Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sitamma's Kitchen

Sitamma's kitchen is a special place. As a child, I loved huddling in a corner, near the rice sack and watch her cook. This part of the house was warmer than the rest, what with two stoves going, but in the wee morning hours, the warmth was cosy and comfy.
Pouring the boiling hot porridge made of ten different protein ingredients into a large pan, she would let it cool, meantime asking me if my morning hunger was bearable or if she should just give me some plain milk. I would not answer instead I would look at the cooling porridge, then at the stew on the stove, the frothing lentils and the cut vegetables on the board on the floor. Waking from near my mother’s bosom and moving onto that warm kitchen corner was an everyday ritual, which readied and strengthened me for the less protective, less loving schema of my day. I find it difficult now to reproduce in retrospect and to articulate that particular feeling of security Sitamma’s kitchen gave me.
The vessels would be lined up in height order in neat, unchangeable positions. Rice, tamarind, red chilli had a separate corner and were stored in sacks. If it was found that a rat had made its way into the kitchen, then the sacks were immediately downed into huge vessels, which could be tightly sealed with lids. But that was very rare. The sacks were available for me to lean on every morning. the fragrance of her kitchen is something I am unable to replicate in my own. I store the same ingredients, yet that earthy, fertile, sumptuous smell of Sitamma’s kitchen is missing.
Unlike the monotonous, uni-colored, uni-metal kitchen vessels I possess, Sitamma’s pots and pans were cast in a variety of vessels. That curious mixture of hues and colors her vessels offered are inimitable. “Ever-silver” (stainless steel) vessels were not many in number. Each dish was cooked in a specific vessel made of a specific metal/material.
Rice was made in a Vengala panai-bronze pot. When the glub-glub-glub sound of rice nearing its boil reached Sitamma’s ear, she would pick out just one grain of rice from the pot and check its softness. “One rice grain’s consistency can speak for the entire pot of rice,” she would say and add, “what I mean is, just one utterance from you can throw light on what kind of person you are.” Of course, I understood nothing much less understand how one could touch boiling hot rice right off the stove.
Kozhambu was made in an Indoleum (aluminium) vessel or in Kall chetti i.e vessel cast in Ma Kal, a particular type of soft stone with which one could write on the floor, make kolams too. When Sitamma poured out the reddish brew from the black stone pot, I would say, “Paatti, doesn’t it look like Goddess Kali’s red tongue flowing out of her black mouth?” only to have my ears tweaked.
Oh! But I must tell you about Soin rasam. Rasam was made in Iya chombu, a tiny vessel made of lead. Iya chombu rasam is a brew fit for the gods. Laced with hand pounded cumin and pepper, garnished with curry leaves and coriander, the Rasam’s aroma would rouse your appetite strongly enough to devour a horse. When orange bubbles frothed near the vessel’s rim, Sitamma would heat a large tablespoonful of ghee in an iron ladle. When the ghee simmered, she would throw in some mustard. Tossing lightly she would immerse the red hot iron ladle with spluttering mustard seeds right into the bubbling rasam A huge ‘sssoooooooooin” sound emanated while the hot iron ladle tempered down with a hiss earning it the name. This soin rasam was very popular, what with its ghee and the taste of lead.
However it was the ku-chuk-chuk dosas which were my all-time favourite. What I thought was a ploy to make me eat dosas by naming them ku-chuk-chuk dosas turned out to be a valid nomenclature. Sitamma called the flat pan she used make dosais “Thandavalam” literally meaning railway tracks. Apparently the poor helped themselves to the discarded parts of the railway track, which were flat, smooth and excellent conductors of heat to make their dosas. Sitamma had a thandavalam in her village. “They hold heat for long. I can make upto four dosas even after the fire goes out. They never break.” So all dosas made on the tracks were called ku-chuk-chuk-dosas.
There are a lot more things I wish to dish out about that special place. Indeed lot many things other than just Kozhambu, rasam and curry got made in Sitamma’s kitchen. I think my recipe for life was written in Sitamma’s kitchen. The riotous variety of vessels combined with Sitamma as the chef added flavour, not just to meals but to my appreciation of life. What more could anyone ask for?

