This past month was witness to the 12-year-old’s first serious final examination. That meant discussions—sometimes cantankerous, sometimes fruitful—on plate tectonics and valency, continental drift and R.K. Laxman, metaphors and the human excretory system, a particular favourite.
I pride myself on a reasonable knowledge of geography, which, along with English literature, is my responsibility—all else is assigned to the wife, who, let it be said, is smarter than me. But while we breezed through the capitals and states of India, faltering only with the capital of Andhra Pradesh (Amaravati or Visakhapatnam?), Europe foxed me. I thought I knew enough about the Baltics and the Balkans but the latter had clearly split into too many countries and capitals for a seventh-grader to master. Croatia was all right, so was Serbia, even Bosnia and Herzegovina, but her eyes glazed over the Republic of North Macedonia (capital: Skopje) and great mirth ensued in trying to pronounce Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.
“As long as you can identify the Urals and the Caspian Sea and identify the Low Countries, I am happy,” I said. That she could.
But her attention started wandering and all talk of the exosphere and Europe suddenly stopped. I knew it was coming: the sentence we had grown to dread.
“I am hungry.”
How much could a preteen who has discarded all physical activity to—ostensibly—study, eat? Apparently, a lot: Breakfast began like normal school days at 6.30am, secondary breakfast at 7.30, fruit at 8.30, demands for a croissant or “something nice” by 10 am and so on and on and on through the day.
At least on regular school days, this constant demand to be fed begins only after she returns at 3.30pm. During exam time, there was no respite. So, in between our own work, we had to keep up a steady supply of food. If we complained of not being able to focus on our own work or of running out of ideas on what to feed her, there were muttered threats of exam disasters.
“Don’t you want me to do well? Then, I need food.”
So, fries were made (in the air fryer), dosas were produced, hot chocolate was poured out, chicken lollipops were marinated, Zomato was commandeered, pork roasted, endless plates of oranges, a particular favourite, were offered—you get the picture. All our sinews and synapses were exercised in the great exam-time food procurement programme, made difficult by the summary rejections of many normal favourites, such as cheese toasties and stuffed omelettes.
Yet, after exams, the conversation went along these lines:
“How did you do?”
“Oh, quite well, I will pass for sure.”
“Hehe, I should get 45% to 55%.”
Even for a somewhat laconic and understated child, this was dangerous territory to enter with her mother, a scholastic achiever and sprinter to boot. I, on the other hand, was a perennial underachiever, who barely scraped through school, so anything around 60% would do.
But 50% in geography and English literature was, even by my low standards, unacceptable. There was no choice but to give in to culinary blackmail.
One day last week, she declared that she would spend a between-papers study break at her grandmother’s. I had to go the airport to pick up my aunt and uncle from Goa and the wife had a deadline, so we were relieved. Plus, as the days wore on, and her grasp of subjects grew, her flip attitude to exams appeared to change. By now, she wanted to do well.
Knowing that we were anxious to ensure this admirable aim, she knew there was scope to demand more. She was told that ajji had made kheema—not a favourite of hers—for my aunt and uncle. “I’ll find something to eat,” she said airily, knowing my mother would probably hand over her phone for a quick dim-sum order.
My aunt and uncle swept in, like everyone in my family, bearing gifts of food. They brought poi, a rustic Goan bread, and a big box of mildly spiced tisriya, or clams, a great family favourite. I was astonished to see that Zomato had received no new business. Instead, the child had kheema and was waiting for the poi, which she loves.
She interrupted a particularly spirited effort to trace the genesis of Gondwana to rush over for the poi. She turned her nose up, as I expected, at the tisriya. For a Halarnkar, she has a distressing distaste for shellfish.
But since there was little on offer from my distracted mother, she hovered over me as I waded into the tisriya with the poi. Want to try some, I asked, feigning disinterest. Sure, she said casually. She took a bite, silently walked into the kitchen, heated a bowl of tisriya and soon matched me, clam for clam.
I was so delighted that I ignored the fact that she had forgotten the count of Dobson units of ozone in the stratosphere. What persuasion of years could not do, exam hunger had done. The next morning, she helped herself to tisriya with fried eggs and the last poi for breakfast. Who cared about marks? Her appreciation of molluscs was far more satisfying than her grasp of the fate of chlorofluorocarbons.
Aru Atya’s tisriya
1kg fresh clams (open and wash, there is often sand inside). Discard open clams
Half grated coconut
Half tsp turmeric
Half tsp red chilli powder
3 tsp coriander powder
2 medium onions, chopped fine
2 tbsp oil
2 tbsp fresh coriander
Salt to taste
Grind the coconut coarsely with turmeric, chilli and coriander powders. Heat the oil gently, fry the onions till translucent. Then add the coconut and spices and sauté for three minutes. Add clams. Add water depending on whether you want it dry or with some curry. Cook for about half an hour on low heat. When it is almost cooked, add salt and mix. Garnish with fresh coriander and serve.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11 on Twitter.