Thursday, 2 July 2009

Only trust a menu that spells BIRYANI correctly

Oh boy. I ate outstandingly well today. Good old fashioned North Indian food with a robust Punjabi earthiness to it, that nearly moved me to tears because it is exactly the way my mother cooks. Ok, well, no one cooks quite like her - her touch is robust+elegance personified - but this came pretty damn close. I wouldn't have dreamed of it happening in a sterile food court. But it did.

The greed that overcame me was surreal and all consuming, and began with the words "aloo paratha" written hastily on a small white board, and ended with the last dregs of a glass of buttermilk that coincided with a massive sigh.

In between, I gorged on bhindi masala (ladies fingers) that still had bite - not the mush that passes for this dish in most restaurants (even those of repute), or hastily fashioned Northern Indian food stalls that are really confused Southern Indian food stalls.

There is an art to bhindi preparation that begins in the market - choosing each piece carefully by bending the pointy tip to see how quickly and crunchily it snaps. Quick snaps go in the basket, slow snaps don't.

Each piece should then be cleaned with a damp cloth - NEVER WASHED. This only causes it to get snottier than it already is - the main gripe of people who refuse to eat it.

Then, it should be slow cooked, in onions, jeera (cumin seeds), a touch of garlic, ginger strips, turmeric, and a sprinkle of dhania jeera (too complex to explain but the magic of a certain combination of simple, hand toasted spices that takes Northern Indian food from sublime to ridiculously good) and salt, in a karai (steel, well-abused Indian wok) over a tava (the flat iron pan used to toast chapati's to perfection), on slow, slow heat.

Then, there was the dhal palak (yellow lentils with fresh spinach) that had me gnawing my own fingers, it was that good. Yellow dhal boiled till just perfectly broken - smooth but not too smooth, with a little bite. Fresh spinach swirled through it. Around this point, I felt homesick beyond belief for my mother's cooking, and, for my first home.

And to mop it all up, thick aloo parathas (essentially, chapattis stuffed with potato that are fried with a little bit of ghee, not toasted as chapatis are) served hot off the griddle - the only way to eat them.

When people tell me how much they love naan, I feign interest. The humble chapati or richer paratha is fine art, whereas naan to me, is the overblown, over-yeasty, inflated (physically and figuratively) Indian bread equivalent of samosa (those huge one's are rubbish), butter chicken (people, please!) and tandoori chicken (which I love, but I can't live with the nasty pieces of coloured red chicken masquerading as tandoori that passes for the dish here).

Chapati's in particular, are are trigger of one of my fondest, most powerful childhood memories.

Our home helpers, all of whom lived at the base of our lovely old crumbling apartment building in Mumbai, in what were little more than three sided shacks, usually ate but once or twice a day. Once in the morning, and then again late at night after work. The family who worked with our family, had lived there since my mother had been born, and possibly even before, but at least a good 27 years by the time I came along.

The mother, father, two daughters and one son, Chandravati, Tukeram, Shuckoo, Jaichandi and Jaichand, lived a meagre existence. Parents and elder siblings sweeping, mopping and cooking for us, and several others in the same apartment block. Today, the parents have passed and the kids are grown, and all doing wonderfully well: an accountant, a teacher, a homemaker.

They were my surrogate family and greatest friends back then. My grandmother and mother had a way, that I don't often see repeated. There was enormous trust and respect between their family and ours, despite their father being a scoundrel and drunk. What we had, we shared, what they had, they shared - especially when it came to food.

And that's how our Saturday morning rituals began. Yours truly, curly hair and chubby parts, itching to get downstairs at the earliest hint of a chapati being toasted on an open fire, and milk tea "for baby" as I was known, to wash it all down. I'd leave our apartment with my grandmother's strict instructions to not be greedy and only have one so there would be enough for everyone. Once downstairs however, "baby" - and my older sister too, who occasionally would come along for the ride, and who was also known as "baby".. the universal pet name given by all home helpers who've known their charges since birth - was spoilt rotten.

Years later, I visited Mumbai as an adult. The family had moved into a one room space, smaller than anything you can imagine, but still at the foot of the same building they had given their backs to. They looked at me fondly, and insisted that since I was now this grown up woman, that I must have a seat of honour on the single bed in the room. Instead, I sat on the floor. Like before. We hugged, and cried, and ate. I was still "baby" And nothing felt as if it had changed.

I thought of it all today, the smell of the wood fire, the taste, the comfort, as I sat, in that otherwise plastic food court. It was nowhere near my mother's warmth, my grandmother's kindness, nor our helper's generosity and love... But the food itself, brought me closer than I could have ever imagined.

Visit the Mumtaz Mahal stall, in the food court above the Amara Hotel and Shopping Centre. Aloo Paratha Vegetarian set, $5,50, includes a glass of buttermilk. This personal memory however, is free.

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