By Amrita Valan
Ravina looked at the rolled vacuum-sealed tube packed tightly with 500 grams of Habib’s fine chicken mincemeat. Other than that extravagance, she mentally took stock of all that she had in her pantry. Plentiful garlic, ginger, and onions, profuse amounts of potatoes, two lovely green bell peppers. Some tomatoes, green chilies, and eggs. She didn’t have too much of the expensive spices and dry fruits, but still, it was an adequate amount. All this put together in creative permutations and combinations would have to make do for a leisurely but tempting new year’s brunch, a sumptuous four o’clock lunch, and a late-night festive dinner at about ten.
To plan was paramount. Not days ahead, but thirty-six hours before was ideal, because by then you would know exactly what you had access to, and how best to juggle these ingredients to extract the very last bit of utility, hopefully, infuse it with a smidgeon of glamour, and serve up an appealing, tasty meal.
She separated the mincemeat into two portions, one large and one slightly less, after swiftly washing it just once and then draining it for over an hour in a net. Meanwhile, five medium-sized round potatoes boiled furiously in a saucepan of water in their jackets to retain flavor. She set about shelling nearly six bulbs of garlic down to the last flake, an onerous task, which she preferred to be done with the day before.
The boiled potatoes were put aside in a steel colander to drain and cool. Ravina peeled a palmful of ginger and washed and dried them in a fresh kitchen towel. Some would go towards making ginger honey-infused warm lemonade for the children, ginger cardamom tea for adults, and some for cooking her triad of planned dishes. One-half of the ginger was cubed and mixed with slightly less than twice the same quantity of garlic and run through a mixie to obtain a smooth paste. Onions, finely sliced, chopped, and diced, in three separate airtight containers were refrigerated. Tomatoes and chillies would be dealt with while cooking.
The larger portion of mincemeat was marinated in homemade curd. The other portion of the mincemeat was pounded with crushed garlic bay leaves and parboiled till the last drop of water had vaporized. Then it was mashed once again with three of the five boiled potatoes, with half a teaspoon of chopped green chilies and finely sliced onions. Dry roasted fresh ground pepper was added to this, and Ravina was ready to transform the mix into burger patties. Each patty was dipped in beaten egg whites (the yolks saved in a bowl for a cheese omelet for another day) and rolled on a steel tray to accumulate a coating of breadcrumbs. Then packed away in a flat rectangular Tupperware box in the fridge. A couple of small green cardamoms and one long cinnamon powdered separately and put aside in a tiny pillbox and Ravina was good to go for tomorrow’s feast.
She put it all in the fridge, but not before doing one last thing. From the mincemeat in the marinade, she carefully strained out around five tablespoons. Cautiously as she would need enough to remain for her third ‘meat laced’ item of the menu she had ingeniously planned. Hesitantly, she scooped out one more half tablespoon. The amount remaining was a tiny cupful. Drowning in the marinade. With a sigh, she slammed the fridge door shut. Then she poured the mincemeat into the mortar and beat it into a fine satiny mesh with her pestle, adding the powdered cardamom, cinnamon, a few teaspoons of ginger garlic paste, plus a few crushed garlic cloves, and yes, more of her freshly ground aromatic black pepper. Now it was all assembled in a steel bowl, where she mashed the two remaining boiled potatoes with a fork. This smooth sauce-like mix she now rolled out into another batch of smaller spicier patties, dipped in cornflour dissolved in warm water to be fried into a tasty hybrid of Shammi and Kakori kebab, (Indian barbecued or skewered meat often simply pan-fried at home), way spicier and chillier than the other set of burger patties, which had only a touch of green chilies and aromatic pepper powder. Ravina’s fingers stung with the hot spicy juices. She sweated in her warm, stuffy kitchen. Her hair clung to her neck in fine tendrils clumped together with perspiration. But her heart was light and joyful; A major chunk of the monotony of cooking tomorrow’s meals had been overcome. Her eyes had a glow as she imagined her children oohing and drooling over the delicacies.
She decided to shower and change into something light and less constricting than her balloony shalwar and her fitted kameez or knee-length bodice. Choosing a faded mint-colored worn-out nightdress from the freshly washed laundry basket in her bathroom rack, she brushed and combed her hair into a topknot, humming a lilting Hindi film tune. ‘Meri sapno ki rani kab aayegi tu’, (‘Queen of dreams, when will you come to me?’), she belted out, once in the shower, unabashed in her bathroom singing of her pent-up mixed emotions. After which she came out with a towel tightly wrapped around her hair, uncoiled of all tensions, feeling universal peace and in a chilled-out Zen state.
