Chotto-ma took this photo of us while we napped in the afternoon today. I woke up, and found it on the camera. It was a very grey day, and it would’ve passed like another grey day, and I’d never have known us in sleep. This little girl, she holds a mirror to us in so many ways. Shows us what we look like when we aren’t looking.
“Have you lost your mummy?”
“Tumi aamar ma” (You’re my Ma.)
“What’s that strange language you’re speaking?”
“Eta strange na. Eta Bangla; Bengali.” (It’s not strange; it’s Bengali.)
“Bhengawli? Well, I don’t understand a word of it! Greek to me.”
“Oh, stop calling me that! Go home, little girl. Stop following me.”
This is Chotto-ma’s absolutelyfavouritest game, staged daily on the walk back from school. I started it, little knowing what I was in for. She loved it so much, it has begged repetition ever since. And every day if possible.
There’s me in my best ill-humoured-Edwardian-lady accent, and a little brown girl straggling behind. Ne’er has a play seen a more unsuitable cast. But apparently, it’s “hu-normous” fun.
Some days, though, when I pick her up from school, I feel like I haven’t seen her forever; which means I need to squish her too much to play the game. I squish her and I carry her as far as I can these days, slobbering her face with very noisy kisses – which doesn’t quite set the mood for Le Pathétique. On days like that, there is Option B.
In Option B, I play myself (thank god). But. I seem to be very confused about our way home from school. I drag her to all the wrong doors, try to take all the wrong turns, but Chotto-ma knows better, of course. So she rolls her eyes and pulls me in the right direction. She points to our house from a distance. Look Ma, there’s our house. No-no, I say, that’s Miss Havisham’s, an old lady who’s allergic to little girls. Nah, she says, that’s ours. Big mistake, I say – Miss Havisham’s going to stew you for supper.
And so we climb the stairs; me mumbling caveats about trespassers and dour old ladies, and Chotto-ma with her worldly calm, shaking her worldly head. When she reaches the door, she takes the key from me. She slips it into the keyhole. I’m aghast that our key fits Miss Havisham’s house. She turns the key and the door opens! She pulls me in, and I nearly pass out from the shock of it all – for it is indeed our house.
And so happy and relieved are we to find Miss Havisham missing that we flick off our shoes, throw off our jackets, and dive into the kitchen to bake a cake that would befit the fussiest Edwardian dowager.
Fig & Pecan Buttermilk Cake
3 large figs (1 quartered lengthwise; the other 2 cubed into 8 pieces each)
A handful of pecan, broken into pieces
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 cups brown, granulated sugar
3/4 cup melted butter
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Pre-heat oven: 160°C.
In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt together with a wooden spoon.
Make a well in the middle, crack in the eggs, pour in the butter and vanilla extract. Stir it all in.
Add in the buttermilk a little add at time. Stir, add, stir – till the buttermilk is all gone and you have a nice, smooth batter.
Now, add the cubed figs and the pecan, and fold them in.
Pour the batter into a greased loaf tin.
Tuck in the other fig slices on top.
Bake for about 50 minutes, or till a knife inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
D had bought it a few months before we started dating, so his friends concluded that Bullets came with a steady girlfriend; a few boys in his neighbourhood offered to buy it from him. The Bullet also came with something else – a Voice. You could hear it long before it came into view. Dhhig-dhhig-dhhig. Slow, steady, loud. Like a good heart. For me, that sound came to mean many things, because it was the sound of D arriving, returning. The end of a small waiting.
One evening – a few months into our relationship, much before we were married – I was at home watching TV with Baba, when my ears picked up the sound of a Bullet entering our building complex; we lived on the fourth floor. The sound made me sit up straight, heartbeat up a notch. But then, remembering Baba next to me, I quickly feigned a relaxed posture. I stretched, and slowly got up, muttering something about fresh air. I made my way towards the balcony, adopting what I thought was a splendidly purposeless walk. I’d taken no more than five steps when–
“It’s not him,” Baba said, without taking his eyes off the telly.
My Baba – as sharp as the edge of a new page. There’s not much you could ever sneak past him. Later that day, I learnt that someone else in the building had bought a Bullet. Damn, I thought, I didn’t need the confusion. In a few days though, my ears had worked out the difference in sounds, and came to the unbiased conclusion that the sound of D’s Bullet was far sweeter.
So, that’s how it always was – D, me and the Bullet. It’s the way our old friends remember us. Seated on it, D and I got to know each other better, we talked and laughed, argued and made up, planned things, escaped for a few hours. D would pick me up from college after classes – that famed ‘lobby’ of Jadavpur University – and off we would go, without a plan. Years later, after we were married, he’d be there waiting with the Bullet next to my office to pick me up from work.
