before we went shopping. That day we found a good winter jacket that protected me for years in harsh Canadian winter. It’s just yesterday that I told her I had suspicions about her. I thought to myself: what if this person is a serial killer? Why is she being so nice to me? Why is she this nice? Why would anyone be this nice?
In dead cold of February that year, I went tobogganing with Jen and her partner Scott. I was wearing seven layers under that winter Jacket. I was practically Joe Tribbiani wearing Chandler Bing’s entire closet. I no longer questioned Canadian winter.
After tobogganing, Jen and Scott offered me some hot cider and baked goods at their place. On the drive to their place, Jen said “I will make some quinoa burger too, have dinner with us”. I immediately said yes! My brain automatically translated the word quinoa into keema burger. After having some delicious gluten free cookies and hot cider I was really hopeful for my Keema burger. But when Jen set the table for dinner, I was baffled. I asked her, “Where is the keema burger, Jen?” Equally confused, Jen asked me, “What ‘keema’ burger? I said quinoa burger.” And I had my first quinoa burger with Portobello mushroom, sliced avocados, hummus, roasted tomatoes and greens. It was a gluten free vegan heaven and a huge disappointment for me. It was my first vegan meal and ten years ago I wasn’t even aware of veganism. Instead of thanking her for the meal, I said “You know, Jen, in my country, only poor people eat like that. Well, not exactly, they will offer at least an egg to a guest.” There is no way of sugarcoating what I had said. Those were my exact words and Jen laughed out loud. I still don’t know why she remained friends with me. I really don’t. I now pay hefty amount in hipster joints for meals that are not even half as good.
In two years from that night, I graduated from the MA program. It was a brutal process to say the least. But by then, my friend Chaity taught me how to cook khichuri in rice cooker over Skype. I made edible chicken and keema. I still couldn’t make eggs over easy but I found better restaurants. I made friends who cooked. I became friends with people who loved to eat out. It was a much better scenario regarding my food supply.
To celebrate my graduation, Jen invited me over for lunch. That hot summer day, I entered Jen’s house smelling something very familiar. It was the familiar fragrance of a Bangladeshi kitchen. Tempered panchforon, caramelized onion, smoked beef. I could smell the earthy scent of rice being cooked. Not in a rice cooker the way I did, but in a pot, just like every household in Bangladesh.
It was Jen’s surprise for me. A complete Bangladeshi spread. She told me she had found all the recipes from a website called “Virtual Bangladesh”. I had a lump in my throat and I mumbled a weak “thank you”. I asked her which brand of panchforon she had used and she told me she bought the five spices separately and made the mix herself. I didn’t even know one could do that. I carefully inspected her kitchen. There was masoor daal, panchforon mix, dried chillies and turmeric in glass jars; cans of coconut milk and mango pulp, fresh garlic and ginger. In that hot and humid July month, I was transported to Dhaka for a few moments. She cooked thick, tempered daal, shaak, sheikh kabab and shorshe Halibut using the recipe of shorshe Ilish. I didn’t ask her why she cooked all Bangladeshi items for me but in her usual warm but calm voice, she said, “if your family were here, they would have done something similar for you.” This time, I didn’t need to ask her, “Where is the keema burger, Jen?”