Illustration by Vasanti Unka
Illustration by Vasanti Unka

The Sunday EssayJune 12, 2022

The Sunday Essay: A never-ending pot of curry

Illustration by Vasanti Unka
Illustration by Vasanti Unka

As a child in India, Perzen Patel wished for a bowl of her grandmother’s curry that would never run out and always remind her of home. In New Zealand, that wish came true.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustration by Vasanti Unka.

When I was a kid, Mum and I went to my grandmother Dolly’s house every Saturday for lunch. The menu was always the same: Dolly Mumma’s prawn curry with steamed rice.

In the morning, Mumma would send my grandfather to the market to buy a fresh coconut for her curry masala while she sat on the shared balcony of her apartment in Mumbai keeping a watch out for the fishmonger. Mumma would clap loudly when the fishmonger arrived and call her up to the apartment. She’d handpick the biggest prawns she could find, always sneaking in a few extra after the price was fixed, saying, “Arre, these extra ones are for my granddaughter. You know how much she loves eating your fish.”

Then Mumma would clean the prawns with salt and chickpea flour before marinating them in turmeric, red chilli powder and salt. They’d sit on the counter covered, while her curry bubbled away on the stove, the aroma of the curry leaves filling the home. We’d arrive at Mumma’s house around 12.30, tired from rushing around the city at various extracurricular activities. Mumma would immediately push me directly to the basin to wash my hands and feet and “become free” from the outside clothes I had on. Meanwhile, she’d finish off the curry, slipping the marinated prawns into the pot and adding a generous squeeze of lemon juice.

As we all gathered around setting the table, Mumma would bring out her famous prawn curry, a glass bowl of kachubar – onion salad – balancing on the saucepan lid.

We’d sit patiently while Mumma served us the curry rice in our steel thali. Having grown up poor, she took fairness very seriously when it came to serving food. Every family member was served three potato pieces and five prawns to go with their rice and curry. Except me – I got eight prawns. If you questioned it, Dolly Mumma would laugh and say that it was because the fish lady had given her extra prawns, especially for me.

While I never said no to the extra prawns, it was Dolly Mumma’s curry that was always the star of the show. I always had one serving with my rice, the next couple of ladles served on top of my kachubar, and then a final serving that I’d drink using my squeezed-dry lemon rind as a spoon. My mum says that she has never seen a child eat the way I used to – slowly, with my eyes closed, relishing each bite to the fullest.

One of my family’s favourite stories is the time Dolly Mumma asked me what I wanted to inherit from her. Cuddled up to her, tummy full and nearing a curry-induced coma, I innocently told her that all I really wanted was a big, never-ending bowl of her curry that I could always have and remember her by. Given that I can still taste Mumma’s beautiful medley of fresh coconut, spice, fish broth and curry leaves when I close my eyes today, this story sounds legit. Come on, what’s not to love about an overflowing saucepan of fish curry?

Our Saturday curry tradition fell by the wayside when my parents separated and we moved first from Mumbai to Pune, and then to New Zealand. Of course, Mum would still make prawn curry, I’d still eat it, but it never tasted the same. Mum was sure it was the lack of fresh coconuts that was the culprit. And I was sure that the curry wasn’t right because it was Mum cooking it and not Dolly Mumma.

I was at work when I got the call from Mum.

She was crying as she told me Mumma had passed away. Absurd as it may sound, my mind went straight to those afternoons we spent in her home eating curry. I also felt instant remorse: I’d only just seen Mumma a few months earlier, but didn’t bother asking her for her curry recipe. Learning how to make it was always something “I was definitely going to do one day”. And now she was gone. I no longer had anything special of hers that I could treasure.

Mum and I couldn’t afford the plane fares back to India for Mumma’s funeral but we mourned her loss by cooking prawn curry together. Even with the fresh prawns and the freshly grated coconut that Mum had managed to get, Mumma’s curry just wasn’t the same without her special ingredient. If only we knew what it was.

When we next went back to India and visited my mami (aunt), there was a cardboard box waiting for us, a parting gift from Mumma. My hands dug past the three saris and the velvet pouch that no doubt had some jewellery in it for mum, until they came across a book. As I lifted it out of the box, I noticed that the book was actually a tattered diary. Curiosity piqued, I flipped through the pages that were filled with scribbles in Gujarati. There were a few recipes with interesting ingredient lists – how many grams is “five anna (cents) of pumpkin”, I wondered – names of suppliers that offered the best produce in Mumbai, and even the phone numbers of Mumma’s favourite fishmongers.

What caught my attention was a loose piece paper tucked into the centre spread. It was headed: “Machi (Fish) ni Curry for vahli (dear) Perzen”. My heart skipped a beat. She had remembered.

The next morning Mum and I went to the fish market for fresh prawns and coconut and got working in the kitchen. Mum made the curry masala while I cleaned the shellfish and chopped the potatoes. Soon, the curry was bubbling away and the aroma in the house was exactly like the one in my memory.

We learned that the missing flavours were in the time it took to roast the peanuts and cashews separately before toasting the other spices. More flavour had been lost when we ground everything together rather than grinding the dry ingredients before doing the wet. And the reason Mum’s curry never had the right texture? Turns out she wasn’t frying the chickpea flour in oil before adding the masala paste.

With the curry paste fried and the water added, Mum added five prawns for her and eight for me. We smiled at each other in excitement. The curry came out just as we remembered Mumma making it. Even the house smelled exactly the same. That day at lunch as Mum and I licked our plates clean we were both transported back to those beautiful afternoons in Mum’s childhood home.

Inheriting Mumma’s curry was the first step I took toward reigniting my love for Indian food. It taught me the secret to cooking good food – taking your time. It’s an instruction often missing from modern recipe books.

I wanted to make sure that the recipe was never lost again and so, it became the first recipe I wrote on my food blog. It was also the first item on my menu when I started my catering kitchen in India, the first proper meal I fed my children and now, the first product I bottled for my range of Indian curry pastes.

Every now and then an email will land in my inbox from a customer who’s made Dolly Mumma’s curry in their own home. The gist of those emails is often the same: in cooking Mumma’s curry they were able to bring alive the edible memories they have of their loved ones.

That never-ending pot of curry I wanted to inherit from Mumma? In sharing Mumma’s curry far and wide, turns out I cooked my own never-ending pot of it after all.

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