Wednesday, March 22, 2006
I have realized that I need to eat chicken every day, and something reminiscent of non-vegetarian food every five hours. If I don’t, then my head starts to hurt and I feel a woozy throbbing in my stomach. In fact, right now, I am so hungry that I have started cooking in my head. Preparing food is so out of character for me that I may as well die and be re-incarnated with the culinary ability and willingness.
However, cathartic release is imminent. So, this is literally what I’ve been dishing up in my head now.
Before I was born, my folks stayed in Singapore for a few years. There, my mother was very close friends with a Pakistani lady, Farida. They used to share stories of their homelands often, and recipes even more frequently. Farida had visited India once and though she liked the place, it didn’t quite compare to her village near Rawalpindi. She used to tell my mother that the papayas from that village were the best in the world. Ma got the recipe of this particular version of roast chicken from Farida. Since then, the dish has graced several ceremonious occasions in our house; the last time being before I left home. It is now with some sadness that I remember the occasion being celebrated with such joy. Anyway, self-pitying is better done on a full stomach, so I shall defer it for later tonight.
The twist in the recipe of this roast chicken is to marinate the chicken with steamed papaya and butter. The proportion of the papaya-butter mash must be very carefully measured out. Too much of one, and the poultry tastes fruity and too much of the other and you lose the texture of the papaya. You must steam the papaya for just the right amount of time. You must guard against poaching or blanching the fruit.
Once the papayas are done and you flavor it with butter, you rub the mixture onto the chicken and let it marinate for a couple of hours.
If you have done it right, the chicken will be crisp and salty on the outside and slightly sweet and tender on the inside. The meat is moist and in fact, remains moist even after refrigeration.
Of course, I have eaten this version of roast chicken only with the local papayas. But some day, I hope to dine with Farida and judge the difference for myself.
One of my father’s colleagues had a remarkable cook called Keerti Singh. He used to make the most refreshing mocktails with bizarre combination of fruits. One of them was a thick concoction of pomegranates and chikoos. The color was quite definitely a turn-off because it reminded you of the not-so-pretty part of the rains. But the taste, well, there was nothing like it. It was always sweet and perfectly blended. You’d feel the slight tartness of the pomegranate and the grainy fructose of the chickoo with every sip. Interestingly, there was no bitter aftertaste despite there being no sugar. Usually, one would imagine that with the seeds crushed and all, there would be residual tinge in the mouth after you’re done. I discovered the secret one day when I happened to be excluded from some game my brother and his friends were playing. I went to the terrace where he was preparing the drink. (As far as exciting quirks go, this is one – the house had a kitchen on the terrace.) He asked me to help him dice the chickoos while he worked on the pomegranates. And this is what he was doing – separating the red, fleshy portion from each and every seed. He did that for ten, big fruits. While my plate was populated with clumsy hotchpotch brown chunks, his steel bowl was filled to the brim with perfect, plump, little red slivers, all of which went into making the most delectable ambrosia.
My favorite midnight snack is Kellogs Honey Crunch with buttermilk. I like to have it in a cup, not a bowl. So, first, I heap all these golden flakes in an aqua ceramic mug. Then I take chilled buttermilk that is not too sour, and pour just a little bit over the flakes. You need to keep sifting the flakes while pouring the buttermilk otherwise the flakes will not get wet evenly. Each flake should be partially soft and crunchy. And finally, you need to have it with a teaspoon and not a tablespoon. The teaspoon gives you just the right amount of cereal to chomp on with satiety while allowing you to savor the flavors.
Summertime food in Cuttack or whenever I visited it, was always huge and refreshing. There is a dish called ‘pokhalo’, that is simply rice soaked and served in a lot of curd and whey. But there are as many varieties of the ‘pokhalo’ as there are arguments for Naveen Patnaik’s government being more important than his father’s. My favorite type was made by my grandmother. Of course, the fact that it was served on the verandah of a huge ancestral house overlooking the Kathjodi river perhaps added to the taste.
