“So, dad, how do you grade my Spinach Kootu?”
Dad shut his eyes and
pondered the question with the gravity of a professor on a Ph. D. defense
To make this traditional
South Indian dish for my dad, I picked baby spinach at the local farmer’s
market. I softened it by bringing it to a quick boil after adding a pinch each
of salt and turmeric powder. In the meanwhile I pressure-cooked half a cup of tuar
dhal (pigeon peas) for six minutes
on medium high. I dry roasted a tablespoon of urad dhal (black chick peas) and four dry red peppers. The
surplus water from the boiled spinach I added to the blender along with my
roasted spices, half a teaspoon of cumin seeds, a teaspoon of uncooked rice and
half a cup of freshly grated coconut.
“Blend this three times,
then add the cooked spinach and pulse just once for the right texture of
spinach. Don’t forget the rice, it binds.” My mom’s words echoed in my ears
years after her passing. I’d followed her recipe to a T. Finally, I seasoned the
mixture in warm oil with a teaspoon of mustard seeds and a pinch of urad
dhal, taking care that the dhal roasted to a golden brown before I tossed in the
mustard. Just right. I was pleased that my mother’s precision and intuition had
seeped into my hands.
But dad’s unfair grading
system would soon have me stewing.
“An A,” he offered
generously after a first mouthful of my kootu. Seconds later, he revised his ruling. “No, I’d
say an A-.”
“Why an A-? It’s exactly like mom’s, pa.”
“Not yet there, child. One red pepper too many. Mom would have got that just right. But it’s close. VERY close!” A wily smile rippled through dad’s 85-year-old cheeks, deepening the fault line on his right cheek where a stroke had warped his face 50 years ago. “Still, a First Class meal, dear.”
Since my mother’s death four years ago, dad has been living alone. So when he decided to stay with me for four months, I was keen on bringing back a little bit of my mother into his life. I resolved to make the dishes she had made her specialty in their 62-year marriage.
In exchange for my daily toil, dad pottered around in the kitchen “doing the little things” that would make my day easier. At 6.30AM, he’d stand at the stove, laboring over the perfect cappuccino to offer his daughter who traveled many highways and compared several independent stores to buy him the best coffee beans in the region. While morning coffee trickled into the decanter, dad emptied the dishwasher, putting away many dishes into the wrong cabinets. Every other day, he helped me make yoghurt with active culture from kefir taking care to set the timer for 25 minutes after the milk had boiled. He grated carrots and cucumber for salad. He diced apples–so badly though that I gently weaned him away to bananas. When pomegranates came into season, he’d shell them for half an hour and then complain that, thanks to me, his nice white undershirt had terrorist stains on them that would never go away. When I got ready to make my famous Almond Halwa, dad offered to blanch almonds. But when I supervised him on how gently, but firmly, to coax them out of their skin after soaking them in hot water, he didn’t mince words. “You’ve given me a job. Now can you let me do it?” It was my turn to blanch.
It was also dad's daily duty to lay the table. At every meal, dad and I would smack our lips and trade stories: he told me about the time, in 1956, in Lahore, Pakistan, when he was followed because the police thought he was a spy; I told him about my meeting with singer Harry Belafonte in 1996; he told me how he felt after losing his first child to small pox in 1952; and I told him how much I missed my mother’s quest for perfection. And then when we were all done with our rambling meal, I would tilt my head so and await the critical rating from my homegrown Ruthless Reichl (who didn’t even have the decency to be in disguise).
Dad should have been in politics: many of his ratings, I felt, were rigged. But I did have a ta-da moment, a time when dad’s teeth sank into my Chocolate Burfi (brittle fashioned from chocolate powder, condensed milk, butter and sugar)–it was a landslide A+ victory. But the only reason I was awarded this grade, I found out much later, was because my mom hadn’t ever made this dish and so there was no basis at all to make a fair comparison.