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Sydney, Australia
My musings and meanderings on childhood - mine juxtaposed with that of my kids'. Everyday incidents and images from our life in Sydney turn my thoughts towards my own wonder years growing up in Bandra, Bombay, India.

30 June 2013

Dirty Linen and the Dhobi

I think we ought to build ourselves an ark, Noah-style. It's been raining cats and dogs (yes, they're allowed on the ark) for the past nine days in Sydney. Not Bombay-style "thunderbolts and lightning; very, very frightening" type of monsoonal rain (I wrote all about that here) but incessant rain that vacillates from downpour to drizzle, and drizzle to downpour with no silver lining in sight.

Which brings me to the awful truth that our house resembles a dhobi ghat. Everywhere I look, I see socks/singlets/sweaters hanging out forlornly to dry.

Remember those days before we had washing machines and dryers?
Back in the Bombay of my childhood, we had a maid who came to do the "top-work" i.e. sweeping and swabbing the floor and washing our clothes. But big bulky items like bedsheets, towels and blankets were reserved for the dhobi (washerman).

After our beds were stripped each week, mum and my aunt would shove the linen into the Dirty Clothes Box (DCB). This DCB came as standard in all Bombay homes. Ours was a tall wooden rectangular one with a small door at the bottom and slats on the side. The slats allowed us to literally 'air our dirty linen' without them turning musty. Inexplicably, the altar with the Cross, holy water and statues of various saints rested directly above it.

My cousins and I thought the DCB made the perfect hidey-hole for pint-sized people like us when a game of 'Hide and Seek' was in progress. The wooden slats allowed you a glimpse outside as the Seeker looked all around for us Hiders. And if you got the giggles, they were muffled by layers of bed sheets and towels.

Getting back to the dhobi: Every Saturday, our dhobi would turn up for the weekly give-and-take; he would give us the previous week's linen all freshly laundered and ironed and take this week's batch.

Like most families, we kept a tally of the INs and OUTs in an old notebook -
an olden-day Excel spreadsheet if you will. Invariably, one item would be MIA.
The following conversation would ensue, with Nana speaking in her version of "Hindoostani" and the dhobi in his shudd Hindi:

"Where's the yellow pillowcase set with the purple embroidered flowers?" my Nana would ask the dhobi.
"Memsahib, I returned them last week," he would hesitatingly offer.
"No, I haven't checked them off in my book. Make sure you get them next week."

The laundry bundled up in a big bedspread, the dhobi would then secure this onto his bhaiya bicycle carrier, and set off to the neighbours' houses. Then to Carter Road or Bandstand where the linen would get a wash and  wallop on the craggy rocks before they were wrung and spread out to dry there.

Next week, same time, same story.
Week after week, year after year...
...until my Uncle C went and bought a twin-tub washing machine.
Then, the dhobi's days were numbered.

So tell me, who does the laundry in your house? Do you separate your whites/brights/darks/linen? Or have a specific method of hanging out the washing?  Do special items go to the laundry? And, in your opinion, what's the best way to spend rainy day?

27 June 2013

En Mass(e)

By God, church ain't what it used to be. Today, kids are allowed to colour in their books, chomp down snacks and – gasp – talk(!!) while the priest preaches from the pulpit.

Thirty-odd years ago, things were a hol(y) lot different.
For one, going to the Saturday evening service would not suffice in my dad's (holy) book; he insisted that the best way to start a Sunday was by attending morning Mass.

So our Sundays started bright and early – no sleep-ins and definitely no breakfast; we were expected to abstain from food for at least an hour before mass.

First things first: dressing in our Sunday best. No jeans or sneakers in the house of the Lord.
Those were the days of petticoats (trimmed with lace) and puff sleeves. Of frocks stitched by over-zealous mums who dressed their dolly-girls in frothy frills and lavender lace.

A sweltering 35-degree day meant for nought; the girls were made to wear said dress, that too, with said petticoat under it. The boys suffered in silence, tugging at their stiffly starched shirt collars below their altar-boy vestments.

Mummy powder puffed your face with Yardley talcum powder (gifted by an uncle working in the Gulf) and slicked back your brother's puff with Parachute coconut oil. Then, with two clicks of your Mary Janes (polished by dad the previous night), you were good to go.