When we left Calcutta, we had to sell the Bullet. I don’t have a single photograph of it – of us riding it, standing by it, near it. Not one. We didn’t take many photographs in those days. I wish we had one though, just to show Chotto-ma.
Even though our Bullet found a new home, just like we did, there are a few things which haven’t changed. The sound of D arriving, returning, still makes me sit up like it used to. Only now, it’s not the dhhig-dhhig-dhhig of a bullet, but the slam of a car door, footsteps up the stairs. And we still find ways to escape for a few hours.
Every once in a while, we both take the day off work, drop Chotto-ma at school, and keep the day for ourselves. We did that last week. Took the day off, took a long walk, sat by the river, talked. Discovered a new street, narrow and crammed with gardens. Stopped at a pub for a drink. Ate a perfectly cooked Thai meal. We browsed our favourite bookshop. Picked a fern for Chotto-ma. Then, sat at a cafe, till it was time to pick her up from school. D read the newspaper. I wrote a little poem on a magnetic poetry board, which, having lost most of its words, stood by the cafe window gathering dust.
I also did something else last weekend. I came up with a sublime little dessert. ‘Sublime’, because there is no other word for it. We had friends over, and I wanted something quick, simple. I also wanted something seasonal and cold. But: nearly no work.
I had a few ingredients at home – a pot of mascarpone, coconut milk, one lone apple and a bowl of cherries. Together, they sang. It was the stuff of sonatas, I tell you.
Stewed Apples & Cherries in a Mascarpone-Coconut Cocktail
2 apples, cut into small cubes
10 large cherries, pit removed and quartered
3-4 tbs mascarpone
1 1/2 cup coconut milk
1 star anise
Cashew or pecan nut to top (or a sprig of mint)
Add apples, cherries, coconut milk, star anise and 1 tbsp sugar in a pan and put to heat.
Simmer gently for a minute, and fish out the star anise.
Continue to simmer till the coconut milk is all gone and the fruit is tender. It’ll all be a lovely cherry colour.
Take it off the heat. Add 3 to 4 tbs-dollops of mascarpone into the warm, stewed fruit.
Add sugar to taste. Stir it all in.
Spoon it into cocktail glasses, top with a nut or a sprig of mint and refrigerate for 40 minutes to set.
Take it out 10 minutes before serving.
The house sounds wonderful – off key, off pitch, off to a new start of some kind. As Chotto-ma and the piano get to know each other, the teacup rattles on its saucer. But there’s something in this early tunelessness that makes me glad. The house is writing its own song. There’s D playing his guitar, Chotto-ma tinkering with the piano, sunlight fumbling on the sofa, and me groping for words. Flimsy things that leave such a definite impression on the mind. There’s nothing like it – the three of us at home, feeling around, filling our own spaces, feet touching.
This morning, Chotto-ma’s frenetic bout of ‘composing’ on the piano resulted in two pieces, one of which she called ‘Walking through the forest’. The piece starts with the quiet trickle of a stream. The hop of a bunny. Leaves crunching. Deer scampering. And then it all takes a terrible turn. The growl of a lion. A loud, breathless chase. Crescendo, crescendo. And finally – utter, deathly silence. Dhang!
Yes, I might need ear-plugs soon, but for now, it’s all good. There’s that promise of music. A tune blinking in the distance. The possibility of beauty in a row of black and white keys. A seed has been planted, and our spring is beginning to sound like a piano.
We went to the market today. Everything’s ablaze. The English spring is an extravagant creature. The stalls are reeling with colour and smell and a circus of seasonal produce. The flowers and fruits are showing off. The tomatoes are ridiculously red. We got some ridiculously-red tomatoes home, and I charred a few on an open fire, and made a sauce that tastes like our spring.
Ablaze and strong and full of feisty music.
Hot Charred-Tomato Sauce
This packs a punch. It’s very garlicky, it’s extra-spicy, and for me at the moment, it beats sriracha hands down. It’s the simplest thing to make, especially during a barbecue. We add it to everything nowadays – in soup, in a burger, as a dip, dolloped into pasta, as a marinade or in a sandwich. It’s gloriously good, with a personality to boot.
1 large, red tomato
2 cloves of garlic
2 green chillies
Char the tomato on a barbecue, or an open flame. I held my tomato above a hot hob with tongs, turning it this way and that, till the skin blackened.
Peel some of the skin off, leaving some charred bits sticking on. It gives the sauce a fabulous smokiness.
Put the charred tomato, garlic and chillies in a processor and blitz.
