When I was a little girl, my mum made waffles in a round beige waffle iron. Sometimes she’d let me help.
I’d hold the electric hand mixer in place as she added small quantities of sifted flour and baking powder to the sugar, egg and butter mix. She always added a small packet of Dr. Oetker’s Vanille Zucker, or vanilla sugar, which she carried back from our summer trips to Dreieich, a small town near Frankfurt where she grew up.
I would stir the batter with a big spoon in her tall brown mixing bowl. And when it was ready, she’d pour a small amount onto the waffle iron and slowly close it. As a treat she’d sometimes let me do that for her, but not without worrying that I’d burn my fingers on the hot iron.
In September this year, I almost did just that. I pulled out her old waffle iron, which was lying unused in the storage cupboard in my house. “Does it still work?” my mum asked when I hooked it up to an electric outlet and turned on the switch. The jagged texture of the waffle iron’s innards warmed instantly to my touch. I think she was still afraid I’d burn my fingers, but 30 years later she didn’t quite show it. “German quality,” I called back.
I had just returned to Karachi, my hometown in Pakistan, from a summer away in the Mutterland, or Motherland, which is what I like to call Germany. It's my mother's country, to which her South Asian parents immigrated from Burma in the 1960s. My grandfather, her father, was a manager with an airline company that moved him to work with Frankfurt International Airport.
My mother grew up in Dreieich and went to the Goethe School, which was housed in a building we drove past on our many trips there as children. A few years ago, my mother’s school friend and my unofficial godmother, Susy, drove me past my mum’s childhood home, a small apartment I remember from my summers as a child. She also drove me by my mum’s school, where they met many years ago.
My siblings and I celebrated birthdays with potato salad and German cake.
That same year I attended Frau Königsdorff’s funeral. She was Susy’s mother and I remembered her from all our trips to Dreieich when we were little. Susy is an avid photographer and from her photos I trace my mother’s life as a child in the 1970s. There’s a photo of her in a long tie-dyed skirt and another of her holding an LP with a large photograph of John Lennon on it. She remains a fan and we went to see the Imagine Memorial in Central Park when she visited me in New York when I finished graduate school.
Mum, or Amma as I and my siblings call her, never went to university. She married my father at 17 and moved to Pakistan in an arranged marriage. Her classmates asked whether my father paid a bride price and my uncle, her brother, who was also at Goethe School, made up a number of goats and cows that were traded for my mother. Of course, no such thing had happened and he took it as an opportunity to have some fun. Amma’s family stayed in Germany and we visited them most summers while growing up.
On my trip to the Mutterland this time, like my mother on her trips back, I brought back small packets of Dr. Oetker’s vanilla sugar right under my aunt Uzma’s disapproving gaze. She’s into organic food and Birkenstocks and my sister and I call her the original hipster. She’s my mum’s sister and she lives not far away from Dreieich where they both grew up. I cook for her whenever I visit and she says it reminds her of my mum’s cooking.
My trips to Germany, in turn, remind me of our summers away in Dreieich, along with the wafting aroma of fresh bread at the corner bakery and ice cream from the shop across the street. And they remind me of the waffles we made with freshly-bought vanilla sugar after we returned home.
It was this nostalgia that made me pull out the forgotten old waffle iron from its shelf. And, in spite of the commercial vanilla sugar, I think Uzma would approve of my waffle-making activities. As the waffle iron warmed and I searched for butter in our fridge, my mum found her old copy of Dr. Oetker’s baking cookbook, "Backen macht Freude."
We leafed through the well-worn pages to find the recipe she used to make waffles. I read it slowly, asking her to translate German words that weren’t part of my limited treasury of German words, garnered and gleaned over two separate periods of living in Germany as an adult.
The first time was as a language student in Frankfurt, soon after I graduated high school. That was an important time for me as I learned to grapple with Central European winters and to form a perfect Esszet (the German letter for the "sharp S" sound) as I had seen my mother do in her large loopy handwriting when she wrote notes to herself or transcribed South Asian recipes that friends and relatives shared with her on the phone.
When I spoke German, I was often told that I spoke almost without an accent. This was a huge compliment in German-speaking circles, but I had nothing to do with it. It’s the first language she likely spoke to me and, no matter what language she spoke, German reflected in her lilt and inflection because that was her mother tongue, and by default, mine.
The second time I lived in Germany was 10 years later as a journalist in Berlin where I learned the meanings of words like Migrationshintergrund, or migrant background, and Krisengebiet, or crisis zone, and answered questions about my mum’s Germanness and what it was like to grow up in the Krisengebiet that was my home.
I spoke about how my siblings and I celebrated birthdays with potato salad and German cake, and in school I insisted an oven was an “ofen” because my mum said so. And of how Christmas parties in Karachi featured German traditions. And how as children we walked to the seashore close to our house pushing my little sister in a pram, with bread crumbs for the ducks lying in a small plastic bag by her feet. I’m not sure if I convinced anyone.
And, of course, we made waffles together. As I read the recipe my mother used in her well-thumbed copy of Dr. Oetker’s cookbook, I needed her there -- and not just for translations.
“No, no, no,” she called out in alarm as she entered the kitchen just in time to stop me from dumping all the ingredients together in her old brown mixing bowl. “Mix the baking powder and flour together,” she instructed. “And then add it slowly to the sugar, egg and butter mix.” I didn’t forget the vanilla sugar.
Finally, I turned the switch off, stood the beater on its side and I licked up some of the glorious batter with my finger. The rest would be converted to crisp heart-shaped waffles typical to German waffle irons.
Amma poured the first spoonful of batter onto the waffle iron and shut the lid. The mixture poured out from all sides. “Shoot, I put in too much,” she said, “I don’t remember anymore how to do it.”
The first batch came out crispy and golden brown. We separated and devoured the edges that came from the extra batter spilling out, then piled the heart-shaped waffles on a plate for everyone else.
Hani Yousuf is a writer of creative non-fiction. She has worked as a journalist and writer in Karachi, New York and Berlin. Ms. Yousuf holds a master's degree in magazine journalism from New York's Columbia University. To reach the author: [email protected]