Sunday, May 8th, marks a special day in the calendar for Mother’s the world over. Although not every country observes Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May (e.g., Luxembourg celebrates on the 2nd Sunday in June), I hope this “ode” to my mother will inspire you to consider the “mothers” in your own lives. Time alone doesn’t make us who we are…it requires people who speak into our lives and drive us forward. And my Mummy was such a person.
Hindsight affords us such a privileged vantage point. Looking back on life, and I can now express sincere gratitude for being pushed into the kitchen. The place where my real relationship with my mother began to flourish.
Into The Kitchen
I received my marching orders from my dad, “Go in the kitchen to help your mummy and learn to cook!” I was barely fifteen and vexed with the notion of having to spend my Saturday morning in a warm kitchen, deprived of my first summer vacation day. Envious of my siblings who could go out and play or watch television at will.
I must have worn a frown on my face as I obediently picked up my notebook and pen and stepped into the kitchen. My mum must have noticed my frown, she said “come back when you are ready”. I was mystified, contemplating what to do next, as I stood outside the kitchen.
A few minutes later, my mother popped her head and asked me if I had tied up my hair yet? Ok, got it. I was relieved, if there had been a frown, it had not been noticed. Next, she petitioned me to wash my hands and watch her, prompting me to put away my notebook and pen. “You need to merely observe and taste.”
Thus began the first of day of the next five weeks of my summer holiday.
A pinch of this and a dash of that, a drizzle, a drop, a swish of this and a smidgen of that. Wash the produce, dice the aromatics, peel the onions, sieve the spices, handpick stones, husk, and other impurities from the basmati rice…thank goodness we get clean rice now! Debone the fish, filet the chicken, fry the pakoras, roll the chapatis, boil the potatoes, steam the lentils, and so on.
It wasn’t easy initially, but I finally caught on, understanding the why, what, and how of prepping and cooking. My smiles widened, so did my mum’s. I knew she was proud of me as we served the meals together at the table and she would complement me to my dad on my daily accomplishments. Soon there was a camaraderie between us, especially when I started going to the farmers markets with her and conversing in Cantonese with the vendors for choice produce.
I dare say I first received my training as an apprentice in my mother’s school of hard knocks. I was “promoted” to Plongeur (kitchen porter), Garde Manger (cold foods), Commis (assistant cook), Saucier (sauce maker and sauté cook), Poisonnier (fish cook), Chef de Partie (senior chef), Pâtissier (pastry cook), Sous-chef de cuisine (deputy/second chef, under Chef de Cuisine (Chief of Kitchen), which, of course, was the title that belonged to my Mummy!
My Mum’s Garam Masala
The most treasured recipe presented to me by my mum was the Sindhi Garam Masala which had been passed down to her by my grandmother.
Overall, there are around twenty five different spices in Indian cooking. Some of the milder ones, with the inclusion of fresh curry leaves are utilized for the daily production of vegetables, fish, and legumes. As far as assembling meat dishes, some of the more smoky and pungent spices are typically added to these. There is also a variety of mustard and onion seeds for pickling. The sweet milky desserts and teas are laced with the fragrant green cardamoms, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace, not to mention the costly saffron.
Mummy’s Sindhi Garam Masala is comprised of cumin, carraway, coriander and fennel seeds, green cardamom inclusive of the pod and seeds, black cardamom, black peppercorns, cloves, and cinnamon sticks. She taught me how to clean and sieve these, roast them gently in a skillet over low heat, mindful to constantly stir them so they don’t burn.
In a few minutes they would release an incredible sweet and pungent aroma, which told me they were done. After setting them aside to cool, I would be ready to pound them in a heavy mortar and pestle. This was an incredible arm workout not to mention the deafening sound of the pounding in a brass mortar and pestle!
Lust for Life
Mummy had a lust for life, she loved travelling, seeing the world, coming back home with great stories to share. She had an abundance of friends and was active in the social circle in Hong Kong. Having left her family in India, she took it upon herself to welcome and be a part of dad’s vast family.
Even though it meant having to host many events in her home, she received them all with generous hospitality and sincere cheer. It was at these occasions that she would have me prepare a new dish so she could present them to her guests with great honor.
My mother was trendy, fashionable, loved music and the cinema. She participated in serving meals for charitable programs, visiting schools and orphanages, and handing out fruit and drinks to all the children there. She wanted us to be a part of everything she did. Her desire was for her children to experience all things that she was passionate about.
A Noble Woman
She wanted me to study design, cut patterns, sew, be creative, when I was eventually skilled in this, she was proud to have me make a few pieces for her sisters-in-law. She aspired for me to master Sindhi, to be able to read and write. My classes took priority on Saturday afternoons. When I became proficient, she dictated my first letter addressed to my grandmother.
As for baking classes, she reached out to one of her friends to teach me. When I was accomplished to a certain extent, she would have me bake a variety of goodies for her friends’ children. She arranged for me to discover classic Chinese cuisine from our housekeeper, the art of dumpling making soon turned into a cooking session for her social groups. She consented to my learning Indian dancing and performing at cultural events.
She was convinced that a visit to my grandmother in India would be beneficial for me when I was barely twelve. She was right, it was, as I not only got first- hand tutoring in making papadums and pickles, but simultaneously received the blessing of legacy, that gave me a start to my career in hospitality in my later years.
The Bible describes a woman of honor as someone who ”watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness”. She was a noble woman who wore many hats.
The qualities that are constant in my memory of her was my mum’s bravery and fortitude. She continued life as a beautiful young widow after some years of caring for my dad. She did not cling on to the past with bitterness or resentment, but instead moved forward with her head held high. Her children were most precious to her, and she spend her years with all of us. She endowed each one of us generously and equally with her time, talent, nurturing, and love.
Mummy came to visit me in California on her milestone birthday, as we sat around the table to partake of our meal, she had no sooner tasted a couple of morsels, when she looked up at me and said, “You are a much better cook than I ever was”… a few months after that, I was positioned as Executive Chef in Healthcare.
Mummy, you braced me when I was in my lowest point, lifted me up and praised me when I was frail. You cared for me and wiped my tears even when I felt unworthy. You used all your resources to fight for my precious ones even as I failed to see the possibility.
Your inexhaustible love, our Saturday (iron sharpens iron) long distance calls, your pearls of wisdom are all gifts from above.
My pillar of strength, my mentor and friend, you loved me till the very end. The memory of your beauty is imbedded in me, forever this shall be.
I didn’t realize this then, but now I know, that everything I am today, is because you showed me the way.
Happy Mother’s Day!