The children had been taken by their dad to his office (bare and deserted in these lockdown months), for the whole day, with packed sandwiches and pasta. (To give her breathing space to accomplish the extra work.)
Which she had done, vigorously scrubbing and rubbing and polishing and changing sheets, curtains, before even getting into the food aspect of it.
Now she wondered what to serve for thirty-first-night dinner, already settling mentally for a thick vegetable stew of leftovers.
Queen of the kitchen, she was indeed on a lean budget. These were mean guarded days streaked with caution and hoarding. One never knew when the shops would shut down and curfew declared. As her vegetable stew merrily bubbled over the gas stove, she anxiously meditated on her husband and children’s return from the office. It was a forty-minute drive overcrowded main roads, and she hoped that no fresh Covid cases would be discovered, which would put a roadblock to hubby’s return route and force him to stay back in the office.
Thankfully, at nine, the doorbell rang incessantly as her boys vied with one another to press it.
Clicking her tongue in irritation and simultaneously smiling, Ravina hurried towards the door, her wet hair a black wobbly bundle which fell over her shoulders, coming undone as she struggled to pull the hatch bolt back. But everything had come apart in 2020, including her husband’s comfortable, well-paid job and prospects of leading a life of relative upper-middle-class ease. India was now like the world, in a DIY mode, devoid of servants, or drivers, car cleaners, and gardeners for many affluent folks, forced to take a more hands-on, down-to-earth grasp of their own lives.
For Ravina’s financially handicapped family, the challenge was how to make less seem more for the children, how to keep that smile on, and the gas stove burning, how to ensure water, electricity, and the rent was paid on time. Ordering takeout, home delivery from Dominos, and Pizza Hut by Swiggy and Zomato apps was something their moneyed neighbors did, not them. Yet only a year back they had had to throw out accumulated plastic garbage from their weekly orders from Fresh Menu, Box 8, and the children’s demands for doughnuts from Krispy Kreme.
That was then. Now it was scary. Each week, news of the death or positive report of Covid from a friend, a relative, a colleague’s aunt or uncle, or parents poured in. Ravina’s beloved charismatic uncle passed away on Christmas day, fully recovered from Covid but suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. It seemed not just financially, but morally expedient to tighten belts, to lead a plain and austere life.
2020 had been the plague year, the pandemic year. As the clock struck midnight, ushering in the new, Ravina wondered if perhaps 2021 would be gentler on them.
The sky exploded into a brief dazzling flurry of eye-catching fireworks, blazing red stars, and emerald lanterns as the die-hard traditionalists clung to old rituals.
Ravina lit a candle in her brass candle stand as her husband brought out a tiny plum cake from his office briefcase. They divided it into four crumbly slices, giving their children the nuttier, larger pieces. It was eaten in a few gulps, literally melting in the mouth, soft and moist. Ravina stopped masticating midways as a thought crossed her mind like a dark shadow. Corpses cannot taste raisins and nuts and marzipan soaked in brandy and rum. A thin tear trickled down her cheek. Her husband looked at her inquiringly, careful not to revive the hurt of her uncle’s unexpected death. Ravina shook her head, smiling wryly as the moment passed unnoticed by her little boys, ten and eleven years of age.
Mouths stuffed with plum cake, they were tender souls, giggling and oblivious.
The next morning, no one got up before nine. Lying under blankets was too much fun knowing it was a day to spend together celebrating, instead of worrying about bills, and online Google meetings or Zoom classes, internet connectivity, or school fees.
A temporary reprieve. Ravina felt reluctant to start the day because that would just mean bringing it closer to an end. But she leaped up anyway, folded and put away her blanket, and started coffee in the kitchen. While the milk boiled, she combed and put up her long black hair.
She brought out the blander set of patties and started frying them on a heated pan. She didn’t have an oven to grill them in anymore. Long ago, she had an antiquated oven toaster grill, but it had broken down from sheer old age. Repairs would be costly, and buying a new one was impossible.
Her husband Yash had purchased freshly baked bakery buns for their breakfast, she lightly toasted, buttered them, added roundels of onions, tomato, bell peppers, a tiny piece of wilted lettuce each, a dash of cheap vegetable mayonnaise from a tube, and checked her Tabasco and chicken barbecue sauce, (brought by her husband the year before, from his Mauritius business trip), it was on the cusp of expiry, but she added a dash, anyway. And piled double patties in between two bread buns each, to get four plump fatty burgers ready, there were still four more buns left and two more patties, and she made a couple of single patty burgers with those, neatly slicing them into equal halves.
