There are some for whom convenience food is a lifesaver. Preparing a meal isn’t something they do naturally. Plucking it out of the freezer, reading instructions, removing the outer packaging, piercing the transparent film and bunging it into the microwave requires no effort at all. A ready meal in two to three minutes, garnished with an exotic name.
Others take to cooking like fish to water, taking every care even when it comes to preparing a simple dish. Mum belongs to the latter group. She was completely in her zone as soon as she placed a pot on the burner. This wasn’t just routine. To her this was an art. A science. She was creating something- something beautiful, tantalising and even unbelievable. She resembled the fervour of a conductor orchestrating a symphony, the grace and dexterity of a ballet choreographer and the incisive intuition of a surgeon- she was the master chef if you get my drift; especially if it was on a special occasion like Eid celebrations. To this day I remain puzzled by the fact that nothing was weighed or measured.
They say you can always tell a novice in the kitchen because they’ll obsess with getting it perfect by weighing and measuring every ingredient- ounce-by-ounce, millilitre-by-millilitre. But virtuosos like my mum weigh with their hands and measure with their eyes. They’ll know instinctively if it’s too much or too little. Solomon’s wisdom, I call it- an acquired judgement that would put politicians to shame. I’m tempted to ask and put my curiosity to rest- but I won’t. There’s a magic about it, an enigma is only as enigmatic as the curiosity behind it.
Occasionally she’d look up at you. I always got confused about what she expected me to do or say, because she just looked and never spoke, before then, as if in a trance, returning to what she was engrossed in. This weird flash of concentration was accompanied by a mild intake of breath; it was probably her way of energising, regrouping and mustering together her concentration and focus. This wide-eyed stare wasn’t an angry or searching look; it wasn’t even a look as if to say, ‘What the hell are you doing in my domain? ’ It was a warm, yet assured look. No, I wasn’t an intruder or trespasser. It was safe to pass by. From amongst the clutter of spoons, knives, pots and pans, one object stood out. It was unique. It was the flat round metallic tin.
This was no ordinary metal box. It was the container holding probably the most identifiable Indian ingredient. Ghee! As my mum prized open the airtight lid, it made a sound I can only describe as the reverse action of a vacuum cleaner. Anyway, into the pot went spoonfuls of semi-solidified Ghee- the mother of all ingredients. Golden rivulets, like syrupy treacle, would emerge from the sides of these golden Ghee mountains, merge into rivers and gush out from the estuaries into a molten liquid lake. The brass volcanic lava would then soak into mounds of masala-fluorescent turmeric, piquant red chilli, khaki green coriander, barky-brown cinnamon and aromatic cardamom pods. A bubbling paint pot of colour all mingling into one.My favourite bit was watching her skin the onions. The layers would come unshelled- and then with her delicate fingertips she would capture the membrane-sheathed heart and reveal it like a jewel.
Once again, like a true connoisseur, she crafts the cuisine to her time-honoured recipes. She knows if it’s too hot or not sweet enough by instinct. It was her sixth sense. It was all a bit like beholding some kind of performance. You’d never known how much time and effort and passion she had put into the rehearsal. All you would get to see is the actual performance which was always delivered with effortless ease and grace. It was ironic, because she’d never make a song and dance about anything. I can truly say that watching her cook for a family gathering was like theatre. You can bet for certain though that she would never be around to take the final bow, even if there was an encore.
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