Let me first tell you what I don’t like about birthdays in the age of the smartphone. I don’t like WhatsApp messages, and I don’t like memes of dancing donkeys and dancing ducks (although I am fine with dogs). I do like people calling me on my landline and sending me birthday cards—not that I can remember the last time I got a card.
I don’t like a lot of fuss on my birthday. I don’t care for parties, and I don’t care for extravagant gifts. And, as my in-laws and my parents know, I don’t like to be asked that irksome question: “What would you like for your birthday?"
My mother did ask me that and I grouchily said: “Either you can surprise me or don’t bother. I don’t really want a gift." They decided to surprise me, even though my daughter tried her best to ruin that surprise.
“Appa, ajji and dada are going to give you a surprise," she said smugly.
“And you are telling me this why?" I asked.
“Oh, I am not telling you what it is, I am just telling you that I know they are giving you a surprise." What can you do with a nine-year-old’s logic but sigh and smile.
In the event, I forgot about my birthday. It was the nine-year-old who reminded me the day before. “Appa, it’s your birthday tomorrow, can I take off from school?" she asked. When I said she certainly could not, she bargained with her mother and got her evening piano class cancelled.
When it was time to hand over the present, she hustled her grandparents into a room, emerged dragging something I could not see and hid behind the sofa. When my parents finally caught up, she gave them the gift, and they handed it to me. The gift took my breath away.
It was my father’s ceremonial service sword. I had long coveted it, quite apparently. So it was hauled off the wall, the leather scabbard cleaned, and the blade polished.
My father received the sword in 1956, the year he graduated from the National Police Academy. It had hung from his belt on various ceremonial occasions, from Independence Day to medal ceremonies. When he retired about 28 years ago, the sword was also cashiered and mounted on a wall. Now, it was mine.
With the present done, it was time to focus on what my family considers the main attraction of any birthday: the food. My idea of a birthday is a full and happy house and a table loaded with food, ideally cooked by me. I am dissatisfied if my birthday lunch or dinner is spent in some random restaurant with strangers waiting on me.
I do not believe I possess many talents. I am neither a master chef, nor will I ever be. My wife is the organized one, but I can lay out a passable buffet in somewhat chaotic fashion. No one goes hungry, that’s for sure.
Our little home in Bengaluru is particularly suited to these little soirées of joy and togetherness. A slightly chill evening wind blows in over the rain trees, and a fado, a Portuguese song of love and yearning, wafts through the house.
The birthday dinner had to be early, of course, since it was a Monday and my little moppet had to be asleep by 7.45pm. So the plan was snacks and drinks. It helps that the family is given to light dinners these days. Everyone was told they had to come by 4.30pm and leave by 7.30pm.
The centrepiece of the collaborative dinner was a Moroccan-style fish adapted from a little book called The Best Of Morocco, with a roasted, red-pepper salad, avocado on toast with pesto (wife), lamb cutlets (mother) and chips and dips.
There was lots of silly humour, loud conversation, warmth and love and—most importantly—the often grumpy wife put away the leftovers, washed dishes and smiled sweetly through the day.
Oh yes, everyone left by 7.15pm.
Moroccan fish with olives and pine nuts
750g Asian seabass (bhetki) fillets, cut into 1-inch pieces
8 tomatoes, chopped
2 tbsp garlic, minced
3 tbsp rice flour
2 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp fresh black pepper powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried oregano
5 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
10-12 olives, chopped in half
1 lime, zested and sliced thinly
3 tsp parsley, finely chopped
Salt to taste
8 tsp olive oil
Sprinkle the fish with salt. Blend turmeric, red chilli and coriander powders and dried thyme into the flour and dust the fish with it.
Warm 3 tsp of olive oil. Fry garlic and tomatoes for 10 minutes on medium to gentle heat until the tomatoes start to thicken. Add salt, pepper and oregano and mix. Move the tomatoes to one side of the pan. Use the remaining olive oil to fry fish next to the tomatoes, in two- three batches if needed. Pile the fried fish on top of the tomatoes or set aside if the pile becomes unwieldy.
Add pine nuts and olives. Scrape the tomatoes from the bottom of the pan, even if blackened. Bring back all the fish, squeeze lime slices and mix in the zest. Adjust salt if needed. Garnish with fresh parsley and pepper.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
Twitter - @samar11