We always got to church with ten minutes to spare. So while mum and dad knelt on the wooden pews, my brother and I watched the spectacle unfold before us.

I would spy the usual suspects, er, churchgoers. "Her Sunday is longer than her Monday," I would half-giggle, half-whisper to my brother, while mum shushed us. If you're saying, "Sunday what the..?", it simply means her petticoat was longer than her dress. Don't ask!

One by one, the 'church aunties' would make a solemn entrance, first “crossing” themselves with Holy Water. Tucked within their ample bosoms was the money for their Sunday Collection, tied up in a floral handkerchief. They would genuflect at a particular pew where they sat each and every Sunday. God forbid, you unwittingly took their seat.

The vaulted church ceilings meant that the fans above were for appearances only. So dad tried to sit us next to a widow (black veil in place) who invariably carried a pretty hand-held fan. You prayed that some breeze would miraculously blow your way and stop the trickle of sweat in its tracks.

We watched and tried to keep up as the congregation rose, sat and knelt through the Mass. (During mum and dad's time, the Mass was said in Latin.) No fussing or fidgeting, no giggling or gesticulating, and definitely no talking during that hour of Mass. If the Mass was a ‘High Mass’, my brother and I would be rewarded for our good behaviour with a Ravalgaon hard-boiled sweet from dad.

The readings always filled us with awe: about Eve being created from one of Adam's ribs; about pestilent plagues and prodigal sons, about parting seas and walking on water, about Jesus and His many miracles; about loss and love, about forgiveness and faith.

After the final hymn was sung and the congregation had dispersed, we would badger the parish sacristan for some unblessed hosts as we were too young to receive Holy Communion. And once in a while, our prayers would be answered when mum and dad would say, "Let's go to Hindu Hotel (a tiny Udipi cafe on Hill Road, alas, not in existence anymore) for sheera and medu wadas."

Amen to that!

Did your family have a particular Sunday routine? Did it involve church? Or a Sunday Roast? Do you remember any special outfit from your childhood? When do you dress up in your 'Sunday best' now, if ever?

24 June 2013

Milking it for All it's Worth

"Don't forget to boil the rice for lunch while I take C1 to her piano class," I told B as I rushed out the door.

B boiled the rice, alright! He boiled enough rice to feed a starving multitude. He boiled it so much, I could picture the long Basmati grains gathering together en masse for protection, pleading, “Save us!” as they congealed in a gluggy mess... Safety in numbers and all that.

I must clarify that B can cook a Masterchef-style three-course French meal, but a simple dal and rice will leave him stumped.

So, instead of having to force-feed the family rice for a week, I decided to make kheer (Indian rice pudding). As I stood in front of the stove, stirring the fragrant cardamom seeds into the scalding milk, chopping up the almonds, cashews and pistachios, my thoughts turned to my Uncle C and his 'milk moment' that has gone down in Pereira clan history...

A bowl of Kheer hits the sweet spot for an afternoon treat
Thanks to my Nana living at our D'monte Street cottage, the house always welcomed a steady stream of visitors. An aunt dropping in for a chit-chat, a neighbour coming across for a chinwag, cousins with their boy/girlfriends dropping in on their way home from college to say hello...

They would all sit around the square table in the "middle room" (not the hall) and one story would flow into another. This particular afternoon, Uncle C, back home from his early morning shift at GKW, had put the milk on the stove. (These were the days when milk was delivered to your front door in glass bottles with stripey alfoil covers and had to be boiled before use.) Knowing that a watched pot never boils, he returned to the middle room to join in the conversation with the rellies. The hands of the clock tick-tocked along...

Long after everyone had said their goodbyes, Nana and Uncle C went into the kitchen to find that not only had the milk boiled over ages ago, the a milk chatty (vessel) had a big, fat hole burnt right through it! While he thought there's was no point crying over spilt milk, the family has never let him forget the time he forgot about the milk.
Are you – or anyone in your family – noted for burning your meals? Any kitchen catastrophes? Have you ever made any version of rice pudding? What’s your favourite rice dish?

"Fried Farts and Dried Onions"

"Mum, what's for breakfast?"

