I see pictures of that baby in her long, white lace and silk christening gown. I see pictures of her Ava (my father’s mother) fastening matching 18-carat gold bracelets on both of her tiny wrists. My heart breaks now as I wonder where she got them from since they were dirt-poor and went without food for most of my father’s youth. I see pictures of older cousins, aunts and uncles visiting her mahogany wooden, swinging cradle with gold engravings on it.
It was the end of the christening celebration that stands out in my memory. My mother needed milk to make more tea for the remaining, die-hard celebrating family members, so my father hoisted that baby girl into his arms and took her to the corner store to get milk. Fathers are so synonymous with bread and milk. He had her in his arms with the biggest smile on his face as he showed her off to everyone, her long gown draped over his arm down to his waist. He was so proud. My strong, proud father. I asked him about that memory when I was about 11. He was shocked that I remembered. “How?” he asked. “How do you remember that?”
I don’t know how many people my parents invited to my christening….50? I was the last of four children to be born and an added symbol of honor is that I was a mistake (that’s what I tell myself). My mother would always lovingly tell me that and kiss me hard on the cheek while saying, “My favorite mistake.” I think she was on birth control when I was conceived. I kind of remember her telling me that when I was 12.
Family gatherings were the soil, air and water of my childhood. We used any excuse for a gathering: the night before weddings, the night after weddings, the day before funerals, the day after funerals, memoriams, graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, every and all holidays and Sunday lunch after church.
For my christening, the gathering was under a big white, rented tent in the yard. At 7 a.m., the undas (cooking pots) were delivered. There they sat, scrubbed and clean on the top, but burned black beyond hope at the bottom, empty and waiting to be put to work. These undas were so big that at least two or three toddlers could curl up inside and much to the chagrin of our elders, we would often play hide-and-seek in them.
“One day, someone is going to cook you, Prish!” an aunt would say. “No,” laughed my mother, “She’s too bony.”
As I grew older, it was always a fascinating thing to watch a group of cooks throwing hands full of spices, biryani rice, skinned and cubed potatoes, rich ripe tomatoes, bundles of earthy curry leaf, smashed ginger and garlic, and freshly chopped green chili into the undas. Finally, they were placed in the middle of several blazing wood fires on the bare naked earth. The heat from the fires mingled with the heat from the African sun creating mirages in the dust.
Using paddles the size of small oars, the meals they cooked would be stirred by a few men, whose sole job it was to tend the cooking. The fire eventually stilled to a smoldering, crackling red glow, giving the biryanis, dhals, or whatever curries were in there, hours and hours to cook.
Meanwhile, the kitchen was packed with all the women bustling through several delicious tasks together. The women in my family had a life force in them that built my trust in the world. The kitchen was the place where fable met memory met story. I had the same feeling in my body listening to their stories as I did gazing at the smoldering red embers of the fire outside.
The sound of their laughter seemed to shake the foundations of the house. They absolutely loved poking fun at each other and especially uncles, fathers, and nephews. They had a sharpness and wit, a joviality and joy that always made me feel like I was part of some secret club. All this would happen in between rolling fresh, buttery rotis, wrapping coconut samosas or frying plates and plates of vada, a delicious snack made with yellow split peas, green chili, fresh dhunia (cilantro leaves), cumin and onion. If the chili didn’t burn the tongue and send you into a delightful high, it wasn’t good enough. “Thithar.”
A plate of vada was forever circulating around the house, into the yard, between the cooks, to the grandparents and and children. Piping hot, spicy, crunchy and with the heavenly fragrance of cumin and onion. We used to sip cups of burning hot, strong milky tea with too much sugar in between bites of spicy vada.
As the fire burned, our mouths would water as the teasing fragrance of spices wafted into our noses, intoxicating our imaginations. The tendrils of smoke that escaped the lips of the closed pots, promised the remembrance of something really, really old in our people. The energy building up in us made us play and run in the dust around the undas, beads of sweat collecting on our downy foreheads, unconsciously drawing us closer to it until an aunt would shout, “Not too close!” for fear of the fire. We would then slink away, tummies rumbling, and prod the earth with broken toothpicks, sticks and stones, digging and digging into muddy embankments or into patches of bald earth that were the hallmark of poor, Indian township lots.
