The rewards of taking my mother for granted
- How do you deal with a fussy son, a demand for meat and vegetable in the same entrée?
- You mix and match, use tradition and innovation—and your son better understand he got lucky
I like the fact that I can take my mother for granted. I can argue with, lecture or get irritated at her, and she will—basically—act like nothing happened and get on with life. Perhaps it’s her way of coping with her sometimes crotchety son and daughter-in-law. Whatever the reason, she gets back to normal quickly.
Her normal involves some amount of fussing: You’re sniffling, do you have a fever; you’re looking tired, are you okay; do you have enough food at home; when/how are you going to Mumbai; I am sending fish.
I also like the fact that she cares this much even though she lives down the road—to which there are disadvantages and advantages.
The disadvantages are the fussing I mentioned. She wasn’t so fussy when I was younger because she did not have the time as an able and successful physiotherapist. When she retired—too early, we believe—her focus shifted to the home and everyone in it. My father retired, after commanding a paramilitary force the size of many armies, just before her, and he tried to turn his attention to her kitchen. It has been more than a quarter-century since he hung up his boots and returned his service revolver, but neither ill-health nor culinary ignorance deters his interference. So, she must stand firm.
In many ways, she is the lodestar of two households—running one and keeping a benevolent eye over the other, all the while keeping her considerable health problems, aches and pains out of general conversation. She isn’t as strong, steady and calm as she used to be, but her ability to multitask and organize is as strong as ever.
The advantages of having her close are easy: Mummy, can you order 1kg tarle (mackerel); I am coming for lunch; can you have some dahi kadi made; what was the recipe for the methi fish you made yesterday?
Today’s column is about the same methi fish—fish lapped in fresh fenugreek—but it would be unfair to talk about it without explaining the all-important backdrop, which, of course, is mummy.
As readers of my ramblings will recall, she set me and my brother on the path to self-reliance at home, getting us to chop, clean and care about the house. She may have forgotten that she imparted some of these householder lessons, but my wife—as she often tells people—is substantially grateful, even attributing to her mother-in-law things that I learnt on my own.
I lunch with my parents about three-four times a week, and, since I take my mother for granted, I provide uninvited feedback about what has been served. I must clarify here that my mother does not take me for granted. If she wants help—have something cooked on days she has no help or even to drag a chair over—she is unlikely to ask. My father is not very different.
I offer the uninvited feedback gratuitously at lunchtime. The baked fish is too dry; there’s no salad here; why is this fried; why is there no vegetable. The last point bears explanation. I am no fan of vegetables, but I eat them for health reasons, especially greens. I prefer soppu (spinach) and struggle with methi, which I find bitter and without any edifying features whatsoever.
My mother knows my reluctant embrace of greens, and since she is concerned about my well-being, she constantly tries to offer them to me in palatable fashion. The result is a happy marriage of her traditions and innovative spirit. So, I get methi with besan (gram flour) and dried shrimp, chicken soppu or one of my favourites, methi fish. Such combinations work for me because it doesn’t leave me with the eternal dilemma: which to eat, the vegetable or the meat.
If I have meat and vegetable on my plate, I try to alternate bites, but then I feel I don’t enjoy the meat because the vegetable intrudes. If I eat the vegetable first, I find I have consumed half the chapatis and still not started on the main course.
Life is tough.
When she first made the methi and fish, I was appalled and probably said so. But she persevered, tweaked and changed until one day I found this was not bad, not bad at all. Now, I look forward to the methi fish because it is a one-pot creation that solves those what-to-eat-first dilemmas.
It all happened, let me emphasize, because I take my mother for granted, and she does not. You should try it—actually, don’t, because not every mother is likely to be this way. I guess I just got lucky.
Fish with fresh methi
1 kg fish, cubed (I used surmai or kingfish)
1 bunch small-leaf methi (fenugreek), washed and squeezed to remove bitterness
1-inch fresh ginger, slivered
10 large garlic pods, smashed
4 green chillies, whole and sliced lengthwise (you can leave this out if you prefer mild food)
K tsp turmeric
1 tsp chilli powder
1-2 tsp oil
Salt to taste
Marinate the fish with turmeric and chilli powder for an hour. Then mix all the other ingredients with the fish.
In a non-stick wok, heat 1-2 tsp of oil. Add the fish and all the ingredients. Cover and cook on slow flame for about 20 minutes. Gently shake a couple of times if needed.
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.