The rhythmic chanting and the tabla beat, heightened by a heady aroma of jasmine and cardamom, took me back to my summer holidays in Bombay at my grandmother’s home. Stirring in her magic along with sugar, ghee and cream of wheat, Mama would whip up prasad, a soft, warm halvah-type dessert made on auspicious occasions and religious holidays.
Years later, here I was in India, my native land, reminiscing about my maternal grandmother, affectionately known to all as Mama. Family members had gathered here from around the globe (from the U.S. and England to Africa, Southeast Asia and India itself) to celebrate and remember Mama’s birth centenary this winter. And it was a perfect occasion to introduce my American husband not only to the entire clan but also to my country and its customs.
Although she passed on in 1971, Mama’s spirit has remained a big part of our family. In memory of Sardar Tirath Singh Lalvani (my grandfather) and Sardarni Dharamkaur (Mama), the family tree, in the tasteful silver and white invitation, listed 13 children, 23 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. The homage to our matriarch was staged with an elaborate religious ceremony and a three-day feast, which turned out to be a virtual cook’s tour of the subcontinent.
Mama could conjure up just about every Indian regional dish; however, it was her simple yet delicious Sindhi cooking that is most memorable to me. Sindh was a part of northwest India until after the 1947 partition, when it was absorbed into Pakistan. The region was also the seat of an earlier civilization that flourished from 2600 to 1900 BC along the Indus river that flows between India and Pakistan.
When I think of Mama, I think of her signature Sindhi dishes--pomfret fragrant with fresh fenugreek and garlic, chicken dressed in bunches of cilantro and tomatoes, masala bhindi (spicy okra) and sai bhaji (spinach with lentils and vegetables). I recall her traditional Sunday lunch--a large pot of besan (chickpea flour) curry would be set on the stove first thing in the morning. A medley of vegetables would find their way into that pot--lotus root, eggplant, okra, potatoes, green beans and carrots. This curry would be served with cumin-scented basmati rice, yogurt raita and an assortment of kachris (sun-dried vegetables that are deep-fried like pappadums).
On any given Sunday, 15 or 20 people would stop by to share this traditional meal. Mama shared the abundance of her kitchen with everyone--from ambassadors and movie stars to friends and neighbors.
As a kick-off to the three-day ceremony, the family gathered in the hotel suite of Uncle Partap. After a sumptuous dinner that included a few of Mama’s favorite dishes--shrimp masala, chicken korma, paneer bhurji and hot tandoori roti--followed by a round of family photographs, we settled down to share Mama’s food stories.
“Her favorite,” said Aunt Mohini from Punjab, “was mundi and ani” (fish heads and fish roe).
“Rhubarb,” added cousin Ramona from Singapore. “Mama always used rhubarb to add tartness to her curries.”
“Apples for thickening the curries,” said Aunt Padma from London.
And you know her secret for reviving leftovers? I asked. A bunch of fresh spinach--and voila, there was sai bhaji, a staple of every Sindhi meal. The consensus at the end of the evening was this--she cooked with love and loved to feed people.
The three-day affair centered on Akhand Path, a Sikh ceremony where a team of priests, over a 48-hour period, takes turns reading the 1,428-page Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.
The setting was the Qutab Colonnade owned by Aunt Bina and her Canadian husband, Georges. The 100-year old Colonial building, accented with Mughal touches, is adjacent to one of Delhi’s famous monuments, the Qutab Minar (a 12th-century tower of victory erected to signal the advent of Mughal rule in India).
Groves of banana, peepul and ashoka trees mingled with bursts of bougainvillea and embraced the courtyard anchored by a wise old tamarind tree. From it hung long delicate strands of jasmine and roses that gently swayed to the rhythm of the tabla and harmonium. Pedestal fans nestled between potted palms circulated Delhi’s unusually warm November air. Aromas of cumin, cloves and cinnamon wafting from the makeshift kitchen brought back memories of Mama--the matriarch whose strength was much like the solid tamarind tree, her love like the canopy of branches sheltering the family below.
Although Mama was fond of lamb, chicken and seafood, the family opted for a complete vegetarian menu more in keeping with the religious ceremony. During the first two days, the lunch and dinner menu consisted of simple dishes like bhindi aloo (okra with potatoes), spicy karela (bitter gourd), gobi-anardhana (cauliflower with pomegranate seeds), sprouted lentil salad.
Also included were a couple of regional dishes--the typically southern idli (steamed rice dumplings) and sambhar (spicy lentils) and, from the Punjab, sarson ka saag (creamed mustard greens) and makki ki roti (flat corn bread), served with butter and jaggery.
The vegetarian meal was washed down with nonalcoholic drinks such as coconut water, zeera pani (spicy cumin water) and fresh juices--carrot and mausami (yellow-tinged orange). Cinnamon and cardamom-scented chai accompanied a dessert of gulab jamun and chunks of fresh papaya and pineapple.
Glass and gold bangles jangled, anklets jingled. Cousins and aunts looked serenely beautiful in shimmering saris and elegant tunics, their silk scarves gently billowing as they bowed at the altar for the final Sunday ceremony. Uncles looked gallant in their silk kurtas (knee-length shirts), handsomely embroidered vests and starched turbans. The eternal flame cocooned inside a lantern illuminated the portrait of my grandparents that sat regally near the holy book, swathed in vibrant silks.
Behind this serene exterior, there was a flurry of activity. In a tent, an army of cooks was busy--firing the tandoor, immersing pooris in hot oil to puff, drizzling yogurt dip on discs of fried eggplant and lacing strands of saffron on rice pilaf. A large tava (griddle), cradled rows of assorted bharvan (stuffed vegetables)--baby bitter gourds nestled against bell peppers, okra and eggplant, plump with a nutty mixture of cashews and paneer. A shiny brass pot was filled with silky saag. Another held cubed potatoes studded with cumin seeds.
Since Mama was a global grandma (she resided in London the last 20 years of her life and traveled frequently between Europe and India), we decided to include regional and international dishes in the elaborate Sunday buffet. There were Hyderabadi vegetarian biryani and mirchi ka salan (fiery hot green pepper curry), vegetarian Thai curry served with glass noodles and, from the south, lemon rice and avial (vegetables in coconut sauce).
As guests mingled, some bidding their traditional long Indian goodbyes, I made my getaway up to the Colonnade’s terrace and took in the vast sprawling city, its tombs and pillars randomly scattered around the majestic Qutab Minar. In my moment of quiet, I remembered Mama.