Sitamma's Kitchen was published in The Hindu on February 16, 2003.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Between the Barber and the Barbarians

“Shear and shear alike,” Thathaji instructed Varadan. “Saar, is it a Sanskrit sloka?” asked Varadan innocently.
“Illa da! It means give everyone the same haircut,” said Thathaji as he prepared to oversee the hair-raising—no, hair-shedding event!
* * *
Varadan was a much-dreaded figure in my grandfather’s household. Every other Sunday he would promptly appear at six in the morning and sneak into the backyard and wait patiently until grandfather sauntered out. Nobody announced his presence. Everyone just assumed that Varadan would materialise on alternate weekends ‘to shear and shear alike’ the thriving locks of ten restless youngsters—an event that Thathaji directed with great precision.
Armed with a much-used comb, which was a mild orange in colour, a small stainless steel cup, some soap—a green and awful-smelling neem preparation—scissors and blade, Varadan would
arrive on his cycle bearing the entire luggage in a tiny yellow cotton bag advertising the famous ‘Swarna Coffee’ of yore. Unlike these days when you can just walk into a saloon on any day,
get your hair cut, pay and walk away, one had a strict set of dos and don’ts then. No haircutting on festival days. Or Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Which meant that the haircutting
exercise could be undertaken only on Sundays. (Moreover, it was impossible to assemble the ten uncontainable brats, except on a holiday.) The barbered lot were not allowed to step inside the
house until they had washed at the well, from which water could be drawn only by an un-barbered person. The ‘hair shirts’ had to be washed and dried on a separate clothesline on the terrace…
Haircutting then was surely a tough regimen to follow!
* * *

“Varadan, won’t you ever fall ill or something?” asked Lacchu, one of the Raman-Lakshman twins.
Varadan smiled impishly and said, “Ambi, switch on the radio, let’s hear some sangeetham.” Once strains of thodi came wafting in, Varadan began to hum slowly along with it. Not to be
outdone, Seenu also began to whine along.
“Adada! Ambi, thodi has periya nee, but you are touching bhairavi nee,” said Varadan earnestly, not understanding that Seenu was actually trying to rag him. Varadan was a nagaswaram vidwan, whose side-profession was barbering.
However, he was careful not to display his talent in front of Thathaji. Varadan went about preparing for the ‘event’, while the boys stood around waiting for the inevitable. Suddenly a
scuffle broke out about who has to give his head first. Screams of “you go first, not me you fool, you go first!”resounded in the air as the boys wrestled each other, ending up in the mud near the coconut tree. Varadan stood watching as he sharpened his instruments on a whetstone almost
All this persisted only until Thathaji emerged from inside and commanded one of the ten to fetch him a stool. The boys stood up, dusting themselves. “You, Lalli’s son, go first!” ordered
Thathaji. Soon, all the grandchildren were made to stand in a line for ‘treatment’ from Varadan.
Without much ado, Varadan got to work on Lalli’s son.
“Why is there so much sand in your hair?” he asked loudly, snipping away at the back of his head.
Of course, this resulted in a huge peroration from the grandsire (on the evils of getting sand in the hair, which could lead to worms breeding inside one’s stomach because of eating with
hands unwashed from scratching one’s sandy hair and so on…) that ended with a dig at Lalli’s son, “Is the kaliman inside your head coming out?”
Kinda, who was next in line, was a little braver than the rest and mustered enough courage to complain loudly, “What is the use of having an oil-bath yesterday if you are going to get a
haircut today?”
That somehow seemed to make sense to Thathaji. “The boys have their oil-baths every Saturday and their haircuts happen on alternate Sundays. Why bother pouring ladles of expensive gingelly oil on these thugs’ hair just to cut them off the very next day?” said
thrifty Thathaji. Kinda became the hero of the day when Thathaji declared that
henceforth oil-baths shall happen only on alternate Saturdays—one week ahead of Varadan’s arrival.
Thathaji seemed lost in thought for a while. “Varadan, how much do you charge for a haircut?” he asked suddenly.
Varadan looked puzzled. “25 paise per person saar, but why this question after so many years?” he asked humbly.
