Translation, or Conversations in the Kitchen

Malthi, offering food as is her wont.
When I was twenty-one, I went with two friends, Dave and Katrina, on a backpacking trip through Europe. Armed with our Eurail passes and security belts (passports, travellers cheques, hostel membership card, plane tickets), our Sony Walkmans with a slew of mix cassette tapes, our ridiculous backpacks filled with mattress rolls, cot sheets, and an alarmingly small amount of clothing, and most importantly our Swiss Army knives, we traipsed around the continent for four months without any particular plan. Dave, who was maybe the most competitive person I've ever met, decided there were two rules: we would live on $40 CDN a day, and we would climb every possible flight of stairs we encountered, including those at the Eiffel Tower and a variety of Gothic church spires.

It may not surprise you to know that after a month or two of constant company, we all needed a break from each other. We had landed on the Greek island of Santorini -- perhaps the most picture-perfect place I've ever been -- and after a day or two Dave and Katrina decided to leave the island in separate directions, while I insisted on staying, in part because I was kind of digging the topless bathing on the black beaches (really, sun on one's chest is an experience women don't experience so often in Canada) and I had met a cute boy on the boat who I was hoping to bump into again. I would try to make this sound more sophisticated and intriguing -- a mysterious, handsome man with whom the sparks flew -- but really there was nothing sophisticated or intriguing about me at twenty-one, and the guy looked exactly like a younger Bill Murray.

I moved from the hotel room the three of us were sharing to a rented room at the bottom of a private house on the other side of the island. It was open and clean and airy, and the landlady was a stout, short, impossibly wrinkled woman with jet-black hair who I never saw without an apron on. She didn't speak a single word of English, and so our deal was made with numbers scribbled on scraps of paper and sign language. In the mornings, I would head out to walk through the white-washed villages and take photographs of ridiculously picturesque scenes and go to the beaches; when my landlady heard me drive up on my rented scooter in the afternoon, she would wait for me to shower and then call me up to her house for our daily chat.

Our chats. We had no common words -- well, maybe ten common words -- and so these conversations are burned into my memory as the funniest I've ever had. She would push me down by the shoulders -- she'd have to reach up to put her hands on them -- into a chair in her kitchen, put a cup of mud-thick espresso in front of me, and get on with her cooking. That woman made the most delicious-smelling stuffed peppers and stuffed zucchinis, endless trays of them, and despite my appreciative glances never offered me a taste. I would sit as she chattered on, raising her eyebrows and coming over every once in a while to pinch my cheeks or stroke my hair like my grandmother would, and if I sensed she was asking me something I would talk about my family, or what I was studying in university, or my hobbies, and hoped that even if my answers didn't answer her question they would at least sound like I was engaged. I was engaged, really. She was sweet, with a sharp intelligence in her eyes, and a sharp chef's knife constantly in her hand which she would wave around wildly when she was saying something especially important.

One day I arrived in her kitchen to find her son sitting at the table. He was in his forties with a seaman's face, handsome but leathery, deeply tanned with crinkles around his eyes and the same black hair as his mother. He spoke impeccable English -- he had been a merchant marine, he told me, and sailed all over the world. He was a jazz fan, and had been to Edmonton (the city where I was born and where I would eventually go to university) for the great music festival hosted there in the summers. He was fascinated by the fact I was Indian, and explained that Bollywood movies were really popular in Greece; he knew all the actresses by name. His mother was silent during this conversation, shut out by the mutual language her son and I shared. She looked on benevolently, but I missed the rhythm of our conversations, the gentleness of them, the comfort of them, despite our mutual incomprehension.

The man saw me looking at his mother and smiled. "She is very fond of you, you know." I blushed, and said I didn't know how she could be, because she couldn't understand a thing I said -- for all she knew, I could be a crackpot! He laughed, and told me his mother had said to him that I was very smart, a bit shy, a sympathetic listener, helpful, and a devoted daughter of my parents. At first I was amazed that she could understand me so well, almost magically, through mere hand gestures and smiles -- wasn't the human spirit an amazing thing, and didn't we manage to communicate despite our differences! -- and then I came to understand that this lonely old woman whose son didn't visit nearly enough used our mutual incomprehension as an opportunity to project on me her deepest desires. Even if I were all those things, she couldn't have known them about me; nor could I, who missed my grandmother in India so hotly, know what I thought I knew about her. But what matter? This is how translation works, I think. More about what we need to hear than what is said. In that regard, maybe all communication is about what we want to hear more than what is said.

