Can you imagine scent? I do. Not the type of smells that smother you with a cloying commercial sweetness the moment you step into The Bay at Oakridge, but the everyday smells of black mustard in hot oil and coconut ground with tamarind and ginger.
It was the only way I could be in India — thirteen and a half hours behind — sitting still on my bed with my eyes closed, and memory’s nose sniffing out those matchless smells of my childhood, filling my cold basement suite in Vancouver with warmth, uncontainable warmth.
The yoga of yearning.
Imagining scent sustained me for those first lonely years in Canada. While my teeth chewed over-warmed pizza from a local dive on Dunbar, my memory never failed to sprinkle idli podi all over the pepperoni. I don’t have to do that anymore.
Seventeen years later, in my three-bedroom Douglas Park home, I make all the craved podis from scratch. But the imagined scents are always more pungent, infinitely sharper on the tongue than the real thing.
The 7:30 bus into UBC. As usual, it is jammed with backpacks and sitting-standing testimonials to Canada’s multicultural mosaic.
All the way to the back, please. Thank you! A polite nudge and I shuffle in small steps, sorry Chinese girl with earphones, very sorry, professor-type in brown corduroy all the way to the empty seat in the long row at the rear.
Every street evokes a scent: Alma is Arisi Puttu. Crown is Kothamalli Chutney. Sasamat is Sambar Vengayam. Tolmie is Thengai Sadham. I close my eyes and let the scents wash over me.
There is Ma at the aruvaamanai a ten-inch wooden strip with a sharp blade curved like a swan’s head nailed to its edge. It looks like a bird with a fanned beak breaking into six short gleaming tongues. Ma squats, and her toes grip the edge of the strip. Her hand holds half a coconut. She turns the flesh on the pointy tongues. Half a circle this way, a full circle that way, and a gentle rain of white flakes fills the bowl below the blade. I see her pull out the iron frying pan and place it on the gas burner. She drizzles oil, and swirls it around the pan to coat it evenly. The oil turns blue at boiling point and she teases it briefly with a pinch of pernugaayam. Black mustard seeds, brown fenugreek seeds, grey cumin seeds and creamy urad dal stipple and burst all around the pan as her hand reaches for a sprig of curry leaves. She pulls them with one sure tug from the stalk and drops them into the pan like pennants to her kitchen god. She pours the oil over the grated coconut and empties the bowl quickly ontothe cooked rice. She fluffs the rice with a flat, wooden spatula and fills her lungs with the aroma. The bus stops at Blanca. Outside, the air is cold, and feet crunch the gold of fall. Inside me, it is still the season of fresh, green curry leaves.
Somebody is talking about cowboys and horses. They sit behind me at the Subway cafeteria, but I can’t see their face. It is lunchtime at the university, and the classes have ejected hungry beasts wearing baseball caps, cargo pants and parkas.
“Like it was the first time I’d done it, kinda late for a guy from Alberta.” He stops. I still can’t see his face, but I can hear the excitement in his voice. The stir-fry on my plate does not stir me anymore.
“It was awesome! My first rodeo! Lasso-ho-ho!”
Lass, Lasso, Lassi. A long, slender mattai churns freshly set curds. I give into the rhythm. It is the sound of air trapped and released – swoosh and silence – in an earthen pot. The unmistakable music of a south-Indian summer.
Urdu speakers in a Tamil land, we had our own recipes for creamed milk curds, and my mother had her own special signatures for every dish. What was known as moru in Tamil was lassi to us. And our lassi was the talk of the neighbourhood.
Ma would take the pot of set curds and pour them into the earthen pot. She would then churn it for an hour with a wooden whisk, a mattai, until the cream rose to the top of the pot’s mouth, frothy with bubbles crowding at the brim. This was a common ritual in every house down the lane, but my mother had a few Muslim touches the others in the neighbourhood didn’t. Her next move would reveal her special trade secret. From the almirah in the bedroom she would fetch a flat, round plastic box filled with deep red threads. This was the saffron her cousin had brought back for us from her trip to Tehran. Back in the kitchen, she would soak a few threads just as precious as gold to her in four tablespoons of warmed milk. In an hour, the milk would turn ochre. Once this was done, she would strain the saffron milk into the pot, and churn it again for fifteen minutes. With a ladle, she would fill five tall glasses with the lassi and immediately place them in the refrigerator to chill. After lunch had been served and eaten, she would quickly crush pistachios and green cardamom seeds in her marble mortar. She would add rock sugar to the mixture and pound it again. The chilled glasses of lassi would re-emerge from the refrigerator. She would garnish the glass tops with the pounded nuts, seeds and sugar. With a sundae spoon she would give the glasses a quick stir and serve her extraordinary lassi to her family. While we hurriedly gulped down the creamy dessert, she would sit at the table and drain her glass slowly, relishing the contentment on all our faces.
