Curry Me Across the Shoreline
Sabrina F Ahmad
THE email had come out of the blue. It was a simple, rather random note, but the aching familiarity of it left her feeling pole-axed.
18 days gone, maybe another week or so, and then life goes back to its normal routine. Your mother finally left enough rice for me for once, and the spinach and bitter gourd were awesome too, so I finished it all up. The best part was the egg. I hope you're having your porridge with bananas. Make sure you drink lots of water. I'm going to set the alarm for your mom now, so that the old woman remembers to take her meds. Offer your prayers, and have a good night's ZZZ.
It was so typically him, she could almost feel the crackle of the pages from the tiny memo pads he used to write these midnight sehri notes on. She was torn between tears and laughter as she tried to picture the perplexed expression on her mother's face as she asked the pointless question, "How much rice does that man need?”
As she switched off the computer, Shanila reacted to the suddenness of the communication in a way that was uniquely hers; she was struck with a sudden, and inexplicable hankering for food that wasn't immediately available. Right now, her starving body screamed for some good old fish curry. None of the fancy, anglicised versions of curry either; those brightly coloured concoctions might conform with the Bollywood cross-over ideal of what Sub-continental looked like, but were pale imitations of the actual thing when it came to taste. No...what Shanila craved was some authentic shorisha ilish, the way her mother used to make it back home.
Derek found her in the kitchen, pounding away with her pestle at a clove of garlic. Pulling a beer out of his fridge, he offered her a sip.
"Derek! I'm fasting!”
This was something he was well aware of; for an entire month every year, the otherwise up-for-anything, "Nila" would suddenly go all straight-edge on him, eschewing sex, smokes, and alcohol, praying like there was no tomorrow. He got his kicks from getting a rise out of her when she got like this. Edging closer to the counter, he spotted the neat array of fish and spices. Having completed her preparation of the garlic paste, she was de-seeding green chilli peppers.
"What's all this? We having Indian tonight?”
"Bangladeshi! Shorisha Ilish is a Bangladeshi dish! Now move. You're getting in the way.”
"Well excuse me for breathing. Sheesh!"
He moved away, stung by her overreaction to a genuine question. Normally, she would collect herself at this stage and apologise, but this time she didn't. Curiosity won over resentment, and he turned back to observe her at work, careful to stay well out of her way. He might as well have not existed for all the attention she paid him. He watched, fascinated, as she grabbed the fish fillets, marinated in a concoction of turmeric, salt and lime juice, and popped them into the pan, shallow frying with gusto. Nila wasn't the most enthusiastic of cooks, tending to prefer store-brought or take-ins, reluctantly tossing the odd salad or stir-frying noodles. This was the first time she was actually making what seemed to be a complicated, obviously exotic dish, and she went at it with a total absorption that Derek found a little unsettling.
She whipped around to snap at him, but caught the bashful smile on his face, and realised he was in earnest, and her attitude softened.
"Okay. You shallow-fry the fish. Make sure they're golden brown on both sides. I'll deal with the curry."
Trying not to burn the fillets, he watched her askance as she stir fried the spices. Ginger, garlic, mustard seed, chilli powder, turmeric, coriander and bayleaf went dancing into the oil, swirling to form a golden brown concoction that smelt powerful, but looked nothing like the stuff he saw in restaurants. Where were the warm yellows, the bright reds?
"You've done this before, Nila?"
"Ah. Maybe you want to add some more of that stuff?" He indicated the turmeric jar.
"No. This is fine."
"But you said ______"
"Hey! You trying to teach a Bengali how to cook fish?"
"Okay! Okay! Keep your hair on! I'm sorry!"
After that, they worked in silence as she added water and salt, brought the curry to boil before popping in the fish and garnishing with green chillies. She scooped a bit of the gravy and tasted some, the furrows at her brow relaxing as she finally smiled.
"Uh...Nila. Weren't you fasting?"
"Well...you lasted ten hours, didn't you. That's got to count?"
"You don't understand..."
"Stop saying that, okay? I get this whole fasting and absolution business that you guys do, alright..."
He broke off in alarm as her eyes overflowed and two fat teardrops spilled down her cheeks. She backed away until her back was against the counter, and then sank down to the floor, her frame wracked by silent sobbing. He was by her side in a flash. Unsure of how she might want to be comforted, he awkwardly patted her knee as she cried. At length, the floods subsided, and she clumsily wiped her nose on her sleeve.
"The fish. The fasting. This wasn't just one of your random whims, was it? What's on your mind?"
"I had an email from Dad. It was one of his sehri notes."
"It's a long story.”
Renu turned down the heat on the stove, and stirred the gravy one last time. As she ladled the contents of the pan into the bowl, a satisfying aroma of ghee and spices arose from the kofta curry. After years of practice, she'd finally perfected her rendition of the old family favourite taught to her by her mother. It was a pity that her own daughter Shanila never took an interest in Bengali cooking, or any cooking for that matter. Her little girl had always been too busy with her nose in books to bother stepping into the kitchen, and now that she was all grown up, she'd flown off to the land of fish and chips, and probably lived off that stuff now.
As she carefully stored the food in plastic containers to freeze until the Eid feast next week, her husband Shafi came shuffling into the kitchen, his face split into an ear-to-ear grin.
"What, looking for rice are you?”
"You crack me up, dearest. Got a mail from the Firstborn.”
"Another animated Eid card?”
"Better than that. She wrote us a sehri note.”
Cooked my first shorisha ilish today. I dug the recipe out from that Siddika Kabir book Mom had packed with me. It was spicier than mum's one, but tasted great with the rice. Sorry, I didn't do porridge this time. I hope Mum's taking a glass of milk along with her meds? Don't forget to have some extra pulao on my behalf this Eid.
Love you and miss you both,
Illustration by Shantanu Majumdar
(R) thedailystar.net 2009