Thathaji grinned and continued, “If you were summoned to cut Ravanan’s hair, how much would you charge?”
Varadan scratched his head and said, “25 paise for each head saar.”
“What! You dare to speak untruth. Just now you said it is 25 paise per person and now you say it’s 25 paise per head,” Thathaji boomed. “Now tell me, how much would you charge Ravanan?” he persisted mercilessly.
"Er...25 paise sir," agreed Varadan.
"If your fee for Ravanan who has ten heads is 25 paise, then you should charge me also only 25 paise for the ten heads you are attending to today," ordered Thathaji.
By now, the ten hooligans were doubling up with laughter. “Saar, shall I cut your hair also, then
the count will be 11 and this confusion would also end,” pleaded Varadan pathetically.
Convulsing with laughter, Thathaji concluded, settling for a royal haircut on that
luxurious Sunday, “Ade Varada, sharpen your wits along with that blade of yours!”
The boys were besides themselves with devilish glee. It was a treat to see Varadan squirm like
semiya in hot milk. Lifting one leg over another, Seenu, tongue sticking out, struck a Nataraja pose to show his happiness. Rama-Lacchu did synchronised swimming in the air. Kinda folded his
hands and kept bowing his head like an automated toy that said “Jai Hanuman”. Varadan took it all silently. Quietly observing the boys’ black humour, he plotted his revenge. Thathaji’s haircut
was almost over. With other customers, Varadan would have stopped with the haircut for 25 paise. But for Thathaji he always threw in an oil massage for free. The old man was a tough customer. He always made sure he got his money’s worth and more. If this grandsire had
one weakness, it was money, and he never spent it unnecessarily.
Varadan poured some oil onto his palm and got to work. Moving his fingers soothingly over Thathaji’s scalp, Varadan began, "SaarI am planning to go to my village to meet my mother. I will be away for nearly a month.”
“Very good,” said Thathaji.
“I will ask Subbu, my barber-friend, to come to your house while I am away.”
“Very good,” said Thathaji.
“But he will charge you 30 paise per head saar,” said Varadan cautiously.
“Why is that? I will not pay so much. I’ll wait for you to come back,” retorted
“Saar, at your age, hair will not grow back so fast. But what about these poor
boys? They will grow enough hair to make into a plait by the time I come
back. Summer is approaching fast. In fact, just yesterday I gave the opposite house
Dikshitar’s children a good headshave. They feel so cool and light now. I can do it for you at no extra cost, saar,”said Varadan, and stopped for the message to sink in along with the oil.
Just then Kappu came up to the well to draw water for the boys’ bath, when Thathaji stopped her quite suddenly. “Kappu, go inside and get some sandalwood paste. The boys are going
to get their head shaved!” Thathaji ordered, immensely interested in Varadan’s proposal because of the prospect of saving a month’s barbering costs. Kappu ran in giggling, yelling the
news to the others.
The boys stood transfixed. Seenu’s cosmic dance stopped. The twins’ froze and Kinda fell to the ground in shock. The other six boys, less brave than the others, were already sitting in a row
waiting for the blade to fall!
Varadan was too clever to laugh in Thathaji’s presence. But he talked about Tirupathi, the delicious laddoos one gets there and the medicinal properties of the sandalwood paste
used while tonsuring heads. No amount of rebellion deterred Thathaji from his thrifty decision.
“Keep quiet, you rascals. Going around with mud and lice in your hair. I’ll give you a shave every month if you don’t keep quiet now,” Thathaji said and shut them up once and for all.
In 20 minutes flat, there were ten gleaming heads, shining with sandalwood paste...ten faces yellow with anger! Seenu was almost foaming at the mouth with anger. Kinda was ready to pick up the nearest stone. But what could one do with Thathaji around? Having successfully finished
his task, Varadan bowed low to Thathaji and said, “Bless me saar, I’ll come back next month from my village. In fact, I decided to go there only after coming here. That too only when I was cutting your hair saar,” he said humbly, all the while throwing a sly smile at the ten
yellow heads.
The barber walked few steps. Then, as an afterthought, he called the youngest of the boys and handed him a rupee. “Buy laddoos for yourselves with this and say govinda-govinda before eating it, okay?” he said and sped off on his cycle before Kinda’s stone could hit

