A History of Spices

Red Claw Press

Assuming that pots, knives, chopping boards, blenders and a functional stove are readily available, this is an experimental recipe for tomato soup. My mother used to say that one’s history informs the outcome of one’s hands. The kitchen I work in is gray and old but heavy with the memory of epic dinner parties, light breezy snacks and Indian gourmet. The surfaces of things are stained with the matriarch whose tremendous hands have have touched everything. The spices lined up in the fridge not unlike unquestioning school children who once rolled over the texture of her old lined palms, rubbed between her fingers, colouring the tips a dark brown and sticking stubbornly between the creased valleys of her hands. Cinnamon stands upright in a jar once filled with marmalade; aadrak she keeps in a wide yellow container next to skinned garlic; badi elaichi is special and precise, used always for a specific purpose and never as substitute (but I admit I didn’t always know what badi elaichi was – I stayed out of the kitchen as a child in an attempt to refuse the heritage of my gender, a heritage my mother so gracefully accepted in her own youth – yet I could almost always detect it when it was used in lentils and rice because its strong smoky flavour is unmistakable). The curry essential, garam masala, literally translated as hot spice, sits in a Nutella jar next to tumeric (I do not know any recipe this spice compliments except one that reflects the vanity of the maker – raw eggs and homemade yogurt mixed with tumeric, I have found, will result in thick yellow-orange raw-smelling paste which is then smeared carefully across the surface of skin to keep it glowing and fair), next to which is cumin or jeera, which is Mother’s favourite although in all these years, she has never admitted why that is so even while making no efforts to conceal its supposed superiority whilst reciting recipes over the telephone to various nameless aunties.

I know little of spices, even less of their uses, but I do know this – nine months after The Pisces was conceived, after seven years of trying, like a slippery, evading eel she was determinedly stuck inside the womb. It was a premature sign of her rejection of this world, reflecting only her later disapproval of everything she saw; Mother panicked and worried for what was to be her firstborn – there were previous complications and she had finally kicked the dry spell after many years of marriage. This was the sure-fire baby-expelling remedy – a boiled pot of cumin tea that she forced herself to drink and two hours later squeezed the baby out. I first heard this story in ’98 at which point the Pisces was eighteen and heavily made-up with gray liquid eyeshadow, maroon lipstick, torn jeans and old t-shirts. Mother’s youngest sister told me, we called her Dutch Masi. I got to thinking for a long time that my sister was distraught with the world in her early years up all the way to puberty because she was made to come out when she was not yet ready. Perhaps that was why she never liked being in photographs, those sticky reminders of the past (or maybe her aversion to photographs had to do with a bad break of acne which lasted for most of her teenage life). Perhaps that was why she wore awkward clothes, had gorgeous, outgoing friends, and never failed to make me look stupid whenever she found an opportunity. In her warm, wet cocoon of comfort, perhaps, in her baby hands, she was still holding on to the place from which she came; it could have been the last strands of a previous life or a paradise of souls waiting for bodies or maybe she was in the final stages of conversation with God, a conversation that was reaching resolution; it would, she thought, provide her with all the information and tools necessary for the Great Adventure of Life so that she could breeze through it familiarly, never get stuck for too long (unlike the rest of us); alas! it was a conversation interrupted all because of jeera.

Lastly, there is no kesar in the fridge but this is hardly surprising because while saffron was used traditionally in Persia as a curative for bouts of melancholy, Indians feared it as an aphrodisiac; they exploit the spice but once – on the nuptial night, a veiled bride presents affron milk to her husband; he drinks the potion and slowly, tenderly, unhooks the clasp of her blouse and lifts up the veil while the camera focus dims and the audience groans inwardly. But assuming your kitchen is a fully equipped one and assuming it is not as laden with history and prone to inducing long bouts of musings as mine is, I finally have a recipe for you:

In a pot, put some water to boil. Add semi-cooked potatoes and carrots. Throw the sliced tomatoes and yogurt into a blender. Blend. When the water level the pot is halved, add the blended tomatoes and stir. Lower fire. Simmer for twenty minutes. Throw in some cream butter, Italian spices, pepper. Add salt according to taste. Switch off the fire and serve warm with toast bread.

Published by Red Claw Press in an anthology, Crave It: Writers and Artists Do Food


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