Friday, September 18, 2009
I didn’t know my grandfather all that well. I only saw him for a couple weeks every four years. My understanding of him was mostly built through observation.
For this man of purposeful actions, lunch seemed the apex of his day. In the morning, as he spoke to my grandmother about lunch, he gingerly embraced the lip of his tea cup taking efficient sips. After consuming toast redolent of butter and yeast, he carefully gathered up any crumbs depositing them back onto the plate with a flick of the wrist. Perhaps an optimist, despite dustiness or inclemency, he went to work every day with a crisp white shirt and pressed dhoti.
He would return for lunch punctually sometimes with unexpected guests in tow. My grandmother would have spent the morning, probably every morning for decades, puttering around the kitchen preparing. She would move to and fro, looking for lost bowls, shuffling plates around, opening and closing stainless steel containers. When I was there, there was time spent telling me stories, reminding me to be a good girl, and, of course, cajoling me to eat more and drink more milk. My grandmother was a woman for whom efficiency really was a word better left in the dictionary.
Upon returning, he would take his place at the head of the table joyful about the upcoming meal. When the whole family was there, his son would sit to one side, and the rest of table would fill with grandchildren and son in laws. The many vegetable dishes on the table were all orchestrated by him. He chose dishes in a way that made you feel welcome; your favorite dishes were always on the menu. For me sambar seemed a constant. And, then, when everything was served, there was his first taste. That taste was carefully discussed and dissected. The proportions of spice and amount of salt were all noted. Sometimes my grandmother would be summoned with the salt cellar to rectify an overly spicy dish with a pinch more salt. More often, there was praise. “Oh, the bikkand is delicious today…The chutney is just right in terms of spices…The valli is very fresh and the ambat is just perfect today.” For him, food was the center of life; lunch was a hobby and a holiday.
Plans for these lunches began early in the morning. As a child, when jet lag cruelly awoke me with a start in the pitchdark early morning, I would wait for the hall light to turn on. Then I would crawl out of bed and look for my grandparents. My grandfather would instruct quick preparations of warm Bournvita and grilled butter-fried bread for “the child” and then he would sit down to the vegetables.
According to my child’s eye, my grandfather’s consideration of how each vegetable should be cut seemed to be paramount in his affairs. He would sit on the floor in the narrow hallway just beside the old stone kitchen. Slowly and efficiently, he would draw the vegetables across the blade. Matchstick potatoes would work for upkari but would never be appropriate in sambar. Before engaging in his morning toilet, a day’s worth of vegetables, lovely piles of colors and shapes, would wait for their role in lunch.
(My husband and I followed my mom when she cooked and transcribed her recipe.)
Cook 2/3 cup toor dal in a pressure cooker. (For the pressure cooker novices like me, my mother says when it whistles turn down to simmer for 10 minutes and turn off.)
In another pot, boil 2 cups vegetables. In my mind, pearl onions, potatoes, and eggplant are requisite. Radishes, eggplants, zucchini and carrots can be added. If you are lucky enough to have fresh drumsticks, be happy and add them too.
Add cooked dal and its water to the boiled vegetables that have been drained of all but ½ cup water.
In a cast iron skillet, fry:
one small onion diced.
Add onions to the dal/veg mixture.
In small bowl, combine:
1 tsp tamarind
½ cup water
In the same cast iron skillet, brown:
3 T sambar powder (homemade or store bought)
Once the sambar powder smells cooked and delicious, add tamarind and water. Put whole mixture into the dal.
Add a small handful of fresh coriander leaves that have been roughly chopped.
Serve with rice and papad or with idli.
I am submitting this recipe to this month's Monthly Mingle:Heirloom, which is being hosted over at Jugalbandi.