I was sprawled on the sofa on a call, one of those things typifying the covid era. The wife was out, and the child was studying—so she said—for her first final examinations, when the doorbell rang.
She had no option but to get it. With some irritation, she took the two paper bags, distractedly plonked them on the carpet and disappeared. Bags keep floating into our house—books, food and random largesse from friends and family. I continued my call.
Suddenly, our ginger cat appeared and began to sniff the bags. This, too, is normal. The cat is—as cats tend to be—curious and cannot stay away if there is a new person or a new bag in the house. He sniffed carefully and delicately, as he usually does. I saw his eyes widen. His ears swept back, his tail swished, and he jumped into one of the bags. This, too, is normal.
But then he jumped out as quickly. This time he had a plastic bag in his mouth, and fled with it. What on earth, I thought to myself, and chased him, distractedly continuing my call. I found him in the kitchen. He froze when he saw me. Clearly guilty, he dropped the bag and raced away.
Phone glued to my ear, I picked up the bag and understood. I got a whiff of the sea, salt and dried prawns. I raced out again to head off said feline, who was circling the bags again. They contained a bounty of immeasurable value to a Halarnkar.
I grabbed the bags and frantically looked for a place to shove them into until the call was done. I raced from kitchen to bedroom, looking for a cupboard that was large enough. I shoved them among my handkerchiefs and, umm, underwear, safe from the eager creature dogging my footsteps.
Much later, when the wife returned, she was horrified to see the somewhat smelly bags emerge from my clothes cupboard. I remembered that my dear cousin had just returned from the old homeland on the Konkan coast—near my mother’s childhood home in the little town of Murud—and had obviously bought up half the local market.
I removed many packets of dried prawn—among them the prized sodé, the best quality available—and multiple bottles of pickle: dried prawn pickle, dried Bombay duck pickle. For those of you not in the know, the Bombay duck is a soft, gelatinous species of lizardfish. Salted and dried in the sun, it can either be roasted or made quickly with a masala to rescue bleak, meatless days.
The pickle, the sodé—these are comfort food to my family: You may have encountered them in this column.
My mother had received her own supply. At 85, an age when she has discovered Marathi YouTube cooking channels and renewed her experiments with the truth, as it were, she is on the lookout for new ways to transform the same old meals.
Since she no longer cooks herself, she offers her expertise to her cook or to me. So, that weekend, she said she would bring some dried-prawn—or sodyachi—khichidi.
Sodyachi khichidi? Now, khichidi, that soggy melange of rice and vegetable, is regarded as sick-people’s food in my home. I had never heard of this version. Oh, said my mother airily, it’s my mother’s recipe. My grandmother, who passed before I was born, is this enigmatic figure in my mind: creative, irreverent, maybe irascible. I have only my mother’s tales and a few photographs to go by. She always appears to have an amused expression in the photographs, and I can imagine her suddenly presenting sodyachi khichidi to her glum family on a guruvaar—Thursday, our traditional weekly vegetarian day.
The khichidi looked somewhat like the prawn biryani my mother makes, and there were similarities. The big difference, she said, was that instead of coconut milk, she had organised a roasted and ground masala of fried onion and fresh coconut, making a mound of it before pouring it into an ice-cube tray. It could now be stored, and cubes defrosted to add to chicken, mutton, fish or vegetable.
The family vegetarian, my wife, appeared sceptical that a masala so intricately woven into the fabric of strongly flavoured dried fish could be used with bhindi (okra) or beans. But Konkan masalas have a universality to them, providing a base to whatever is thrown atop them.
The khichidi was successful. I used it as a base and created the ultimate Sunday bowl, with beans, salad and some—all right, let me admit it—leftover paneer. It was sacrilege, and it was memorable. The cat suddenly showed up, purring and rubbing himself on my ankles. Clearly, he didn’t smell the sacrilegious bits.
MUMMY’S DRIED-PRAWN KHICHIDI (SODYACHI KHICHIDI)
1 mug of rice, washed and soaked
300g dried prawn, wash and soak in water to remove excess salt
One-third grated coconut
3 onions, thinly sliced
2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
1 tsp chilli powder
Half tsp turmeric powder
Half-inch piece of cinnamon
4 tsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp coriander, washed, dried and chopped
Remove the prawns from water, marinate in chilli powder and turmeric. In a wok, heat 1 tsp of oil, fry one onion until light brown. Add coconut and roast till both are reddish. Grind the onion and coconut with cinnamon, cardamons and cloves to a paste.
In a deep-bottomed vessel, add the remaining oil and fry the remaining onion till pink. Add the rice and coconut-onion paste. Mix for a minute and add ginger-garlic paste. Stir well. Add dried prawns and mix well. Add enough water to cook the rice. Garnish with coriander. Dried fish is heavily salted so check for seasoning.
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
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