Add salt to taste.
(We had ours with courgette fritters today)
I grew up thinking this is what mothers do: they read.
It was also Chotto-ma’s first stretch without Ba. She missed him so much that she finally decided to pretend he was in the bathroom. She also wrote him notes, drew him messages and licked his face on skype.
She wrote me a note too, and gave it to me (in an envelope) right after D left for the airport.
Yes, we can make a big soppy brouhaha about five days, which in Chotto-ma’s words ‘felt like sixty-five days.’ To hell with moderation, to hell with anti-mush. When he walked in through the door on Saturday morning, we were on him like cling-film on leftovers.
So how did we spend those ‘sixty-five days’? Well, apart from waiting for D to come back, we:
Overfed the ducks in the river.
Played hooky from school to watch Kung Fu Panda whilst eating dumplings.
Read books – she hers, I mine.
Had long conversations about life (it’s the coolest thing; the things Chotto-ma and I talk about now, cuddled up on the sofa with a blanket on our legs.)
Ate dark red juicy plums.
Brought in spring.
Danced to Fleetwood Mac.
Baked D a Crème Caramel.
In India, a crème caramel is called ‘pudding’. A pudding is a crème caramel. So, when we first moved to England that’s what I expected everyone to agree to. Pudding = crème caramel. But no. Here, pudding = dessert. Everything is a pudding: a sponge cake, a cheesecake, ice-cream with jelly, fruits with custard. Everything. This seismic food-shift, this pudding-shock, took more time to get used to than the British weather.
Bubulma, D’s mother, was known (far and wide) for her perfect puddings; her crème caramels were light, smooth. With firm feet and a jiggly hip. But the only time I ever tried making one: Disaster. That was years ago; my crème caramel collapsed like a Victorian lady, and no amount of sniffing salt could revive it.
This time, I was determined to do better. Not just I, but Chotto-ma and I. Chotto-ma, my little egg beater. My crème caramel conspirator.
And we did better than better.
4 cups of thickened milk (to thicken: gently boil 8-9 cups of milk till halved)
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4th cup sugar (I don’t like my puddings too sweet, so add more if you like)
4 tbs sugar (for the caramel)
Knob of butter
Heat oven to 150 degrees.
Beat the eggs well with the sugar.
Sieve the thickened milk, and mix it into the eggs. Add the vanilla extract.
Butter the sides of a round baking dish (mine was about 23 cm in diameter), and keep ready.
In a small pan, add about 1/2 cup water and the 3 tbs of sugar and put it on the heat. As the water evaporates, the sugar will start of caramelise. When is a lovely deep amber, but before it burns, tip the caramel into the baking dish. Swirl the dish so the caramel spreads and coats the bottom.
The caramel will soon cool and set. When it does, pour in the milk-egg mix.
Slip it into the lower shelf of the oven for 30-40 minutes (when you slide it out, there should be a firm jiggle, but not a sloppy jiggle in the middle of the pudding).
Take it out, let it cool and put in into the refrigerator overnight.
Next day, hold a serving plate on top of the dish and turn it upside down. The pudding should plop down, along with the lovely, caramel-y syrup.
May, 2009. She was seven months old. I’d plonked her into the laundry basket while I finished cooking dinner so she wouldn’t crawl into trouble. Or crawl between my feet while I cooked. She liked feet. Especially D’s feet. She’d always crawl up on stealthy knees while he read or worked and she’d lick his toes and make him jump.
8.35 pm. D and I are sitting here listening to Mississippi John Hurt’s charred voice wafting out of a grainy recording. It’s strange how his songs can make the sun beat down on your back even on a cold night like this. “The angels laid him away. They laid him six feet under the clay”.
Dinner’s done, but there’s still some wine left in our glasses. The floorboards above us are creaking; Chotto-ma is pottering about upstairs. (So what if D left her tucked in bed an hour ago?) Her bedtime ritual, like everything else in our home, is split between D and me: Around 7 o’clock, I read her a book and sing her a song. She then goes upstairs with D. He reads her two more books – one in English, another in Bengali – before tucking her in. He then says goodnight and comes downstairs. And she untucks herself and gets on with her evening.
Downstairs, D and I get on with ours. We pour ourselves a glass of wine, cook dinner together, talk. Sometimes, we watch a movie, or read. Chotto-ma knows it’s Ma-Ba time, she’s known it for as long as she’s known anything else.
We don’t know what she does with her time, but she loves it as much as we love ours. Sometimes we hear her singing, or reading books to her dinosaurs, or talking to the planets hanging over her bed (they have distinct personalities; they also meet in orbit, marry and have baby moons). By the time we call it a night and go upstairs several hours later, she’s fast asleep in her room. She, along with six books and nine stuffed animals, all in a neighbourly heap on her bed.
