In their twenties, my parents left the humid greenery of South India for the bushveld beauty of South Africa. My sisters and I were raised there. Every few years, we flew to visit relatives back “home.” Mostly, we felt like fish out of water – the Western cousins who could only manage small talk in the mother tongue. It was food that brought us together. Aunts would exclaim in dismay, “You’re just skin and bones!” and make it their mission to ensure we left the country at least 5kg “healthier.” Our mouths were crammed with fragrant rice pancakes, stewed tapioca and spicy sardines, fresh from the fishmonger’s cart. Then, of course, there were the curries. It turns out, the trauma of watching our grandfather behead a hen in the backyard did not prevent us from digging in heartily at the supper table.
Back in Africa, my mom held the fort with local ingredients, constantly preoccupied with what’s for supper – a circadian process that involved much onion-chopping and endless dishwashing. Needless to say, leaving home meant escaping to the heady independence of convenience-eating. After a good 10 years of carefree “coffee for breakfast, takeaways for lunch and cereal for supper,” I got married. And that to a madly-energetic health nut who could eat more in one sitting than our family of five combined. Panic set in. For the first time, I acknowledged that I needed to know how to cook.
Food has always been linked to identity for me – and making Indian meals was a way to welcome my strapping Afrikaans hubby into my family. In those first few months of marriage, I spent hours on the phone – my mom on speaker, issuing instructions while I ran around the kitchen, slicing furiously and dripping sauces from hot spoons. The first thing she taught me was the quintessential chicken curry. This is like a blueprint – once you perfect it, you can make many curries by tweaking it for your chosen meat. And so I did, and am pleased to report that my hubby has gained a healthy 5kg!