It was in my secondhand bookshop locked in a glass cabinet unlike the other books, which stood on open shelves bare to a stranger’s browse. It seemed appropriate that something called Once Upon A Time should be locked up – by an evil queen no doubt – waiting to be rescued.
I rescued it with a few pounds that afternoon. Its pages felt like the loose skin on the underside of my grandmother’s arms – soft, thin, giving. It’s a magazine that was born in the late sixties; a weekly for children.
There is something more personal, more generous, about print productions from the pre-digital age. Like homemade cookies, they had a pureness of intent. You can imagine people stooped over, setting type by hand, the page layouts tweaked slowly, manually. The publication of Once Upon A Time ceased years ago, but its beauty still breathes. In its large pages, inked with abandon. Brimming with childhood.
It reminded me of the magazines Ma used to collect when I was young, and which I would spend hours leafing through in my teens. Old issues of LIFE, large in size and in content, and with the same wise smell to its yellow pages. I remember The Illustrated Weekly of India – the cartoons by RK Laxman and Mario Miranda. And the old Indian comic books, filled with stories of small-town India, and of kings and simpletons and wily pranksters.
Somehow, when I think of me pouring over those copies of LIFE, the memory is always set in winter. Sitting on the long, low settee in our living room where the sun fell after lunch. It would’ve been the Christmas holidays. I remember the nip.
December in Calcutta is a lovely time. The air is cool, people calm. They’ve passed the humid clamminess of summer and the torrents of the monsoons. During Christmas, we would always go out to see the lights on Park Street. Ma would have fresh flowers in every room. ‘Boro Deen’ – that is what Christmas is called in Bengali. ‘The big day’.
Between Christmas and New Year, our house would be filled with parties. Some with family. Some with Ma-Baba’s friends. The table heavy with food. The drinks flowing. Laughter, conversations, evenings that didn’t end. Baba would be at his best, armed with his anecdotes, humour and stories from history. Ma would cook up the most perfect dishes; creative; recipes no one had ever tried before (not even Ma) – baked, steamed, stirred. Mixes and mash and combinations that would work beautifully. My brother and I would wait for these evenings. For the excited throb that took over the house, but mainly for the food.
One of Ma’s appetizers – which became so popular that it was always on our party-table by popular demand – was a simple aubergine dish. A dish that I now make for my guests. It’s a thing to pass down. And like most of Ma’s recipes, and mine, it’s very quick and low-fuss. I’ve never made it without having to tell guests the recipe.
I’m going to share it with you today. And then, I’m going to find some pretty paper and wrap up Once Upon A Time and put it under the Christmas tree for Chotto-ma. She decorated the tree this week, and now it stands by the doorway dressed for Christmas Day. Different from my Boro Deen in Calcutta, but just as big. Years later, these Decembers are what will be Chotto-ma’s ‘once upon a time’.
Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Whatever-lights-up-your-winter.
Happy holidays, everyone! xx
Ma’s Pan-fried Aubergine with Yogurt and Red Onion Topping
1 large aubergine, cut into inch-thick slices
1 cup strained yogurt (hang yogurt in cloth to strain it)
Half a red onion, finely chopped
Fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped
1 green chilli, de-seeded and chopped (optional)
For the topping: mix yogurt, onion, coriander leaves and green chilli. Add salt and sugar to taste (I like mine salted with a nice sweet edge). Beat till smooth and keep it in the fridge.
Brush the aubergine slices with oil on both sides.
Heat a flat pan with 1 tsp oil, and add the aubergine.
On medium heat, pan fry till cooked and both sides of the slices are nicely browned.
Place on serving dish and spoon on the topping. It should be a nice combination of hot and cold. (Though even all-cold tastes lovely).
Sprinkle with paprika for a slash of colour, and a tiny bit more onion if you like, and serve.
PS: When I have guests, I keep the topping ready in the fridge. I pan-fry the aubergine early on, and line them up on a baking tray. When guests arrive, I just heat it in the oven on high for a few minutes, spoon the topping and serve.
Have the most wonderfully festive holiday!