I wake up to a gloomy, cold and wet morning. It has rained all night. The earth is sodden and the clouds are heavy and dark with rain still to come. I saunter sleepily into the kitchen as this miserable morning begs for hot, fluffy and buttery American pancakes. By the time my children are roused, the house will be full of the smell of cinnamon and berries in syrup.
For as long as I can remember, I grew up in a family where cooking was more of a serious pastime than something we did just to put food on the table at mealtimes. I come from a family of exceptional cooks. My paternal grandfather was a baker and confectioner. Growing up, I heard stories of how he would whip up light-as-air sponge cakes with just a wooden spoon. He would make snowballs and pipe the sponge batter into perfect circles using his hands. Snowballs are two small round disks of butter sponge cake sandwiched together with apricot jam, dipped in red-coloured syrup and then rolled in coconut. It is similar to an Australian lamington cake. My grandmother would stay awake after the morning prayers and start preparing the day’s lunch. She would start by meticulously sorting through five cups of rice. Blemished, broken grains and tiny pebbles were removed. She did the same with her dhals (legumes) and whole spices. Her whole spices like coriander and cumin seeds were sorted through, washed till the water ran clear, put on large round koonchas (trays) and laid in the sun to dry. From there they were roasted and ground up finely, ready to mix into spice blends.
When the summer came, my aunts were sent out to the grocer to purchase lots of carrots, beans, green mangoes and green chillies. The next day at dawn, a simple meal of beans and rice would be on the stove. My aunts and grandmother would then spend the morning cleaning and scrubbing the vegetables. The mangoes, carrots and beans were cut in uniform bite-size pieces. Batches of vinegar and oil would be simmering on the stove, as each vegetable was to be pickled and mixed with the most delicious blends of pickled spices, or methi masala as it is known in Indian cooking. At the end of the day, the various pickles were bottled in huge earthenware jars and stored in the pantry for the year to come. Every Indian family knows a well-spiced pickle on the side further enhances the flavour of a good curry.
My mother is a cook who maintains that patience is the key to success in every recipe. If you are impatient, you should not be in her kitchen. She exudes love in her cooking and reminds me of an artist behind the easel when she is in front of her stove. Her rotis are always round and exactly the same size and she uses no equipment to get it this way except an old wooden rolling pin. She has given me the best food memories and taught me everything I know today. To this day, my parents never eat out at restaurants. Every meal has to be made at home with my mother’s wrinkled and hardworking hands. Post-Jumu’ah prayer lunch is an institution in our house. Mother starts on the Thursday evening when she soaks her dhal. The next day it is rinsed several times until no oily residue remains and put to boil with some turmeric and salt. Next she cuts up, cleans and washes the chicken till there is no visible fat remaining, as this is the way my father prefers his chicken. Thereafter she prepares the curry. She slices an onion paper thin, using her hand and no chopping board. The onion is slowly browned in a mixture of homemade ghee and sunflower oil, to which she adds her drained chicken. Her freshly ground ginger and garlic paste is mixed in amongst various spices and then left to slowly amalgamate in the oil before being stirred in with the chicken.
Thin round slices of crispy and well-spiced potatoes are fried just before she expects my father from the masjid, to accompany her chicken dhal. Her salads are very simple. Usually, they are made up of grated carrots and lettuce and sometimes a cucumber and tomato. A sambal of onions, tomatoes, green chillies and vinegar would sometimes be on the table, otherwise a freshly made dhanya (coriander) chutney. But her piece de resistance was her soji; a sweet, fluffy and creamy dessert made with ghee, semolina, milk, egg, sugar and almonds. It is always served as a starter.
My father followed in his father’s footsteps and he owned a bakery for much of his working life. While he loves cooking, he seldom had the time or energy to cook as the bakery kept him busy seven days a week. Sundays were his busiest days. I recall seeing the queue for his fresh hot crispy rolls snaking from inside the shop to a few metres outside the bakery. My father’s elaborate and exotic dishes are best left for when there is a wedding or a family gathering.
Standing at my stove these days I often think of Laurie Colwin’s words: “No one cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.” In this vein, I continue to make wonderful food memories for my children. Post-Jumu’ah prayer lunch is now an institution in my home.
My mother’s Indian Semolina pudding (Soji)
Soji or semolina pudding is a traditional Indian dish that is made and served as a dessert. It is traditionally served at Indian weddings.
125 g butter or ghee
3-4 cardamom pods, slightly crushed or opened
2 sticks of cinnamon
1 cup semolina
2 tsp freshly ground fine cardamom powder
1 cup full cream milk
1 cup water
2 tbs condensed milk
2 tbs thick cream
5 strands of saffron
1 cup sugar
1. In a medium-sized heavy bottomed saucepan, gently bring to the boil on a low heat the full cream milk, water, condensed milk, cream, sugar and saffron, until the saffron is infused.
2. Melt butter or ghee with your cardamom and cinnamon sticks in a large pan over a medium heat. Once the butter or ghee has melted, add your semolina and toss and turn it in your butter until it is aromatic or turns slightly pink in colour. Be patient as this takes a while, but do not leave the pot unattended.
3. Once it has turned pink in colour, add your milk mixture (be careful as it will cause sputtering!) and give it a quick stir. The semolina will absorb the liquid.
4. Next, sprinkle in your cardamom powder. Turn your stove off but leave it on the plate to gently steam through the soji with the remaining residual heat.
5. After 15 minutes serve the warm soji.
If you would like a nice golden egg colour, add 1 teaspoon of egg yellow food colouring to the milk infusion. It gives a lovely colour.
Fatima Bheekoo-Shah is a wife, mother food blogger, foodie and breast-feeding activist. Finally answering her calling to be a writer.