Rani, our live-in housekeeper-turned-essential family member came to us when I was eleven years old. Right away, I knew she was different from any of the other household help who had worked for our family. Her gender and upbringing demanded that she be quiet, and subservient. Her dark flashing eyes said otherwise. She refused to give us a straight answer about her past, or her family. All we knew was that she was married off at a very young age to an older, abusive man. Hired as an assistant-of-sorts to our older, bossy housekeeper, we frequently found Rani mumbling under her breath about how she could cook anything better than 'that woman' - that part turned out to be true. She was belligerent, vain about her long, thick braid that fell past her hips, and was usually in trouble with my demanding mother for one thing or another.
Almost thirty eight years later, she still won't tell us how old she is, except that "it's probably no more than forty". Her cooking is legendary within our family and well beyond. Her cold coffee and 'lime juice' (limeade, with salt and pepper added, then blended with ice) is the first thing visitors ask for the minute they walk in the door. She is loving, but quarrelsome. The children in our household had no protector more fierce than her. Rani holds her recipes and tricks of the trade close - she believes them to be the source of her power, and guarantee of her place in the family.
Sunday mornings were for sleeping in. But it was a struggle to stay in bed, because every Sunday morning, we woke up to the aroma of sambhar, and went downstairs to a full South Indian feast that took Rani the better part of two days to prepare. First, the rice and dal had to be soaked, ground, and fermented to make the batter for pillowy idlis and thin, crisp dosas. Then came the various chutneys: coconut, roasted tomato, and peanut. Then of course, the prep for sambhar. And if she was feeling kindly towards me during the mango season, there would be pieces of raw mango in the sambhar - my favorite. Come Sunday morning, Rani stood over the stove for hours, making dosas to order for our family with hearty Punjabi appetites.
Our next guest chef for Spice Route Kitchens comes from the land of my heart - Tamil Nadu, in South India. I hold within me the sounds of ragas being practiced through open doorways, and the smell of salt in the air leading you to the roar of the ocean. Nalli's, with it's five stories of silk, and Pondy Bazaar during Diwali. Corn roasting over a brazier at Marina Beach, then liberally dusted with salt and chili powder, plus a squeeze of lime. Long drives up the coast, and incomparable fish at Fisherman's Cove. Memories too numerous, and too personal to recount. Through it all, Sunday morning idlis, sambhar, dosas and chutneys have been a constant. Thank you for allowing me to share them with you, at least for one week.
Wife, mother, baker, jam maker, hug dispenser, reader.