1.Illa da : No, man
2.Sangeetham : Music
3.Thodi : A well-known raaga in
Carnatic music
4.Periya nee : A high-pitched
musical note
5.Bhairavi nee : A musical note
from the Bhairavi raaga
6.Nagaswaram vidwan : A
person proficient in playing the
nagaswaram, a windinstrument
famous in South
7.Kaliman : Clay
8.Semiya : Vermicelli

*Between the barber and the barbarians was published in Chatterbox Children's magazine. Since I carried a Sitamma story last week, my family requested me for a "Thathaji" story this week. The story is in memory of my late grandfather whose birthday falls this month :) Hey cousins- enjoy!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Coffee, Kaapi or me?

"Morning Kaapi (coffee) must be as fresh as that day's newspaper," according to Thathaji.
The grand sire likes to have coffee while the tang of toothpaste is still on his tongue. Reclining on his cane chair with newspaper eagle spread in his hands, he will wait for the coffee to arrive. Though the aroma would have hit him right from the kitchen onwards, it is customary that Sitamma coffee-in-hand waits for him to relinquish his paper. Thathaji would groan and grunt at certain news, check the obituary and glance through the sports section. When the newspaper curtains finally came down, he expected the next performance to begin.
Sitamma, hot "Kaapi" with aromatic mists hovering over the stainless steel tumbler and the vatta- all three stood expectantly.
"Why didn't you say you were waiting?" Thathaji would ask lamely.
But he would not lower his newspapers one instant before he wanted to and the petite lady knew it.
"Sitamma you look like one of those torch-bearing fisher folk heroines, standing by the sea waiting for their spouses to return," I tease when I see her waiting for Thathaji to put down the daily.
"Sure it is I am still at sea with him anyway. Thathaji wouldn't leave his paper even if his child were falling into the well. He will notice it only if it is mentioned in the newspaper. I wish they relayed news instantly on the paper too, like they do on the TV."
That was not all, for all the waiting, Thathaji never received the coffee cup from Sitamma. He would silently motion saying, "leave it here on the stool." But then if she left the coffee on the stool without his silent approval, all hell would break loose.
"Can't you wait for one kshanam for me to finish the paper? Which country of yours is getting ransacked for you to rush back so soon?" and so forth the peroration would continue.
"Only in this household will coffee making taking so long. I would have prepared an aviyal and a usili in this time," grumbled Sitamma.
But secretly, she loved this morning of ritual of serving her old man his Kaapi. And what a ritual! For that original, vintage-classic brew, Sitamma would choose light greenish coffee seeds and roast them. At a particular temperature, aromatic fumes would rise to fill the kitchen first, then the outer rooms. Gradually the coffee seeds' roasting would perfume the entire house. While the seeds cooled, Sitamma prepared that antique coffee grinding machine and other coffee-making gadgets including a clean piece of muslin, a smallish steel pot and some water on the stove. While the water heated, she ground the coffee seeds. By the time the water came to boil, the small quantity of coffee was powdered and ready for that morning's brew. The milk would be put to boil while the coffee diffused through the muslin cloth, like a brown lotus spreading its petals, turning the pond of water in the steel pot into a dark brownish fluid. Noticing Thathaji passing by the kitchen door after brushing his teeth, Sitamma would immediately start mixing the fresh-fresh decoction with the boiling milk from the stove. She never boiled milk and the coffee together. It was always boiling milk poured on the dark brew’s “head”. The amount of sugar added was important. It was that delicate amount of sugar- neither too much, nor too little. The coffee’s bitterness was intact, yet it was a refined kind of bitterness. Finally entire concoction would be mixed, not with a spoon (that is so unmagical) but by swishing and swooshing the fluid to and fro between the tumbler and the vatta. A thick thread of coffee flew between the two containers without one precious drop spilt and finally a frothy cloud stood the top of the coffee tumbler. This ritual for every coffee made in the household, morning, afternoon and evening. That too to be performed by Sitamma only, none else. If Sitamma were to ask Thathaji, “Coffee, Kaapi or me?” in all likelihood Thathaji would say, “Kaapi and also you because of your Kaapi.”
After coffee was served, Thathaji, his nose hitting the bubbly froth would draw in the heady concoction with a huge slurping noise, which is music to Sitamma’s ears. For the next 15 minutes, Thathaji would give his undivided attention to the freshly brewed nectar. Masticating on the news from the daily and mentally arranging his tasks for the day, Thathaji reminisced on his sepia memories while sipping on the brownish brew.
“If you want to marry someone, then treat him to Sitamma’s coffee and say that you made it,” suggested Thathaji.
“Which moron would agree to marry a woman just because she makes good coffee?” I demand.
“Well, this moron would and did,” accepted Thathaji sheepishly. Apparently, Thathaji fell for both the coffee and the golden hands, which made it. This during the usual dekho session arranged by the families before the wedding.
“Sitamma looked almost as good as the Kaapi she offered. Why, she even sang Kaapi ragam that day, what a coincidence! Intha soukya manine, how well she sang,” Thathaji went on gleefully.
“Day starts with coffee, life started with coffee….what more?” I ask.
“Someday when I drink coffee from your hands, my life will also end with coffee,” Thathaji said and laughed devilishly.
“Haven’t you heard of filters and coffee makers, Sitamma?” I ask.
“Things haven’t percolated down to that yet,” she replied dryly.
“What your filters and percolators make is coffee, what Sitamma makes is Kaapi,” concluded Thathaji categorically.
I can see that the art of coffee or rather Kaapi making can be so tricky and as demanding as the pursuit of performing arts. Particularly for Sitamma, when you have a coffee connoisseur breathing down your neck, the mere chore of making coffee becomes a performance of sorts. On stage no two performances can ever be alike. But Sitamma has managed to master the nuances of giving out coffee which tastes just the same each time- with the same thickness, flavour and temperature. One can patent it, I feel.
But how she manages a first decoction, second decoction, all this roasting, grinding, filtering through muslin cloth drama day after day, I really don’t know. It is nothing short of a lifetime commitment to serve her coffee connoisseur husband the best of coffees.
“I wish you were my wife, Sitamma,” I say taking in her painstaking efforts.
“I wish I were my husband too!” she replies with a sigh.

"Coffee, Kaapi or me?" was published in The Hindu November 17, 2002