The minute the pots opened, we would all stand, staring, drooling, excited. An uncle would ladle a portion of steaming, hot biryani onto the paper plate we held and soon, the whole family would be entranced in the ritual of eating, remarking how fragrant the rice was and how the potatoes, soaked in gravy, melted like butter. Most of the time, we knew to avoid the whole elachi (cardamom pod) but on the odd occasion when one slipped into our mouths, we would deftly use our tongues to move it to the front of our mouths, push it out between our teeth and quietly grab it with our fingers and relegate it to the edge of the plate.
The aroma of biryani and wood smoke trailed between laughter and singing. We gorged on soji for dessert, a semolina pudding cooked on the fire with sugar, cardamom, saffron, flaked almonds, butter, milk and fresh cream. Much, much later in the night the dishes were washed, floors swept and everything put away. In a soft and sweet half-awake-half-asleep state, nestled on an aunt’s lap, I would hear my grandmother’s voice as she started the group singing church hymns in Telegu, a classical Dravidian language of India. My uncle’s guitar strummed along, my mother, aunts and uncles joining in. Harmonies drifting through the air uniting us with spirit, tapestries of my people’s long-erased histories fusing into my soul. This was our tradition for the years and decades that made up my childhood and youth. It was the foundation of everything good, safe and loving. Time stood still…and for those precious moments, everything was perfect.
Mushroom & Sorghum Pilaf (GF Vegan)
- 260g sorghum
- 200g fresh shittake mushroom
- 4g cardomam
- 4g coriander
- 3g black pepper
- 40g onion
- 3g garlic
- 7g ginger
- 1.5 tsp salt
- 300g carrots
- 300g onion
- 170g celery
- 20g green onion
- 5g parsley
- 21g garlic
- 1g bay leaf
- 1g oregano
- 5g salt
- 2000cc water
- Mapled Almonds
- 1 cup almonds
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- Curried Raisins
- 1/2 cup black raisins
- 3 tbsp coconut sugar
- 1 tbsp korma spice
- 4 tbsp raw apple cider vinegar
- a few per serving watercress leaves
- 1 tbsp per serving nutritional yeast
Curried Raisins ( 4 days in advance)
1. Combine the vinegar with korma spics, coconut sugar and raisins.
2. Store in a little tupperware and refrigerate for 4 days.
1. Rough chop all the vegetables.
2. Sauté garlic, bay leaf and oregano in a stock pot.
3. Add carrots, onion and celery and saute for a further 4 minutes
4. Top with water and bring to a boil for 3 minutes then simmer on low heat for 1 hour.
5. Add parsley and green onion after the hour and simmer for a further 10 minutes.
6. Turn heat off, add salt, stir then let it cool.
1. Grind garlic and ginger to a paste.
2. Saute onion with ginger and garlic on low heat.
3. Add spices and stir well.
4. Add rinsed sorghum and stir for about 3 minutes.
5. Add enough broth to cover the sorghum and simmer on low heat until the sorghum is cooked.
6. If it dries out before it is cooked, add a bit more broth until it is.
7. Add salt and stir. Set aside.
Stir fry mushroom, then stir into sorghum.
1. Blanch almonds in really hot water.
2. Dunk in cold water then skin.
3. Dry with paper towel.
4. Roast the almonds in the oven until light brown and crunchy.
5. Let them cool before you coat in maple syrup.
6. Spread out on an oven sheet and bake until the sugar sticks to the almonds.
7. Cool then store in a jar.
1. Spoon a portion of mushroom sorghum onto a plate that can hold liquid—not a flat plate.
2. Add 1/2 cup of very hot broth on top.
3. Add 1 tbsp nutritional yeast.
4. Garnish with curried raisins and mapled almonds on top.
5. Add baby spinach leaves for a bit of green.
Also by Prish: Cashew Harissa Noodles with Tempeh & Eggplant
Get more like this—Sign up for our daily inspirational newsletter for exclusive content!
Photo: Prashantha Lachanna