As we walked into the house, we were first greeted by the aroma of freshly sizzled khada masala (whole spices) that got intertwined with the stale smell of medicines, as grandma guided me to her mother's room. I sniffed the ittar that lingered on my clothes to clear the sickness inducing smell of medicines.
My great grandmother lay on a much wider single bed than the standard size, which looked even larger against her fragile, bony structure. The hand woven cotton stuffed thick soft mattress fell slightly off the edges of the bed, while the pillow hard as stone nestled her grey but lush head. I bowed down on the bed, picked up her hand between my two palm and kissed them placing it back on her side. Her hands might have felt like a pile of skin but her greyed eyes tracked my every moment. I took up the chair next to the bed but she immediately in a low murmur asked me to sit on the bed next to her.
"Do you know who I'm?", my great grandmother asked looking into my eyes. A small chuckle went around the room that echoed with boisterous energy from the aunts and children that surround her bed. Perhaps they knew the answer, as did the old lady. I played with the idea of being honest with her, that my being a non-local and only occasionally travelling to the hometown on vacation every few years would be an excuse enough. But the more I looked at her, it ran through like flashes, the younger version of this old lady, which looked a lot like my grandma. "Go kiss her hand, she is your Nani", Ammi would hush me up and say whenever we saw her at social gatherings. I would go up to her and kiss her hand in respect. She never asked if I knew her and politely enquired about how I was. "Ofcourse, Badi Nani Ma I know who you are", I murmured half confidently. She fell into silence for a good few minutes. And we thought the conversation has ceased much to my relief.
"I'm very content, I have everything I wanted and a good life. Now I want to just rest in peace", she said looking up at the fan that hardly rotated. At 17, I didn't quite know what contentment was but she looked contend. She looked ready to meet the earth. We absorbed the silence that her words had created, everyone stood still, including me, which I had never learned before. The silence was broken by the foot steps of her daughter in law, who walked in with a plate of aloo kheema and roti. The potatoes were mashed and the roti mashed to dough consistency with water. The symphonic aroma of spices now over powered every other smell even that of my ittar. "She still likes her food spicy and won't eat khichdi" said the daughter in law complainingly. Khichdi being subtly spiced rice and lentils dish that's often given to patient as it's filling and easier to digest.
My grandma and I pulled her up to a sitting position. As her daughter in law started to feed her with her hands, her face brightened up, savouring each bite slowly in her almost toothless mouth. I thought she'll nibble daintily as someone preparing to meet the earth would, but if there was something she could still look forward too, it was the food. Perhaps, we would have got along quite well had she more time left to live.
Spiced Lamb Mince and Potatoes
Aloo Kheema is a rustic meat and potato dish usually made in most parts of Northern India. Aloo refers to potatoes but kheema is a general term for mince meat of any type, goat meat being the most common. The recipe follows the simple Indian trinity of red onions, garlic and spices. Anything, that's rustic and made on regular basis in Indian homes is made sans a strict recipe, specially when it comes to spices. When we make it at home, I alternative between simply being generous with ground garam masala to sometimes when I feel like, I'll bring out all the whole spices like cinnamon, cardamom - black and green, cloves, bay leaves and star anise. Usually though, I'll opt for a middle route, cinnamon and bay leaf sizzled in ghee and just the right pinch of garam masala.
500g mince lamb/mutton/chicken/beef
400g potatoes, cut into half and then quartered
1 red onion, finely chopped
2 red tomatoes, finely chopped
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 green chilli, or more to taste
1 tbsp garlic paste
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 3-inch Indian cinnamon stick
1 tej patta (Indian bay leaf, not laurel)
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp garam masala
2 tbsp ghee
2 whole cloves
1 pod of green cardamom
2-3 seeds of black cardamom
1 petal of star anise
Heat ghee in heavy bottom sauce pan ( I use a pressure cooker) and add the cumin seeds, tej patta and cinnamon stick. (If using the other spices add them at this point too)
Once the spices sizzle add the onions and cook them until translucent. Tip in the ginger and garlic paste.
Add in the turmeric, red chilly and coriander powder. Once the spices cook out a bit (around a minute), add the mince meat and potatoes. Let them brown a little for around 3-4 minutes.
Finally, add the tomatoes and give it a good mix. Generally I find that two large tomatoes create enough moisture to cook the meat and potatoes in but if you find it particularly dry, add a splash of water to keep things moving.
Cover and cook until the meat is cooked through and potatoes are fork tender. Add the garam masala and cook for another minutes.
Serve with roti, naan or pita bread. Garnish with coriander leaves and lemon wedges.