Tonight, our dinner was a garlicky, coconuty broth that I made up many years ago in Calcutta, in the tiny kitchen of our first rented flat in Jodhpur Park; it’s a dish that has withstood time, geography and repetition. Even in that shoebox kitchen, D would squeeze in to help me peel, chop and grate. We’ve been cooking together for so many years that it’s one smooth soup of a song. He chopping, me stirring. Me making the marinade, he smudging it on the meat. In tandem, amidst conversation, without a thought; he’s my soul-sous-chef. And tonight, as the pot bubbled and we cooked and stirred, Hurt plucked his guitar in the background and poured his sweet country soul into the broth.
Coconut & Garlic Prawn Broth
The broth, like most things from my kitchen, is done in minutes. It has the strong, punchy flavour that comes from raw garlic, and the mellow roundedness of uncooked coconut. In India, I would use fresh coconut, but here, it’s the easier-to-get dessicated version. This is also a broth I’ve cooked with chicken and lamb, instead of prawns, so take your pick.
150 gms large prawns, cleaned and peeled
1 white onion, halved, then thickly sliced, horizontally not vertically (I’m fussy about chopping)
1 tomato, chopped
Handful of coriander leaves, chopped
Coconut – 1 cup freshly grated, or 1/2 cup dessicated (and yes, I keep mine in an old talc tin)
2 large cloves of garlic
1 green chilli
In a food processor, blitz the coconut, garlic and chilli – the magic paste that makes all the difference.
Heat oil in a pan, and throw in the onions. Saute till transparent, but not brown. Add the tomatoes and give it a stir. Add 2 cups of water. When it starts boiling, add salt, and the prawns. Let it bubble for a minute, then take it off the heat. The prawns should be cooked, but still tender.
Transfer to your serving dish, and stir in the coconut paste and coriander. The natural oil from the coconut should rise to the top. Serve hot with steamed rice.
D and I had our first mulled wine of the season yesterday; Chotto-ma had a hot chocolate topped with a mountain of cream and marshmallows. It was in the same old café, only it had twinkly lights hanging from its windows; it’s officially winter. I’m not opposed to the cold this year as I was the last. The grey light, cold wind and the shush somehow seems full of possibilities. In the way that silence has the possibility of song and conversation, or the ttup-ttup-ttup of a hammer. We had new windows fitted yesterday to keep the cold out, and now I can’t even hear the wind. The outside is playing out like a silent film, and inside, the three of us – she’s drawing a fish, D is playing his guitar, I’m writing to you.
We just finished lunch; on Sundays we always have a Bengali lunch. It’s my attempt at giving Chotto-ma a taste of our old Sunday afternoons in Calcutta. And we eat with our fingers, because there are some things that can be eaten no other way. You need to feel the texture, mix it with your fingers and bring it to your mouth like a prayer. Eating a Bengali meal with forks is like playing the piano in washing-up gloves. Chotto-ma now has The Art Of Eating By Hand down pat; she leaves her plate scraped spotless.
Today, we had a dal that Ma used to cook whenever she was in a hurry – a quick boil, a chop-chop, a sprinkle, and done. It’s perfect for the winter, and simple like most good things are. A combination of soft and crunchy, sharp and buttery, to bring out a flavour that dances just right.
Like I said, it takes opposites to be in step.
Ma’s Hurried Dal
A lemony, buttery lentil soup with raw red onions & tomato
1 cup red lentils
1 small red onion, chopped into little cubes
1 tomato, also chopped into little cubes
A generous dollop of butter
A generous squeeze of lemon
1 green chilli, chopped
Boil the lentils in one-and-a-half cups of water till cooked. Add a little more water if needed, but the consistency, when done, should not be too watery.
Take the boiled dal off the heat and throw in the rest of the ingredients.
When I asked her what cake she’d like for her 5th birthday party, her answer was quick, sure: ‘Dinosaur’. I admit I tried suggesting other options. I couldn’t begin to imagine baking a cake that resembled a Stegosaurus, or any Othersaurus for that matter. But what other options could stand a chance next to earth-stomping, tree-chomping, meat-chewing monsters?
Chotto-ma is a keen follower of all things prehistoric, and a dinosaur party for her fifth birthday was the appropriate rite of passage. So, here we are.
And here’s the day in pictures. It was a good, good day.
(* The dino illustration on the favor bags is from a lovely blog called Sugar Beet Press. She also has a beautiful Etsy store.)