Cooking with my mother and other adventures
Chiranjeev X che naak bare ahe (wakde, kutraychi shepti kashi saral keli tari wakdich aste, teseych tyacha naakache aahe. Raag va tirsatpana zaara kami karaila saang. Manjhe saral hoil)
Chiranjeev (unmarried younger brother) X’s nose is okay now (but it is crooked, like the tail of a dog that can never be straightened. Ask him to control his anger and tendency to find fault with everything. Then his nose will straighten out).”
I changed my uncle’s name to an anonymous X to spare him the blushes if he happens to read this, but such acerbic comments are the stuff of the letters in my mother’s archives, contained in a plastic folder that she hauls out every time I pester her for recipes.
My mother was merely a younger sister-in-law, but, as the letter from my aunt indicates, she clearly wielded influence in my father’s family of 10 siblings. The tart remarks are added incentive, but the letters are a treasure trove of Goan and Maharashtrian home cooking from half a century ago.
She may have been the family peace broker, but my mother was also an enforcer, which I can vouch for.
As you know, I can cook. What you may not know is that I can also sew. I can do the basic cross, running and back stitch, enough to mend holes or tack on buttons. I haven’t for many years now, but I have often used a sewing machine to affix lace edging to handkerchiefs and distribute them as gifts to bemused female cousins.
I learnt these unmanly pursuits from my mother, who now tells me her brothers could not cook and sew, and that she was determined that her two boys would be able to.
It is important to teach your boys skills that have traditionally been the preserve of women because there is no other way to achieve equality between the sexes. There is no other way boys will grow up to be men and think it normal to cook, sew or dust. There is no other way but to indoctrinate them into equality, to understand that domestic duties are normal, daily requirements.
I thought of all these issues as I cooked a meal with my mother last week, the first time I was doing so in nearly a quarter-century. It was a Sunday, she had no help, I was back from a week of travel, and I was nostalgic for something from my childhood—which meant we had to make dried fish.
Growing up, dried fish and prawn were our staples whenever lunch or dinner was largely vegetarian. Every Goan or Maharashtrian family has a stock of stinkies—and they do stink, if you’re not used to the smell. As for me, I only discern a salty, sea fragrance.
These days I try to balance my meateating habits with leafy greens and suchlike, so it was appropriate that my mother dug out an old recipe that included fresh methi (fenugreek) and dried prawn. Unusual to many, combinations like this have always been popular in my parents’ families.
The recipe was dated 26 March 1965, and it was part of a letter written exactly five months before I was born. After transferring to backward Bijapur—once part of the Bahamani kingdoms—from life as a physiotherapist in old Bombay, my mother seems to have used these letters to keep in touch and update her shaky to non-existent culinary skills.
She rarely cooks these days, but my mother’s memory of ingredients and methods is sharp. She had most of the prep done, so I basically had to throw it all together. My mother perched herself on a stool, straightened things that were already straight and doled out a stream of advice. I am a solitary cook, while she likes to be part of the kitchen action. In this instance, I was pleased to have her because it really did take me back to the days when she set me on the right path.
When the pressure cooker was opened, and we sat down to Sunday lunch, she sniffed and fussed—the consistency was too lumpy, the salt was less. But as we dropped a dollop of the methi and dried prawn on yellow dal and rice, the niggling details faded, replaced by the fragrance of home-cooked food and gossip from 50 years ago.
‘Methi’ with dried prawn
Methi, 2 bunches, chopped and soaked in salted water
3/4 cup chana dal
2 tbsp raw rice
1/2 cup dried prawns, washed
1 onion, sliced
1 onion, chopped
1/2 cup dried coconut, grated
7-8 cloves garlic, smashed
2 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp garam masala
2 tsp oil
Salt to taste
Squeeze out water from the methi to remove bitterness. Soak the dal and rice in water for an hour, drain and grind coarsely—this is called rava. Roast the sliced onion with coconut and grind.
Heat oil in a pressure cooker. Sauté the garlic and dried prawns. Add the chopped onion and sauté till translucent. Add the methi and toss. Add the rava and the ground coconut and onion mixture. Add the turmeric and red chilli powder. Mix everything well. Add the garam masala, salt and half a cup of water. Bring to a boil. Seal the cooker and allow one whistle. Lower the heat and continue for two more whistles.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
The writer tweets at @samar11