It begins with my mother. Food always begins
with my mother. It tires me when people ask
if I can cook a curry.
As if all we eat is curry.
As if a country the size of a continent
could ever, only, would ever, only,
feed itself on curry.
I began to hate that word long years
ago. When it boxed my mother in.
When there was never room to explain
she is Parsi. Zoroastrian. A portraitist
describing food on a plate
the way she carves paint onto canvas.
Her palette is sometimes pastel, and
sometimes oil; a mix of ochre (mustard or rai);
coriander for greens: peas, lime, okra, French beans;
Eggs for any day, any possible way:
her grandmother (and my grandmother)
both believed in butter.
Generations of Julia Child doppelgangers.
Girlhood was for sali, salty potato matchsticks;
sev mamra, rice puff popping,
chocolate ice cream
for Sunday mornings.
Now, on special occasions, or just for love,
hours of building biryani, sifting, sieving daal,
and preparing every roti.
Pomfret if she can find it, lightly fried with salt and pepper.
And on the side, cachumber.
Cachuber? (Here the rare parental disagreement.)
Every birthday garlanded with a carefully burned
white palace of semolina, milk, sugar, petals,
raisins. She calls it rava or ravo, depending.
A small tribe, the Parsis, in a vast civilisation;
in a country swimming in flavour, they make their meals
as moreish as my father's people do. The bedouin
desert tribes still thrum beneath the meat
that hangs off girded steel.
You have to garment your fingers
to really taste your food, and share a single thali
without disturbing the portions.
When I was a boy, he begins, but the memory is too much
for a cold November day in England.
I remember, he tries again, his fingers curling,
savouring mutton as it melts, paya, haleem,
falooda with chiku, thick buffalo cream.
It is May when he speaks, gulmohar season.
In the heat, scarlet tiger claws watch the drip of mango
run down his chin - King Alphonso, the best -
and bursting her stays, sitaphul - Custard Queen of apples.
Quinoa is recommended to the girl
with the wolf
disease: mashed avocado,
maca, kale, apple cider vinegar.
helps to sweeten spinach, chia, goji,
but even as I juice and blend, my heart belongs
somewhere else, with someone else's palate.
In her conservatory, she tends bougainvillea and hibiscus,
coaxing Indus valley plants to befriend their cooler companions.
And up from her kitchen, magic weaves her spell.
Food never tastes as well
as when my mother makes it.
(c) Shaista Tayabali
a dverse poetry prompt