Gol Guppay on a tray with various sauces

The ingredients of nostalgia: How a childhood snack helped me navigate Oxford.

Moving away to Oxford, away from home for the first time, was possibly the best thing that could have happened to me- for my sense of identity, culture, and maybe even my subpar cooking skills. Being away from a city that was catered to my needs, with halal stores readily accessible and Asian aunties equipped with samosas and pleasantries abundant, was a difficult change in pace but one I desperately needed. During my first year, and even now, in my second, Gol Guppay, a South-Asian snack, kept me going and helped me thrive.

Gol Guppay, for those of you who haven’t tasted heaven in the form of a crispy wheat shell, with masala seasoned vegetables and a tangy tamarind drink, was a staple for me growing up. I would see them at communal iftars, at weddings and even at home, when my mum would make me a bowl during my revision for A-levels. The nostalgia I so heavily associated with it was something I craved so badly, seeking familiarity in this new, strange environment. I never expected it to play such importance in making friends and in creating a new cultural experience, that helped me flourish and want to engage more with Pakistani culture.

Where initially I had thought that Gol Guppay was just a way for me to indulge in some nostalgia, it became so much more at university.

In first year, I spent hours meticulously chopping cucumbers, tomatoes and onions into tiny, uniform cubes, mixing in masala spices and draining chickpeas to spoon into round, crispy shells. Intrigued neighbours on Upper Main Corridor would trickle in, curious as to what I was making. As I slowly started setting aside batches of vegetables, waiting for my flatmates to try the snacks, to share in my culture, I found a joy and sense of purpose amidst rushing essay deadlines and attending lectures.

I looked forward to dropping the food off to my college grandma, finding miscellaneous tubs to store the mixtures in, trying not to drop the tamarind drink called “Imli Pani”, using my paw patrol cup with some cling film on top to secure it. I built up some confidence in talking to the people around me, communicating with my culture, and found an unprecedented love for my culture and its customs.

Coming from Bradford, a city I felt so fiercely defensive of, and found so much convenience in, also created a warped understanding of my culture in me. I loved the community that resided there, from exchanging plates of food in Ramadan to neighbours, to knowing that every older woman I called an aunty, looked out for me, despite not being blood related. But this experience often came at a price for me, with a persistent disapproval of non-conformity and what felt like a collective, stubborn mindset belying everything. Starting university and being away felt like a blank slate for me. I had felt so disconnected from my culture and hoped that would change.

Where initially I had thought that Gol Guppay was just a way for me to indulge in some nostalgia, it became so much more at university. I found myself concentrating on what good I could make of my culture, and how I could reinvent my previous experiences into something new. Sharing the food was one way I did that, and somewhere between frequent trips to Cowley and nearly slicing my thumb off with abysmal chopping techniques, I felt a new appreciation of the culture I had accumulated around me, a dire comfort in the lead up to Prelims.

Now, as a second year, that sense of belonging and community that I felt excluded and awkward in prior to university, brings me and I like to think, others some joy too. I joined the Pakistani Society, as welfare officer, and hold a termly Gol Guppay event, where my community rib me about calling it Gol Guppay, and not Pani Puri (God forbid) but still clear their plates and enjoy a break.

Looking back to first year, I feel I’ve come a long way, and have formed a community and a culture that I am comfortable, proud of and feel welcome in. Just as my hands have become steadier at chopping vegetables, and I no longer flinch from hot oil when frying Gol Guppay shells, I too have become more confident in meeting new people, taking up space, and in being proudly Pakistani. I have a lot more to work on, as my tutors would agree with, and I quite possibly must stop sneaking jokes into my collection papers, but that will happen in due course. Whatever the rest of my degree throws at me, I’m quite confident that it can be solved with a fresh batch of Gol Guppay and some support from my new community.

Image: STILLR Photo, via Flickr