When I left, she gave me a big hug and I think she even teared up a little. Some months after I returned to Canada, I received the most ridiculous Christmas card from her, one that sang a tinny little song when you opened it. In her spidery handwriting, a little note expressing her love. I still have the card.

My aunt Sheila has a cook named Malthi, a kind and whip-smart woman who has worked for her for many years. Well, Sheila doesn't so much "have a cook" as "employ a woman with whom she cooks" -- Malthi arrives in the morning and the two of them spend an hour or two strategizing food for the day, dancing around each other in the small galley kitchen as they cook between them six or seven dishes on the stove. Sheila is the most adventurous cook in our family, and is constantly wanting to try new and unusual dishes from her travels all over the world. Often she will give Malthi a detailed rundown in a mix of Hindi and English of what the dish is and how to go about making it; Malthi, who has never been outside India and prefers (I suspect) to eat her own familiar Maharashtran food, imagines it in her mind and goes to work. When I posted a recipe for paella some time ago, Sheila went out to the market to gather all the ingredients, intending to cook it herself later; she told Malthi what she was planning to do with the chorizo and smoked paprika and mussels and shrimp. She went out for a while, and when she came back Malthi proudly presented her with the finished dish, translating Sheila's instructions into her own culinary language. Sheila dubbed the dish "paellao" -- a hybrid of Spanish paella and Indian pullao -- and said it was pretty good.

I stood with Malthi in the kitchen recently and asked her to tell me her favorite recipes -- Indian ones, not the Thai or Malaysian or Italian ones she loves cooking. Her English has become pretty proficient over the years, but we both had trouble over the names of the Indian spices and herbs, and I had to figure out amounts by looking at the way she curled her hands. There was no time for her to make the dishes in front of me, so she described them as best as she could, without a vocabulary that I could understand because I don't speak her langauge, and I had to imagine what I should be hearing or smelling -- let alone tasting -- as the dish was cooking. Some of the recipes seemed so unlikely to me -- how could it end up tasting how I thought it should if there was no cumin in it? or if the only flavorings were garlic and ginger? Pressure cookers in India let off their steam in periodic bursts, unlike the ones here which hiss gently throughout the cooking, so when she told me "let it cook for two whistles" I had to figure out what that could mean. It's not like my descriptions of dishes or techniques she was curious about were any more familiar to her. We spoke across oceans.

I have no doubt that in the end, when we cook each others' dishes, they will be unrecognizable to the other but deeply satisfying to ourselves, not simply because they suit our own tastes but because we are reflecting back on ourselves what we think we have learned from the other person.  We think we're communicating with them. And there is something, even in such misprisions, that is comforting.

Malthi's Biryani, as heard by me
Serves 6-8

Biryani is dish common to a lot of communities in India -- most basically, it is spiced meat cooked with rice over a low fire, but it can be more elaborate (regal, even) or simpler depending on the recipe. This is a Maharashtran version, very flavorful but not too complicated. It is a festive dish, and it takes a while to prepare, but great for a dinner party because it is assembled and then (in my translation) left to cook in the oven and unveiled in its saffron-fragrant glory at serving. Put it on the table with a cooling cucumber and tomato raita and a vegetable side dish and you've got a feast.

For the marinade:
4-6 garlic cloves
2" piece ginger, peeled
1 c plain yogurt
2 lbs boneless leg of lamb, well-trimmed and cut into 1" cubes

For the rice:
3 c basmati rice

For the onions:
1/4 c canola oil or ghee
4 cloves
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
2 large onions, sliced

For the meat:
2 c diced tomatoes, canned with juice or fresh
juice of 1 lime
1/2 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp salt
1/4 c fresh mint leaves, chopped
1/4 c fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

To assemble
2 pinches saffron
1/4 c milk
1/4 c sultana (golden) raisins
1/4 c sliced almonds
1 TB canola oil

1. Turn the ginger and garlic into a paste: I usually grate the ginger on a Microplane grater, run the garlic through a garlic press, and combine; you could also use a mini-chopper or something like that. In a glass bowl, combine the lamb, the yogurt, and the ginger-garlic paste. Allow to marinate on the countertop for 2 hours or so, or in the refrigerator for up to overnight.

When I say fry till the onions are dark brown,
this is what I mean. Don't cheat.
2. About two hours before you're planning to serve, put rice in a bowl, cover generously with cold water, and allow to soak.

