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Saturday, 21 May 2011

Didima's Most Beloved

“Funny how you haven’t blogged any of Didima’s recipes yet,” Sid says to me in passing last night. And so I count. 20 posts now since I started writing, and of course he’s right. Not a single one is Didima’s recipe.  

Which is odd, all things considered. For Didima, my maternal grandmother, is my single biggest inspiration (and I mean in spheres of life that stretch far beyond the kitchen), the best cook I know, and probably in the top 3 of all-time favourite people in my life.

It’s also precisely why I haven’t attempted to document her cooking yet. Both the endless spectrum of everything she can cook, everything she has taught me, as well as the intensity of my own emotion every time I think about her, overwhelm me. And I simply don’t know where to begin.

I feel like there's no middle ground here. I either go with her most basic dish or her most beloved – one end of the spectrum or the other. So, I think a long while and decide to take the plunge. I'm reaching across the rainbow and digging for the pot of gold. I’m starting with the most beloved of her dishes. Because – like cracking those first 40 seconds of a job interview - if I get this right, the rest will follow effortlessly. I hope.

So here you go with what is perhaps my single most favourite dish in the world. It is rich, it is creamy, it is the perfect balance of heat and sweet. It is a Bengali Classic. And it is Didima at her finest. It is Prawn Malai Curry.

I put on some U2, take a deep breath and here's how I do it:

- 1 kg Jumbo prawns, peeled and deveined
- ½ cup plain yogurt
- 2 tbsp onion paste (1 large onion roughly chopped and blended should do the trick)
- 2 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tsp of chopped ginger
- 4 green chillies, slit lengthwise
- 1 can of coconut milk
- 5 bay leaves
- Whole garam masala: 5 pieces of cardamom, 5 pieces of cloves, 2 sticks of cinnamon
- 2 tsps red chilli powder 
- 1 tspn turmeric powder
- 1 tspn cumin powder
- 2 tspn sugar
- Salt, to taste

First, I marinate the prawns in yogurt, a little salt and turmeric powder and set them aside for 30 minutes to an hour. While the prawns are marinating, I blend together the ginger and garlic to make a paste. I heat oil in a frying pan and fry the onion paste until light brown. When I can no longer get the smell of raw onions, I add the ginger-garlic paste to the mixture. Next, I add all my whole garam masala to the onion-ginger-garlic paste and stir until the masala starts to crackle. I reduce the heat to a simmer and add my prawns, along with its yogurt marinade, stirring continuously to make sure the yogurt does not break. I add the red chilli, turmeric and ground cumin powders along with the sugar and salt. I pour in a cup of water and bring my gravy to a boil. I am starting to get a heavenly aroma from my pot now! I continue cooking until the gravy thickens and then I add in the green chillies. Finally, my last step is to add the coconut milk, and simmer for 2-3 minutes. The coconut milk thickens my sauce nicely, combining the natural flavour of the prawns, the spice of my dry powders and the aromatic heat of my whole garam masala into a rich, creamy, and totally irresistible gravy. Bono is singing “With or Without You” in that mesmerizing voice of his. My malai curry is ready.
I hum along with Bono as I ladle myself a generous serving over some long-grained white rice, take another deep breath, and taste it. I stop humming then, cause what I taste, baby, makes my taste buds sing!
In all seriousness, I'm excited that my dish tastes as good as it does. I am a confident cook, but I am insecure when it comes to replicating my grandmother's cooking. She's that good in my eyes. In every regard. If I turn out to be half the woman she is, I’d have achieved something huge.
I decide to call her. The phone is answered on the second ring, by the nurse who now looks after her full time. Even that takes getting used to. This woman, so full of energy and vitality just a few years ago – bustling in and out of her New Alipur kitchen, tending to the garden in our Madras house, bossing people around, brushing my hair (100 strokes every night), tirelessly making 20 hour transatlantic trips to New York to meet her son, walking the length of Madison Avenue... now needs help sitting down and standing up. Her body has betrayed her over the years. I realise this now as I picture her in my mind’s eye, thin and frail, back hunched over, making her way to the phone with baby steps. I realise it starkly. It is a betrayal of epic proportions. 

“Hello?” she says, her voice quivering. It is a question.
“Hi Didima!” I say cheerfully
“Hello, who is it?” she asks
I try not to let my heart sink. To put it in perspective. To be thankful for the privilege of still having her, to call when I feel like, even if she can’t recognize my voice anymore.   
I try again. “It’s me, Didima. How are you?”
She pauses as she tries to place my voice. Then –“Hello dear. I’m okay. I'm missing your baby.”
I smile then, to myself. What a funny thing to say. She’s missing my baby – my baby who I carried to her in my arms when he just 3 months old, a whole 91 years younger than her. But if she’s missing my baby, then at least she knows who I am.

“I made malai curry,” I say excitedly.
"Couldn't hear you dear" she says.
 “I made malai curry,” I repeat
"Couldn't hear you dear" she says.

I repeat the sentence, pausing after each word now; slow, deliberate.
“Didima. I. Made. Malai. Curry.”

"Couldn't hear you dear" she says.

I give up. Change tack.

“Have you had dinner, Didima?”
"Couldn't hear you dear" she says.

I'm mostly over being frustrated. It was hard a few years ago, when her hearing first weakened. I would get frustrated with repeating myself over and over again, at screaming futilely into the phone with no effect. I would get irritated with my mother for not fixing her hearing aid so it worked – “It’s impossible to have a conversation like this,” I would say. I would feel anger, at the pace of her deterioration, at this notion of aging but I didn’t know who to direct my anger to. And then I would feel sadness, that dull, throbbing sadness that comes with resignation. “It must be so isolating for her,” I would think to myself. But over the years, I know everyone’s tried and tried and tried. New hearing aid, new battery, new model.  Different hearing aid, new battery, latest model. Same result. There’s only so much technology can do. It’s humbling. So now I'm mostly over it. But I when I feel it – the frustration – slowly creeping in again, I know it’s time to say goodbye for now.

“Ok, Didima. I have to go now”
“Couldn't hear you dear," she says.

I sigh.

“Bye Didima,” I say. “I love you.”
I silently mouth the words "Couldn't hear you dear" and wait for her to speak them out loud.
But she doesn’t
And as she has done before, so many times, in the 30 years I have known her – this woman braver and stronger than anyone I know – she surprises me again.
Her voice is unexpectedly steady now as she answers. The quiver has vanished. She sounds secure. Confident. Young.

“I know dear,” she says as she hangs up.

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