Sunday, August 16, 2009

Curry in a Hurry and cheeky chapatti

The test of any good Indian woman or wife to be is in the chapatti. I have watched enough Indian television to know this to be true. So I told Ommie that I would take over the kitchen once his brother went back to Omkareshwar. This was so that he couldn’t carry tales of my kitchen inefficiency ahead of me to the family.
But things rarely work out as you plan them. The day I made puri bhaji, his brother took one look and ran away before he even finished stirring the curry!
In the morning said he wanted to leave but we insisted he stay another day so as not to be travelling on a festival day and promised to cook ghee-laden food as a gesture to Lord Krishna whose birthday it was.
So in the middle of us all working to prepare the meal, Chacha ji called out to say that his brother had just jumped in an auto and left with his bags. Now, my puri are a bit rusty and nowhere near as light and flaky as a good Punjabi puri should be but I though the bhaji were pretty damn good. Anyway what’s wrong with saying goodbye?
After the initial period of disbelief, Ommie picks up the phone and rings not his brother but his mother and father and sister in law and tells them what his brother has done. There is about twenty minutes of shouting on the phone. I sit outside with Chacha ji, the grandfather of the house and my balcony buddy.
What happened, says the old man.
I made puri and he ran away in the middle of stirring the curry, I tell him.
The old man is more interested in listening in on Ommie's phone call than hearing about my dismal puri.
With dinner cooked and no body feeling like eating it, we sit on the balcony with the family and discuss the curry in a hurry departure of his brother. Suddenly the brother returns and parks his bag in the room gets out of his travelling clothes while Ommie tells the neighbours about his brothers behaviour. The brother defends himself in the debate of good manners versus bus timetables and him missing his kids. Eventually Chacha ji, like any good chief, decides that each has had his case heard and tells everyone to shut up now and get over it.
Later in the kitchen I said to Ommie, what happened? Couldn’t he get a bus?
No, he smiles. Mummy and Father told him he had to come back.
Amazing to think of a society where family still has so much power to resolve problems and adjust behaviour.
Scary to think that news can travel that fast in India these days. Already my crap puris are famous in a place I haven’t been to yet!
The family that Ommie rents a room from are now also eyeing me speculatively, frankly assessing my value as a wife according to their norms. While they haven’t seen my chapatti so far, they like to come into the kitchen and watch me cook as if it was some rare thing.
By that time the chapatti dough is prepped and sitting innocuously in a dish awaiting its final humiliation.
It’s a long time since I cooked Indian food for Indian people which is something like us watching an Irishman put down a hangi. Food is such a cultural reference for us all, no matter where we come from and food in India is still so very tied to survival. If you turn out a crap dish it doesn’t go in the bin and someone goes out for takeaways. It’s eaten anyway while its merits and deficiencies are discussed. To any cook the sound of people eating quietly means more than words, it is approval by digestion.
When I lived in the jungle temple with my guru ji, my first attempts at cooking were watched over by Baba ji’s eagle eye. People would eat with the “not bad for a firang” kind of attitude and I knew my food still had that desi taste
I remember the day I served a meal and noticed that the people eating were hardly conscious that the food was or should be or could be any different from the taste that they knew since childhood. They didn’t see my food as something from a firang but as if it had been cooked by Baba ji’s own hand.
Accustomed as I was by then to constructive criticism accompanying my food as predictable as chutney, I couldn’t help but notice the silence. What had I done differently, I wondered. What had changed?
In my exhausted jungle survival mode I had lost my own self consciousness and that in some strange way it reflected in the taste of the food. I had long since given up my struggle to be different, to remain an individual and surrendered mostly to the madness around me. In fact there was no longer them and me but all of us together sharing resources afloat on the sea of humanity.
If life is a feast then the best meals are ones made in the spirit of this kind of symbiosis.
In the meantime I will get to wrestling some divinity out of the chapatti dough.

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