Star Anise Nights
My basement suite was all basement and very little suite. But it had a front entrance. The moment you turned the knob and pushed the door, you were face to face with the stove. The kitchen had no air vent. Around the corner, which was only half a meter in distance, there was the shower-stall, and beyond that another generous half meter was my bedroom, study, living-room, dining room. Four-in-one within four-by-eight.
Still, it was my home, and when I got back from school in the evenings, I would leave the front door open and begin my cooking. The neighbour next door was a seamstress. She lived on the main floor and operated her workshop from her basement. F. was a round and cheerful Greek woman who smiled a lot but said very little. If she found the smells from my front-entrance kitchen to be strange or revolting, she had the good grace to keep it to herself.
Those first few years I had no clue what I was doing, but I followed my mother’s recipes handwritten in Hindi and mailed in fat envelopes from India as though I were reading the Qur’an. I measured ground coriander and garam masala strictly and fastidiously, and every time I added spices to the pot or pan, I would pray that it all tasted at least half like Ma’s curries. While I sautéed and caramelized onions and garlic, older couples from the neighbourhood on their evening walks would stop for a few seconds across from the lawn, and their dogs would come dashing to the front door, their nostrils flared by the pepper in the air. Sometimes F.’s clients, all fashionable women in fancy, convertible cars, would pull up in the evening to pick up their altered Chanel and Valentino suits.
From my sunken kitchen window, I would see their panty-hosed calves and hear their high-heeled shoes as they clackety-clacked to F.’s workshop at the back of the house. As they returned to their cars with their gowns shrouded in transparent plastic, a few of them would poke their heads this way into my kitchen and say, “That smells real nice.”
One evening, I remember this distinctly, I was cooking Madras Beef. This dish, a specialty of the city from which it gets its name, is renowned for its tangy and fiery sauce. The aromas – dizzy-making heady.
“It always smells divine around here!”
She was thirty-something and wearing a pale beige business suit. She was smiling, and the street lamp gave her hair a platinum glow. I immediately did the Indian thing.
“Want a taste?”
“Is it like really hot?” She had not expected me to offer.
“Only one way to find out.”
I reached for the saucer on the cabinet and with a fork I picked a piece of beef from the simmering sauce. She brought her nose to the saucer like a cat confirming the water was indeed fresh. The steam gave her nose a red tinge. I opened the refrigerator and poured a glass of cold water from the Brita jug. Just in case.
“I’ll say a little prayer,” I said.
She picked up the fork, and the cube of beef disappeared into her mouth. Her blue pupils widened and stayed wide for a few seconds.
“Hot!” She said. “I mean, like really, really fucking delicious!” She drank the water I handed her.
“Can I have another piece?”
This time she chewed the meat slowly.
“What’s that spice?”
“There are many.”
“It’s like minty, but not mint.” I thought I knew what she was referring to. Kaala Jeera.
“No, I know cumin.”
She chewed again. I quickly ran a mental list of all the spices I had added to the pot. Cloves were not minty. Not the black pepper. Then I got it.
“Any idea? A bit like the spike in mouthwash?” She put the saucer on the counter.“Star anise!” I exclaimed.
“Yes! That’s it. It reminds me of Ouzo. Thanks for the bites! I am going to have star anise dreams tonight!”She turned and walked across the lawn to her car.
I stood at the door and watched her sling-backs, black and slick, in the cold Vancouver night.
Ameen Merchant is the author of “The Silent Raga.” He is currently finishing his second novel. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Canada. A version of this essay was published in Apples Under The Bed: Recollections and Recipes from B.C.Writers and Artists, ed. Joan Coldwell, Hedgerow Press, Canada 2008.