There are some for whom convenience food is a lifesaver. Preparing a meal isn’t something they do naturally. Plucking it out of the freezer, reading instructions, removing the outer packaging, piercing the transparent film and bunging it into the microwave requires no effort at all. A ready meal in two to three minutes, garnished with an exotic name.
Others take to cooking like fish to water, taking every care even when it comes to preparing a simple dish. Mum belongs to the latter group. She was completely in her zone as soon as she placed a pot on the burner. This wasn’t just routine. To her this was an art. A science. She was creating something- something beautiful, tantalising and even unbelievable. She resembled the fervour of a conductor orchestrating a symphony, the grace and dexterity of a ballet choreographer and the incisive intuition of a surgeon- she was the master chef if you get my drift; especially if it was on a special occasion like Eid celebrations.
To this day I remain puzzled by the fact that nothing was weighed or measured. They say you can always tell a novice in the kitchen because they’ll obsess with getting it perfect by weighing and measuring every ingredient- ounce-by-ounce, millilitre-by-millilitre. But virtuosos like my mum weigh with their hands and measure with their eyes. They’ll know instinctively if it’s too much or too little. Solomon’s wisdom, I call it- an acquired judgement that would put politicians to shame. I’m tempted to ask and put my curiosity to rest- but I won’t. There’s a magic about it, an enigma is only as enigmatic as the curiosity behind it.
Occasionally she’d look up at you. I always got confused about what she expected me to do or say, because she just looked and never spoke, before then, as if in a trance, returning to what she was engrossed in. This weird flash of concentration was accompanied by a mild intake of breath; it was probably her way of energising, regrouping and mustering together her concentration and focus. This wide-eyed stare wasn’t an angry or searching look; it wasn’t even a look as if to say, ‘What the hell are you doing in my domain?’ It was a warm, yet assured look. No, I wasn’t an intruder or trespasser. It was safe to pass by.
From amongst the clutter of spoons, knives, pots and pans, one object stood out. It was unique. It was the flat round metallic tin. This was no ordinary metal box. It was the container holding probably the most identifiable Indian ingredient. Ghee! As my mum prized open the airtight lid, it made a sound I can only describe as the reverse action of a vacuum cleaner.
Anyway, into the pot went spoonfuls of semi-solidified Ghee- the mother of all ingredients. Golden rivulets, like syrupy treacle, would emerge from the sides of these golden Ghee mountains, merge into rivers and gush out from the estuaries into a molten liquid lake. The brass volcanic lava would then soak into mounds of masala-fluorescent turmeric, piquant red chilli, khaki green coriander, barky-brown cinnamon and aromatic cardamom pods. A bubbling paint pot of colour all mingling into one
My favourite bit was watching her skin the onions. The layers would come unshelled- and then with her delicate fingertips she would capture the membrane-sheathed heart and reveal it like a jewel.
Once again, like a true connoisseur, she crafts the cuisine to her time-honoured recipes. She knows if it’s too hot or not sweet enough by instinct. It was her sixth sense.
It was all a bit like beholding some kind of performance. You’d never known how much time and effort and passion she had put into the rehearsal. All you would get to see is the actual performance which was always delivered with effortless ease and grace. It was ironic, because she’d never make a song and dance about anything. I can truly say that watching her cook for a family gathering was like theatre. You can bet for certain though that she would never be around to take the final bow, even if there was an encore.
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I like celebrations and parties; they are a good excuse to enjoy good company and let yourself go. However, as I have grown older, my perspective on celebrations has changed. When you are young, it seems as if the celebrations revolve around you; the adults smother you with their doting and shower you with presents only because they see you as an innocent little tot. You have no idea about the significance of the day. You just enjoy the attention.
As you grow older, you gain more knowledge and understanding about the significance of the practices and festivals. You enjoy everything but with a sense of responsibility and knowing.
Waking up early, really early, is my biggest bugbear. With all the excitement, anticipation and preparation the night before, an early rise is not always that easy.
It’s all worth it though when you put on your newest clothes- the best outfit you have been saving for this day. You feel special. You look special. However, it is not just about dressing up and feeling good. You have to fulfil your religious duties too. So early morning prayers, giving charity and remembering the deceased are an integral part of the celebrations.
Occasions bring people together. There are some you look forward to sharing the day with and some colourful characters that you have to call ‘family’. Gifts exchange hands. Handshakes and hugs come thick and fast.
Reminding myself to steer clear of one of my aunties, I head for the back room. I dread being hugged out of breath by her. From a distance she could be mistaken for Pat Butcher from Eastenders. Rotund and robust, she stands formidable with arms wide open and a huge comic strip smile, ready and waiting to give you that huge hug. Occasionally, there’s a little lift if she’s feeling a tad hearty. And yet, despite my best efforts, there’s just no escaping the ‘great squeeze’. This time it’s with a pat on the head as well! She probably still sees me as a ten year old just because I’m shorter than her grandson. Why does she always wind me up? I grin and grit my teeth. Stay calm. Remember it is Eid. It’ll be over soon…
The family meal is the best part. Food is a good congregator, especially when there is plenty of it. The decorations add to the ambience of the occasion. Everyone waits in nervous anticipation. The atmosphere is buzzing. Let the feast begin!
I try to grab a seat near one of my uncles. He’s hilarious! You’re guaranteed a bundle of laughs when he’s around. A wicked combination of Del Boy and David Brent, he’s a crafty salesman who just hasn’t made the big time yet. He’s got that glint of tragic stardom about him. I bet he thinks he could have been big in Bollywood, which is probably why he’s always got that ‘If only…’ look in his eyes. I remember him this time last year telling us about a dodgy job-lot of ‘authentic’ Indian woodcarvings made in some back street workshop in Birmingham he had managed to flog! It’s like listening to a heroic traveller narrating the chronicles of his epic adventure to his people who themselves just don’t have the bottle to take risks.
At the end of the meal, there’s lots of getting up and moving around, as everyone begins to clump together in groups. There are the kiddies who randomly run around screaming. Then there are the boys standing around acting cool and casual desperately trying to attract the girls’ attention but they are far too busy gasping at each other’s latest hairstyles and henna hand designs. Over there is the ‘30’s to 40’s’ club who like to relax and have a laugh, measuring up their career progress against each other, or canvassing ideas for the name of their next baby. Finally there’s the over-50s crowd who sit and mull over the latest news headlines and muse over the politics of the day, occasionally glancing at the younger generation in silent disapproval as if to say, ‘You pretty little things haven’t got a clue about life. We do. We’ve lived it!’ Celebrations are great. They bring people together- the weird and the wonderful. It’s what celebrations are all about I suppose, bringing people together.
It all ends with compliments and farewells. Everyone takes away with them the memories of the day that they will probably reminisce over until the same time next year.
This is highly sophisticated work. A wide range of well-selected and ambitious vocabulary is employed to great effect in a reflective piece that never fails to hold the interest of the reader. Detail is carefully chosen and well described and the sentences are thoughtfully shaped. It is clear that the student has consciously shaped language for the reader’s entertainment. The characters are described in an interesting and engaging way as the student draws us into his family situation with assured wit and honesty in this excellent reflective piece. The SSPS aspect is flawless. This is Band 4 work and deserves full marks.