Dadu passed away on 28th April, 2011. About seven months after I wrote this post.
I realised that I returned from Kolkata without eating rolls or phuchkas. Possibly because I don't miss them so much thanks to Hanglas at Bandra. Plus I spent most of my meals with family as it happens on short trips. And met a couple of good friends. I came back feeling satiated.
As my mom said the day I left, I'd managed to have all my favourites from her repertoire in a short span - pulao, chicken curry and hilsa fry that I gorged on before I left for my flight. She spent all morning cooking these. And ruier matha diye daal (fish head with daal), alu bhaaja (fried potatoes) and rui kaalia too. There was a satisfied look on her face which crept through the melancholy of farewells.
We went to our grandparent's house the previous day for lunch. My grandmom, or Didu as we call her, cooked for me! She is considered to be THE cook in the family. Chicken curry, fish curry, payesh ... all this after a fairly complex eye surgery which she had recently, piercing knee aches and frequent stone problems. I tried to get a hang of how old she is. She gave a wan smile and said that no one recorded her age, 'like the trees and the leaves'. Common consensus with my mom pegged Didu's age at around eighty two.
What was on offer was 'thor'er chochchori' made with the stem of banana trees. She supervised her cook for this. She made the rui curry and chicken curry herself as she has as much faith in her cook as I have in Banu. And then made payesh (rice pudding) for me too.
She was a bit nonplussed and giggled when I asked her for the recipes. "I cook it the way you guys do". These are what I finally managed to get out of her. Any errors are entirely mine.
- Fry the rohu in salt and haldi. Keep aside. Fry potol or parwal
- Heat oil in a saucepan
- Fry white jeera (cumin seeds) in the pan
- Add cubed potatoes, green chillies, paste of turmeric powder, salt, coriander and cumin seeds ("you can use ready made too')
- Keep stirring till the potato cooks.
- Add water and let the gravy form
- Add the fish and potols and let it cook
- Marinate the chicken in curd, salt, turmeric and red chilly powder and put it in the deep fridge and keep it overnight
- Thaw it the next morning
- Heat some oil in a pressure pan
- Fry some ground onion in it
- Add some ground ginger and garlic. Stir till brown
- Add the chicken and halved potatoes and keep stirring till the skin browns. My mom observed that Didu uses a lot of potatoes in her chicken curries. I wonder if that came from her having to feed a large family with a limited budget. That's why potatoes were introduced in biriyanis after all when they Nawabs of Oudh were banished to Calcutta
- Add water. Transfer to a pressure cooker. Wait for three whistles. Let it cook on a low flame for some more time
Look, I know that these recipes are not very precise. But do keep in mind that they were not used to thinking in terms of recipes those days. Learning was through observation. Cooking was taught directly to the daughter by the mother. Today my mom had her point of view on the recipes - lemon versus curd - and was shushed by both of us.
I resisted the temptation to tamper with what Didu told me. You don't mess with a winning act after all. I could have probed more. But I suddenly became the chubby, spoilt three year old that I was when I first met Didu and fell in love with her cooking. I didn't want to share my Didu or her cooking with others.
Through lunch I saw my Dadu (grandpa), who has entered his nineties, watching a cookery show on TV. It was a very badly produced show on a Bengali channel. The camera focused on an elderly lady in a bright yellow sari and thick glasses. There was an enthusiastic anchor in a white salwar suit asking her questions I guess. The lady who was cooking was quite stiff and static and they didn't focus the camera on the food. They did so when the dish was ready. Some sort of a rich curry.
Dadu broke into a grin, turned to Didu and said 'dekhhechho?" (have you seen?).
Didu told me that Dadu has suddenly developed an interest in good food and often asks her to make 'Chou en Lai'. Noodles! A reference to the Chinese premier, Zhou En Lai, from Nehru's Hindi Chindi Bhai Bhai days of the 1960s.
I woke from a nice snooze when my mom suggested that I take Dadu and Didu out for a drive in my brother's car. They hardly go out these days and it would be a change of scene for them. We managed to convince them and drove off. I had to drive on second gear given suburban South Calcutta's heavy traffic, honking rickshaws, shrieking autos, bullying trucks, ambling pedestrians, sharp bends, steep speed breakers and the delicate health of my passengers. But then I have learnt my driving on the battle grounds of Tulsi Pipe Road, Mumbai. We survived.
Felt really good to see my Dadu strapped up beside me in the front seat. I remembered how he would choose the front seat of taxis when he would take me out. And how I was told that the taxis of Delhi were 'Dadu's cars' when I came to India from England as a kid and asked where his car was.
We went to the Cafe Coffee Day at Bijoygarh at the beginning of Golf Green after I drove up and down the empty stretch. I must say that the staff at the CCD there was very warm and effecient. It was my grandparents fist visit to a coffee shop. I introduced Didu to peach ice tea. Dadu to Cafe Mocha. Dadu's eyes lit up when I gave him the menu card and he pointed his fingers at the fancy sandwiches which looked liked the ones he saw on TV shows. The chicken garlic sandwich and chicken garlic sandwich at CCD, Bijoygorh, were really fresh and met Dadu's approval. Mom in the meanwhile mopped up the froth of her very well made cappuccino. A passion she shares with her daughter in law.
I drove Dadu and Didu back feeling really happy. Remembering the million times that they had taken me out. No wonder even Tony Bourdain goes a bit weak in his knees when he talks of grandmas *
The day they didn't end there. Mom and I headed back to my Mesho and Mashi (uncle and aunt's) house for dinner. They are really big hosts. Food is always abundant at their place and the sort you would dream to eat of. We returned home after a very ethereal mustard and shojne daata (gourd drumsticks) chochchori, fish kaalia with a touch of curd, a very Nawabi Bengali mutton curry, rice, oodles of my favourite mishti doi and lots of adda (chatting). I drove my mom back after midnight. Well after my curfew time during college.
*"I often talk about the "Grandma rule" for travellers. You may not like Grandma's Thanksgiving turkey. It may be overcooked and dry - and her stuffing salty and studded with rubbery pellets of giblets you find unpalatable in the extreme. You may not even like turkey at all. But it is 'Grandma's Turkey'. And you are in Grandma's house. So shut the eff up and eat it. And afterwards say, "Thank you, Grandma, why, yes, yes of course I'd love seconds" Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw.