Sindhi Curry, by way of my grandmother
My dad's brother and sister had already immigrated to the west, but my mom was then, and is to this day, the only sibling to have left. She felt that distance so profoundly and talked of going back so much that my sister and I, when we were toddlers, were confused about where we lived. (She stopped talking about returning after that.)
The sign of that loss of place and that distance that my mother felt so acutely was my grandmother, who we called Mummy-ki-mummy -- "my mommy's mom," as my eldest cousin named her as a baby. The name stuck, at least for the elder batch of cousin-sisters and cousin-brothers. When the second wave of cousins started arriving, one of my aunts insisted that she be called Nani; I only found out later that in very traditional families a woman's name became replaced by being the Mummy-ki-someone. The self defined only by her progeny.
My mom created Mummy-ki-mummy in our minds, telling us stories of the life she's led, engaged at 9 to a man she'd stuck her tongue out at when he came to see her at the playground, married at 11, first of 11 children at 13, widowed at 42. These statistics don't tell the whole story, of course: the man she married, who took her to Bombay and with whom she fell deeply in love, was almost unimaginably progressive, insisting that his nine daughters all got university degrees. They would go for a drive each evening, alone, and park along Marine Drive, and my grandmother would smoke clove cigarettes and my grandfather would take photographs. I heard about all these things and also about how Mummy-ki-mummy learned to read English by reading the classics, how she struggled to support her children after her husband died, how good she was to her maid and the sweepers who came to the house, how she would say that if someone was bad to you you should love them even more in return.
We would write her letters when we were 4 and 5 years old, my sister and I. I wonder what she made of them, or if she could even read them given her English and our childish scrawls. But we wrote them religiously, with my mother looking over. I knew, at least, that I was writing them for my mom, really, and only secondarily for that mythical woman who lived so far away.
When we went to Bombay every two years or so when I was a child, we would stay with one of my aunts in Bandra and drive every day to Mummy-ki-mummy's flat in Dhobi Talao, near Metro Cinema. The apartment was maybe 500 square feet, two rooms plus an entry hall, kitchen, toilet room and shower room. Every time we walked into that apartment someone would remind us that my grandparents raised their eleven kids plus assorted parents and other relatives in that tiny place, and would show us how the kids sprawled out on couches and floors while Dadi and Mummy-ki-mummy slept in the one bed. My grandmother would hug us -- "Baap re" she would say, or "Arrey wah," or some other expression of wonderment -- and I remember how soft she was. I didn't speak Hindi, she didn't speak more than a few words of English. We would look at each other and smile. Luckily there were so many others around in that tiny apartment that I was pulled away moments later and didn't have to think of something more to say.
If my grandmother was the person on which my mother focused her homesickness, Sindhi curry was the food which loomed in our family's imagination as the thing we could not have except at "home." My mother didn't bother trying to cook it in Canada until well after I started university -- until then, it was the thing she and my father (who had long since been adopted into my mother's family with a fervor that was equal to his foreignness) longed for. Every time we eat it in India we sigh that it never tastes the same in Canada; every time we make it here we long for the way it tastes there.
That ideal drove me to learn the technique, not easy when you have a mother and eight aunts who all believe they make the best one. My version's pretty good. The secret is to let the roux cook until it's rust brown.
|Fenugreek seeds, curry leaves, kokum, and spice box.|
A note about eating drumstricks: they're long, and fibrous, and look like, well, sections of a drumstick. You pick them up with your fingers out of the curry, and pull them through your teeth to get the pulp out, sort of like you're eating artichoke leaves.
2. Heat 5 TB of canola oil in a heavy-bottomed pot; add 1 tsp cumin seeds, 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds, a pinch of asafetida powder (hing -- I always leave this out), and 2 serrano chilies that you've slit down the middle, keeping top and tail intact.
|Fry the besan until it is brown and nutty.|
5. Throw in a few curry leaves (say 8-10) and salt. (If you have kokum, throw it in now. It adds sourness, so you'll have to add less lime juice at the end.)
6. Let this simmer on low heat for 45 minutes or so until the vegetables are very soft and the spices have melded. Add water, if necessary, to make it soupy, and adjust the salt. Squeeze the juice of one lime into the pot -- there should be some tartness to the dish -- and serve hot with basmati rice.
If you're feeling ambitious, serve with tuuk -- fried potatoes, sort of like french fries but yummier: Quarter some medium potatoes and boil till half-cooked. Drain, and then on a cutting board flatten down using the palm of your hand or a pot lid or a flat-bottomed glass until it looks like a ragged, thick disk. Season with salt and shallow fry in canola oil. Sprinkle with red chili and amchoor (optional; it's the powder of dried green mango, used to give a little tartness) and serve hot with the curry and rice. OR just make some french fries.