(excerpt from the winter of rice and dal)
I can pinpoint the moment when my dread of cooking abated, when I stopped saying the sentence “When my kids grow up and leave I am never cooking dinner again.” The meal that holds all the pressure– from research that declares it as the most important family time to the most frequently asked question from kids all over,
“What’s for dinner?”
It was when Sirjana was yelling as she entered the kitchen, her backpack thrown to the floor.
“Aaamaa! What’s that smell?”
She was fourteen and lived in Nepal. For one winter, however, she and Jharana (age eleven) lived with us.
They both had just arrived home from school, but Sirjana had gotten to the kitchen first. I was baking something that I hadn’t made in years.The impulse do so had surprised me. It came after weeks of eating Nepali style. Something about the spicy potatoes, the rice and dal that Sirjana had taught me to make, had elicited cravings of my mom’s rice pudding. Strange, because it had never been one of my favorites. The recipe, still in my little wooden box, was fairly faded and hard to read. Luckily I was able to reach my mom early that afternoon to confirm amounts. And ask if the evaporated milk was really necessary? Also, could I try it with risotto? No, and yes she answered, probably wondering why I didn’t remember the details of making this basic dessert. Rice pudding was a common inhabitant in the refrigerator–both at her house and my nana’s across town. I liked it best when it was warm, right out of the oven.
I stirred the rice into the water over low heat until most of it was absorbed and then I added the milk and half cup of sugar, putting it all into the oven to bake by early afternoon. When I leaned in to stir it at two, I was standing on the orange and brown checkered carpet of my childhood kitchen, watching my mom stir it too. It would have been early evening back then. She would have made a little break in the light brown skin with her wooden spoon to stir it from underneath. If it was too thick she would add more milk. A low whistle escaped from her lips as she blew the steam away while she stirred. Pushing the oven rack back in, the bowl of pudding rippling as it retreated, she told me it wasn’t finished yet. I was trying hard to stay awake to have it before bed. As she took it out to cool a little while later, I waited for the signal –the tsp of vanilla -that indicated it was ready to eat. Only then could I get my bowl.
A squeaking bus outside, then a few minutes later, Sirjana in the kitchen, scanning the stove.
“Aaama! What’s that smell?” She demanded again, her breath loud from her attempts to find the source. She opened the oven door and stared inside. Pointing, smelling, searching for the word.
“Kheer” she said.
“Rice pudding” I replied.
“Kheer!, kheer!” She said again.
I couldn’t understand, I asked her for the letters of the word.
“What did you use,?” she asks me.
“Rice, milk and sugar,” I answer as she nods her head in relief, confirming her case that indeed I had made a Nepali favorite, kheer.
But she made it by cooking it on the fire, not in an oven. But really it was just the same. I stood there, taking in her joy, the familial warmth as if for one split second we had both been home- me in my past, she in Nepal. That wave of comfort from a scent- tracking us back in time, a pudding bridge of sorts. I stood there, transfixed, by connection and memory, by the magnetic power of food.