Individuality is overrated. As is disconnect. Few things reinforce self-discovery more than the loss of a mother...and with her, her cooking.
As I hastily stuff myself with the last of the baked karanjis she made herself, stored in the freezer a few days before she passed on, I feel her slipping away. And I am not ready for that to happen.
Like many other young women of my generation, I have spent much of my life looking for space…and a niche to call my own. Mom was my world, a strong, gritty and ever-smiling woman.
Yet I did not want to be her. After all, "I" was different. On that score, I refused to give a quarter of an inch. Until yesterday, that is. Until there wasn't mom. Or any more chance of eating her food. The food that represents more than just a repertoire of recipes. The food that stands for home and roots. The loss of which only means only one word: exile.
And with exile, you realize roots run deep. That when life kicks you in the gut, community, kinship and connect mean everything.
It matters little whether or not your mother was a great cook. Well, mine was. But even if she wasn't, I would still want her khana back. It's not as if I am suddenly set to devalue my personality completely—the very same identity I spent a lifetime defining. However, it seems more complete when I find in it a link to a chain that includes both me and the woman that gave me life.
To that end, I find a few papers with some recipes hastily scribbled in her distinct scrawl: a scrawl that bespoke a decent rapport with English (her painstakingly acquired second language) but at heart is as Marathi moli as they come.
There's a recipe for her famous biryani. And another one for varan (Maharashtrian dal). There’s one for kothimbir vadi, that most Nagpuri (yes, she was from the Vidarbha) of tea time savouries. The rest I haven't deciphered.
The handwriting is decent but these scraps of papers are ancient. The ink is fading. I suppose I'll fare better when I find the copy of her dog-eared Ruchira—a cookbook that has mythical proportions in a Maharashtrian household. Like other women, mom was a fan too but brought in the distinct flavour that Army homes acquire over time. A flavour as harmonious as it is different.
That Ruchira is bound to have her special notes to tweak a recipe here and there. But that can only happen later as we aren't clearing up her stuff yet.
The search for soul food
I begin with the varan. It's the simplest and quickest item on the list. Like mom, I am not a patient cook. The career part is possibly an excuse for our inherent short temperaments. The truth is: we need both sustenance and results, quickly.
Fittingly, I turn to the masala dabba or the box of spices that was her special gift to me when I got married. Unlike the rest of the utensils, she gave me this wasn't new. It was hers and had served her well for over 25 years—though it wasn't something you would ever accuse of looking old.
Mom believed in keeping her utensils shining. "You can tell a woman's love and dedication to her family from the way she keeps her bartans," she would say. (Well, no comments there, given that my own bartans look, err, different.)
Still, I begin with the seasoning: ghee, mustard, jeera, lasoon, kadhi patta, green mirchi, dhaniya powder. Then I add the cooked dal. Mom was a great fan of fresh coriander and a squeeze of lime on top.I taste it. The taste is there...almost, but not quite. I add a tiny sliver of gul (jaggery) and thin out the dal with a little more water.
Success at last. It's just the way she made it. I have it all by myself…except for the bowl I keep aside for my baby girl. She drinks it up like soup…silly girl does not know that it's meant to be savoured with soft boiled rice and more ghee. Mixed and mashed until the rice and dal are one...
The next day I study mom's recipe for mutton biryani. Long years ago, it had been a bone of contention between us. Though it was her signature dish and the family audience loved it, I wasn't a fan. To showcase my growing skills, I had made it a point to learn from a professional Muslim khansama. As a result, the offerings from my kitchen were more flamboyant. The first time I triumphantly presented what I had made, she had declared that she loved it. As had the others.
That evening, though, I had acidity and wondered whether it was indeed such a bad idea to have milder biryani.
I try out her recipe.
She would caramelize the onion to the extent that the rice got the light brown colour too. What's more, she relied more on freshly roasted khada masala than anything out of a packet, including readymade biryani masala.
The result, to my now older taste buds, is mellow magic. The mutton is the perfect texture of velvety smoothness…the fragrance of the masala just right. If food could ever be called elegant, this dish certainly qualifies.
My mood is considerably uplifted after the second experiment...though my mind is racing. There's so much more I have yet to learn. Her karanjis and rava-naral ladoos for instance. And I could kick myself for not having learnt her pooran polis...fat, thick and oozing with soft pooran...while I still had the time. Unlike the local fare made in Pune, which tended to be thin, austere and dry, her polis were luxuriant. They were made of sugar and jaggery, not just the latter. The effect was for all the world to taste. But I don't have that recipe. Not yet. Maybe I could catch hold of one of my aunts to teach me how. After all, they had feasted on her polis long before I had.
The masala dabba stares at me, a stoic and silent spectator to all I am looking to create and recreate. It offers the consolation I need at this uncertain time.
Just like mom would, presenting the perfect comfort food for the day...
And so it continues. My quest to connect with my childhood, find my mother and eventually, my own meaning. It might not be exactly mom's own, but it has more than a glimmer of her reflection. Enough to keep exile at bay. After all, roots, don't just run deep, they also adapt.