Her younger one followed the smell trail to the kitchen and exclaimed, ‘I smell something tasty!’ With his luminous eyes and magnetic smile, Arin was a sweetheart. ‘Come here mamma’s rabbit,’ Ravina drew her ten-year-old into a bear hug. ‘One and half chicken burger sounds enough for you hungry one?’, Ravina asked with a smile.
‘Sounds super good’, drawled her eleven-year-old, who had also woken up to the scent of chicken patties in their tiny flat. ‘Good morning, Amit.’ Ravina handed both her boys mugs of their only go to drink since lockdown, Bournvita, as Hershey’s chocolate syrup or Nutella on bread had become forgotten luxuries of the past. The kids tolerated Bournvita three days out of seven but flat out refused it as a daily drink. Ravina worried about their calcium intake and often curdled leftover milk to procure cream cheese, which she then made into dumplings, and sauteed and steamed those in a milk-based curry. Always improvising was the nutritional name of the game these days.
By half-past ten, the boys, Ravina and Yash, were bathed and dressed in bright clothes to honor the special brunch. By dint of saving, Ravina had managed a tiny rice pudding garnished with dry fruits, a carrot cake with a sparse sprinkling of raisins and almonds, and yes, thin tiny slices of apples and bananas to give a taste of fruit.
It was an uproarious meal over a Christmas movie on Netflix called ‘Jangle…’, something or the other, which was greatly entertaining to her family. Ravina, however, was busy clearing away the special breakfast cutlery and fine china from her grandmother’s heritage wedding set, carefully washing, drying, and putting them away for the next festivity on the calendar. She still munched on her own last morsel of burger, which was crunchy crisp, and tasty and made just right, to her supreme satisfaction. She started humming childhood Girl Guides songs, ‘Land of the Silver Birch’ and ‘Red River Valley’, then her late uncle’s renditions of folk songs in her rarely used mother tongue. Soon her eyes saw a blurred haze of kitchen tiles, and her mouth trembled with the sheer joy and ecstasy of her best memories, richly laced with the regrets of irrefutable farewell.
However much she wept, her tears were hers alone. Her uncle wouldn’t know how much he was cherished anymore, so she wiped her eyes and firmed up her resolution to enjoy this life, as given, for however long.
The red lentils were washed and put to boil with salt and turmeric. When parboiled, she added two long fresh green chilies to dance their elegant, leisurely duet in the red sea. Then she poured in a cupful of finely chopped ginger and coarsely chopped garlic and tiny tender onion buds to half melt in the delicious golden ocean of culinary comfort. In an iron griddle heated to a high temperature, she added bay leaves, and cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, diced onions, and chopped green chilies. After they had started to brown, she spooned in a teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of salt and added a few crushed cardamoms, tawny beige ginger garlic paste, followed by pinkish mauve glossy onion paste. Ravina put the treasured and measured cupful of mincemeat into the griddle at high heat once the pastes had turned golden, oozing out oil, then seared the meat before covering and cooking it on low heat, finally transferring the red lentil stew into the meaty sauce. By itself, the mincemeat would have been a few mouthfuls each on a plate, but this way she would have a delicious mouth-watering stew, somewhat like the Haleem served by Muslims at Ramadan, but far simpler and less elaborate, less rich. But all the same, with a tiny dollop of homemade clarified butter, added at the end, just before she switched off the gas, and left the pan with the lid half-open, to allow the stew to form a rich glaze on top.
‘Just like me,’ Ravina thought, a surface richness, but deep down under, simple and wholesome. Good for your soul, if you have eyes for it.’ She stared at Yash, hammering away on his laptop, correcting bug-ridden code, taking phone calls from dissatisfied clients even on New Year’s Day, with no time for her, no time for soft skills or soft moments. The fineries and fripperies, or the refinements of life. But she didn’t want these either. No need for baubles, a wrapped gift, or even a fancy set of perfumed candles. She used to get those like clockwork on Valentine’s Day and wedding anniversaries and birthdays. A silk kaftan, a gift voucher for full treatment at a spa, or some money to shop her middle-class heart out. He wanted to buy her a dress, but she had diverted him to the Amazon kiddie section because her boys kept outgrowing their clothes. Yash had looked squashed. But she genuinely hungered for something more elusive than material markers of the passage of time. She wanted time in a snow globe handed to her instead, like a memory that she could keep for the rest of her life. That would both warm her and freeze her, thaw her and melt her, in her grey-haired senile days, bring her out of her Alzheimer daze, and choke up her heart and her throat with tearful lumps. A tightness of life’s recoil from death before it ends in relaxed surrender.
She thought of the song, “Buffalo soldier” suddenly, ‘fighting for survival. No time when trench warfare was being waged for sentimental retrospection.
