Sunday, November 12, 2006

Chicken Curry for Two

It is a cold, listless autumn day and I am attempting to make a poor replica of my mother's chicken curry.

There is something so special about my mother's Sunday chicken currys that I just can't replicate. The pounding and grinding starts early in the morning. These days, even my mother uses Baba's curry powder but a long time ago, she would insist on making her masala from scratch. As the slow pounding of the cumin and coriander seeds gather momentum on the batu giling, a muffled, uniform sound reverberates in the kitchen. My weekly job is to slice the shallots (because nobody else will want to do it) and every week, my eyes will smart as I attack the sinister red bulbs. My baby sister BS pounds the ginger and garlic while middle sister MS will slice the vegetables. In the background, Radio 6, the local Tamil section, will blare Sunday morning fare and my dad, often caught unaware, will be humming along in a most inharmonious tone.

There is something very earthy and primal about feeling fresh ground spices with your fingers. It is as if the spices are whispering conspiratorially, telling you about their secrets and all the joys to be imbibed. As the cinnamon, cloves and cardamon splutter in the hot kuali, the piqued senses feel a rush. The infusion spontaneously feels reassuring, like a hug from a child. All the usual family rows and bickering of the week will evaporate by Sunday afternoon, after lunch. It must be the spices working their way into our spirits.

I've read a few books by that Chitra Divakaruni who writes about women and spices and how transformative the relationship can be. But I think that those books exoticise spices, make them sound sexy for the Mat Salleh. She ends up sounding phoney and hollow. Just like the one that was made into a really, really bad movie starring Aishwarya Rai, Mistress of Spice (or something like that).

For me, the spices are like happy family secrets. A joyous female secret. What my mother learnt from her own mother and her mother before her. Nobody really tells you the real quantity of the spices to be used. Just agak-agak. It is for you to know and feel. Instinct.

The spices will let you know.

Fragrant on their own but together, creating a generational mosaic. Spanning past memories and stretching to untold future possibilities. As I stir in my own spices in a foreign country, I remember the women in my family who braved seas and sickness to move to another country. Colonial Malaya.

My maternal great grandmother. A proud woman and pioneer land owner in a country ravaged by the Japanese Occupation. She wakes up one day to find her husband gone missing, only to be told that he has been taken away by the Japanese for interrogation, on trumped up charges of spying. He never comes back. A few weeks later, she sees his car, the only car in the village, being driven by a Japanese General. She knows then that her husband has been tortured to death. She is alone in a new country, illiterate and has three young children. She quickly learns a new language, Malay. Turns her agriculture and poultry into a profitable business and raises her three children the best she can. In her last days, her speech is reduced to gibberish and she often thinks that she is still in India. She dies senile but leaves gold bars under her bed for her grandchildren.

If you see a photograph of my paternal great grandmother, you will see a frail, docile woman with a big smile and twinkling eyes. She will tell many stories about her village in South India, at the Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu border. In the early years, she received repeated abuse, physical and emotional from her husband. One day, she decides enough is enough and pushes the old geezer down a well. She makes it look like an accident and moves on with her life, raising her children in peace. She dies at the ripe age of 90, beady eyed and alert until the end (This is one of the first things I told M when we were going out. Don't mess around-women in my family bump their men off when they drive us up the wall).

Somehow, these spices link me with these women as much as blood ties. These spices have travelled along with them as they have with me. Salving the heart on cold days. Firing the spirit as we build our lives in strange lands. Supplying sustenance in the form of large doses of laughter.

I hold on to the family chicken curry recipe, knowing full well that it is layered by the spirit of a few generations of women. I let the pot simmer and immerse it with all the love I have.

And serve chicken curry for two.


Part of myMemory & Food series, others include:


Anonymous said...

this is a lovely tale! I'm sure it's more interesting than that Mistress of Spice movie. :)

Kak Teh said...

this is what I like - making a simple dish sound so exotic and sexy!

Jane Sunshine said...

May: I dont know if its more intresting but it's real enough!

Kak Teh: Sexy?!

Lydia Teh said...

Your maternal grandma reminds me of Rani Manicka's Rice Mother. Your family history with lots of spice thrown in would make a nice novel.

Jane Sunshine said...

Lydia: Novel? Hmmm...too lazy for thatlah. Or maybe no guts to write one. Besides, who will be interested in all this family melodrama?

starlight said...

jane, this is absolutely beautiful. once again, i love your writing!

Anonymous said...

high time you write THAT novel

Jane Sunshine said...

Starlight: A compliment from you is something I really appreciate. Thank you dear.

Atenah: I mentioned to Lydia...I have no guts to write one.