The rice was soaked in ice water the night before. Sometimes, if we had a bountiful harvest, there would be strips of raw mangoes added to the water. Then, just before it was served, the rice was mixed with ladles of fresh, frothy curd, coarse salt, mint leaves, crushed ginger, and raw, sliced chilies. The usual accompaniments with this were plates of fried fish, chutney made with tomatoes and jaggery, and mashed potatoes. In fact, this particular variety of mashed potatoes is not for the faint hearted. The potatoes are mashed with salt, ground chilies, hot mustard oil, and finely chopped onions. On its own, the dish is pretty devilish but with the chilled pokahlo, it’s an imperative. The worthy benefit of the entire meal, however, is what comes afterwards.
You finish your lunch by gulping down the rice water. The hot afternoon sun, the cool river breeze, and the fermented, comforting water act as the perfect catalyst for well-deserved vacation sloth. You fall asleep listening to a swishing river and wake up with a heady sense of timelessness. That is when you have truly finished a summer meal in Orissa.
My mother is a fabulous cook. She cooks with gusto and drama and serves with flourish and panache. In fact, until the time my father cooked for us, we always ate in bone china. On the days that Papa did cook, we ate in steel utensils because, well, my father could never find the china. Or broke whatever he found.
One of my favorite dishes that Ma makes is baked prawns. She cooks it with coconut milk, a little bit of tamarind, lots of coriander, and a bit of lemon grass. The prawns are stewed for a while and then they are baked in a green coconut shell covered with foil.
When we sit to eat, each of us gets our own personal coconut. We carefully unwrap the foil (that is I do it carefully. My brother rips it open and yelps when he singes his finger - every single time. (Well, you never outgrow stupidity I guess.) The aroma that wafts from the coconut is really the most heavenly smells I have come across. And it lingers for the longest time about the baked coconut shell, on your fingers, and on the tip of your tongue. In fact, it is committed to my memory so certainly that I only have to think of that dish and I feel the spicy, sweet crustacean flavor in my mouth.
And the finale would be the trivial little condiment that comes pillion riding a strange little legend.
In my ancestral home in Cuttack, there was a lady called Pinjadi. She was from Jaipur. It’s not very clear how she got to Cuttack from Jaipur, but there were some stories of her stalking the family gardener. He had gone to Jaipur to get some beautiful flowers to plant on the occasion of my grandfather becoming the Chief Justice of Orissa High Court. No-one knows why Pinjadi chose to stalk a dimunitive gardener with enormous thumbs. I am told he had a very keen sense of smell, but that surely does not explain the obsession.
In any case, Pinjadi followed the gardener to our place and stayed on to work in my home. She always believed that her love was not requited because she wasn’t a good cook. And to her, that was an affliction neither fate nor technique could cure.
One day, a tribal chief came to visit my grandmother. These tribal chiefs, or 'soboros' as they were called, were known to be astoundingly good soothsayers. They usually came unsolicited and said what they had to say. After this, it was customary to give them a meal and a blanket and see them off. This time though, there was a special occasion. His son, a young, regal-looking chap of fifteen, had caught a young cub. Myth has it that if you clenched your fist and put it in the mouth of the cub, you’d be an excellent cook.
My grandmother, then a young, eager bride, tried her hardest to muster up the courage to put her hand inside the cub’s mouth. She couldn’t. She often used to tell me that a cub is very adorable to look at until you look into its eyes. Then you see a creature that would reign fear dangerously.
In any case, the tribal chief, his son, and the cub were fed and were soon on their way. Pinjadi followed them into the forest and is believed to have done the deed.
She and the gardener got married a week later.
I must have been six or seven when I had my first and last meal cooked by Pinjadi. My diet was the usual dal, rice, and boneless fish stew. But Pinjadi came and gave me something on the side of the plate. She nudged me conspiratorially, and to an eight year old, there is nothing more delicious than being part of a forbidden strategy.
I tasted her dish. It was black chillies, slit and cooked with dark jaggery. There was only a spoonful of it on my plate but I remember eating it for an inordinately long time. How shall I put it? It tasted like a deep, dark secret. It would be futile to even try and explain that. Suffice to say that in my later years, I have wanted to hunt her down, hold her captive, and take her with me wherever I go just to have a little bit of that. Just a little bit more.
This is despite me learning of her death when I was ten years old. She died soon after poisoning the gardener.
Myth has it that the cub must never be captive.