She dug out her flowery lacy crimson and hot pink tablecloth and arranged it on their dining table. Then, as a precaution, she put a thick but clear transparent plastic tablecloth on top. Ruffled and mauve-tinted at the edges. She arranged it diagonally to fall in alternating folds with the red cotton table cover and arranged cute place settings. She had her share of family silver, a roseate etched salad bowl, and a crystal rice platter. Everything was arranged for maximum visual appeal. Yash grinned and said should he get some flowers, but Ravina shook her head. She had washed her bright scarlet synthetic poinsettias in their engraved wooden vase and placed it as the centerpiece. Crude true, but joyful. Like Yash, Ravina couldn’t help thinking.
Her husband couldn’t stop raving over the subtle taste and flavors of the fragrant aromatic “Wannabe” Haleem. Arin and Amit looked bloated and similarly glazed, as the stew’s surface after third helpings, and even Ravina took a second serving. It was her standard complaint that she couldn’t taste anything she had cooked herself, but that was a past policy, a ploy to get her family to eat more healthy home-cooked food. She would eat leftover takeout pizza from the fridge quite contentedly after heating it. But these days, pizza was an occasional birthday or anniversary treat. So, she grinned and bore up to eating her own concoctions, with their predictable (to her), taste. She longed to eat something novel, the flavors of which would burst in her mouth as a surprise, her grandmother’s sweet coconut dumplings, her father’s smoked Hilsa. Yash couldn’t cook. He made horrible tea. Surprisingly, he could poach egg rather daintily into perfection. But he messed up the kitchen terribly just boiling eggs, (rather like a nuclear explosion had occurred, in Ravina’s opinion), the reason Ravina had not pestered him to learn to make a few dishes.
It was nearly half-past four. After a late lunch, she decided to take it easy and napped on the sofa, instantly falling asleep. Yash put away leftovers in the fridge and cleared the table with the boys, but balked at doing the dishes as well.
Ravina, when she woke up at half-past five, would tackle them along with brewing evening tea. Which she made rather well, laced delicately with ginger and a touch of cardamom.
Ravina and Yash relished rare evenings together, along with endless cups of tea to spice up their lives, they chose racy raunchy Netflix productions, giggling naughtily as they read out, ‘sex violence, nudity’…hmm sounds good,’ said Yash eyes twinkling, she acquiesced, eyes twinkling back, ‘shall we?’
The kids were judiciously served lemonade and cookies in their bedroom or sent down to play in the tiny vestibule.
But today was family day, so after tea, for the grown-ups and hot tangy gingery lemonade with honey for the kids, off they went for a rare long walk masked and armed with sanitizers!
It was weird to be masked instead of freely breathing in the fresh air. But better to be alive than to take chances!
Ravina felt stuffy and sweaty under her mask, and after a bit, she hurried home, telling Yash to carry on. Her crowning glory had to be dinner, and she had to put up a last grand effort for a nice show on her dining table.
Since she had a batch of spicy patties prepared, she thawed and fried them, simultaneously pressure cooking pre-soaked red kidney beans while preparing tomato puree. Then she kneaded dough and rolled out Reshmi or ring parathas which involved flattening each roundel of dough to a circular disc, pleating it like a fan and curling it into spherical discs, and then gently rolling it out again with tiny dabs of oil. The paratha got layered and because of the pleats, air entered, making it fluffy and soft, yet slightly crisp and crunchy. The word ‘parat’, actually meant layers, so this was to Ravina, the queen of unleavened bread. Even tastier than naan, another unleavened bread.
Finally, the table was set, this time on cream and pastel embroidered tablecloth from a Kashmiri emporium, a gift from long ago on their seventh wedding anniversary. A transparent plastic cover for protection was laid upon the beautiful tablecloth, and then she brought in her casserole of red Rajma dal, (red Kidney beans, cooked in tomato puree, onion, ginger, and garlic paste), and a steaming stack of Reshmi parathas, the concentric rings clearly showing up with another casserole of her hybrid lip-smacking Shammi-Kakori kebabs, (mostly mashed potatoes, and spices with few tablespoons worth of marinated mincemeat). It would do. The aroma wafting from her dining table told her it would more than do. It would make the cold first January night of 2021 a festive, lip-smacking occasion.
As Yash brought in her two sons, they cast hungry appreciative eyes at her simple but aromatic fare, Ravina ruminated, ‘Just right. Not too much. And not too little. Well done Goldilocks.’
2020 had been a year of extremes. Triggered by excesses of human greed in indulging gluttonous palates to a colossal ban on every delicacy craved by man, an unheard-of stringency and lack.
Perhaps 2021 would be the charm. A Goldilocks year for us Earthlings, living sensibly in our goldilocks zone.
© Amrita Valan 2021