3. After you put the rice to soak, heat canola oil or ghee in a heavy, oven-safe pot (a Le Crueset is perfect). Add cloves, black peppercorns, and cinnamon stick and let them sizzle until they become fragrant. Add onions and fry over medium-high heat until dark brown and crispy. Be patient: the browner (but not burnt) the onions, the better the flavor. When done, drain the onions and whole spices well and lay on paper towels to dry and crisp up; reserve the oil in the cooking pot.

3. One and a half hours before serving, combine marinated lamb with tomatoes, lime juice, red chili powder, salt, mint, cilantro, and the fried onions, which you've crumbled or roughly chopped. Put in a pressure cooker and place on high heat; once it comes up to pressure, cook for 25 minutes and then turn off and let the pressure cooker rest until the pressure is released. (ALTERNATELY, put in a heavy bottomed pot along with 1 c water, bring up to a boil, and then turn the heat to medium low and simmer for an hour.) Once cooked and tender, check for salt. There should be a bit of thick gravy in the pan at this point, but not too much; boil rapidly, uncovered, over high heat to evaporate excess liquid if necessary.

4. Forty-five minutes before serving, bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil. When boiling vigorously, add the drained and rinsed rice. Cook for 5 minutes, or until the rice is just shy of done. Drain in a colander.

5. While the rice is cooking, soak the saffron in the milk. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

6. Half an hour before serving, assemble: put half the rice in the bottom of the Le Crueset, top with the meat mixture, and then the other half of the rice. Pour the saffron-infused milk over the whole thing. Cover the pot with aluminum foil and cover tightly with the lid; bake for 20 minutes.

7. Remove from oven and let rest for 15 minutes, covered. In a small frying pan, heat 1 TB canola oil; when hot, add the almonds and the raisins. When the almonds have browned and the raisins plumped up, turn off the heat.

8. Transfer the biryani from the cooking pot to the platter, trying to keep the layers somewhat intact. Garnish with raisins and almonds.

Tomato and Onion Raita
Serves 4

Biryani is traditionally served with raita -- a yogurt relish -- to temper the spice. This is a versatile one, very refreshing and tasty.

1 c plain yogurt (not Greek-style), full-fat, lowfat, or skim as you choose
1 small, ripe tomato, diced finely
1 small red onion, diced finely
2 TB chopped cilantro leaves
1 small green chili, seeded and minced
salt to taste

In a small bowl, whip the yogurt with a fork until smooth and a bit lightened. Add all remaining ingredients until well-mixed. Serve, garnished with a little extra cilantro.


judith said…
Oh my, that does sound good right about now.
Judith: biryani is great winter food -- spicy and hearty.
marinagp said…
What a wonderful way to end my long day... reading this wonderful recipe... thank you!
Unknown said…
Any chance you'd share a vegetarian version of this? It sounds lovely, but I'd enjoy knowing how to do it without the meat. But maybe it's not a biryani if there's no meat...?
There are vegetarian biryanis, absolutely, Pamela. The method is a bit different, so let me do a little experimenting and post one soon.
Unknown said…
Great--I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. And: what do you think about the whole invite someone for the first time and make the obligatory 'do you have any dietary restrictions' politesse that we've got here in the US... They don't do it much in France and are even offended if you dare to say you prefer not to eat such and such. I've learned to not say anything, take small portions and pick politely through things. I'd rather preserve the good social vibes than cling too strongly to any dietary choice, but then again mine are choices and not imposed by medical conditions. I guess this makes me a flexitarian--now how do you say THAT in French??? :-)
Eek -- the negotiation of food restrictions is never easy. Because I have a few severe food allergies myself, and because I grew up in an extended family that included (religious) vegetarians and meat-eaters, I tend to be pretty careful about asking people in advance if it's a small group, and if it's a large group I'll make sure there's something vegetarian (preferably vegan) on the table. But as for me: I rarely tell people about my allergies, and just work around whatever's there. A lot of my good friends don't even realize that I have allergies, in fact. But since mine are so particular (cooked carrots are fine, raw are a problem, say) it would be too much to burden anyone with. The only exception is avocados, only because once in California I went to a dinner in which EVERY SINGLE DISH (including dessert) had avocado in it, so I literally couldn't eat anything. I don't expect that to be repeated anytime soon, but just in case... :-)
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