This is the first thing C2 says to me each and every morning as he and his sister slip into our bed for Family Cuddles before the frenetic pace of the daily grind overtakes us. Now, my kids eat like sparrows, so their interest in the breakfast menu baffles me. Anyhow, depending on what day of the week it is, my reply is:
  • Bircher muesli
  • Cereal
  • Soojee (semolina porridge)
  • Toast with butter and jam (for C1) or Nutella (for C2)
  • Baked beans on toast
  • Quinoa porridge with dates and walnuts
  • Eggs with the works (weekends)
  • French toast (weekends)

  • What's for brekkie? French Toast with Rhubarb Compote

However, today I took a page out of my Nana Evelyn's book...
You see, when I was little and lived under my Nana's roof, my cousins and I would often ask Nana about lunch as she chopped and stirred in the kitchen. Our interest was piqued earlier on when the maid arrived to grind the masala for the curry. Sitting on our haunches besides her, we'd watch the ginger-garlic-chillies and assortment of spices and herbs being slowing but systematically being pulverised to a smooth paste on the black paata (grinding stone); mesmerised by the rhythmic back and forth, back and forth, back and forth motion....
“What's for lunch, Nana?” we’d inquire. 
  • Kichidi with vindaloo mince
  • Potato chops with pea pulao
  • Beef pepper curry
  • Chowli (black eyed peas) with cutlets
  • Pomfret or prawn curry (it had to be fish on Fridays as we adhered to the 'abstinence from meat' rule)...
But, once in a blue moon, just when we'd least expect it, Nana, in a deadpan voice would say, "Fried farts and dried onions."
And return to her cooking.

We'd look at each other a tad uncertain; a bit incredulous...
Had too much wax clogged our eardrums? Had our Nana just said "fart" out loud?? How could this be???
After all, Nana was the matriarch of the Pereira family who was very strict with our manners and morals. She went to church everyday while she still had her eyesight; she watched our Ps and Qs; she said five rosaries a day; she never had an ill word to say about anyone...
This coming from her was almost... blasphemous!
And then we'd see the twinkle in her eye and all dissolve in fits of giddy giggles.
And it even after 30-odd years, "fried farts and dried onions" still had the same effect on my kids this morning...

So tell me, what do you usually eat for breakfast – is it same-same everyday or do you crave variety like my family does? Do you recall anything about your grandma's cooking – good, bad or funny? Does your family have secret family recipes? Do you cuddle up with your kids before the day begins or while tucking them into bed at night?

19 June 2013

Vege (under the) table

C2 checking out the corn at the Veggie Garden in our local park
Made a Bill Granger recipe of Chicken, Eggplant and Cherry Tomatoes for dinner last night. While the chicken went down a treat, C1 and C2 refused to eat their veggies.
"Finish your vegetables," I kept admonishing them.
“Do you ever wonder if you’re starting to sound like your mother...?" asked B.

Well, if the truth be told, my mum NEVER forced my brother and me to eat our vegetables.
In fact, she could be accused of aiding and abetting my crimes against greens.

Living in our D'monte Street cottage was my Nana Evelyn, my dad's eldest brother, Uncle Chris and his family, and my dad and his family. Nana Evelyn, the matriarch of the Pereira Clan, ruled over her household with a loving but firm hand. When she laid down the law, you had jolly well obey.

Usually, dinner was at 9pm (remember, this is India; 9pm is relatively early for dinner!) after the family rosary.

While the kids laid the table, my mum and my aunt Cissy got dinner piping hot. Nana sat at the centre of the table (opposite the altar) and each brother's family sat on either side of her. I can clearly remember this table with its Formica table top and extendable sides that were pulled out to accommodate all ten of us. After Grace was said, dinner was served. It usually comprised of a main dish (mostly a meat curry), a side dish of pulses or vegetables, and melt-in-your-mouth chappatis.

Vegetables from our Farmers' Markets - minus the gavar!

Now, at the best of times, I was a fussy eater. And when it came to vegetables, almost all of them were vetoed. Ladyfingers (okra) and brinjal (eggplant)? Too sticky.
Bitter gourd (karela) and radish? Too bitter.
Pumpkin? Too orange.
You get the picture...

But my ‘least favourite’ of them all was a vegetable called 'gavar'. I don't even know what it's called in English and, thank God, we don't get it here in Sydney.
These beans were skinnier than green beans and were cooked with freshly grated coconut. Despite its sweet taste, I disliked gavar with a passion.

So my six- or seven-year-old self concocted a plan to get rid of the gavar every time it was dished up... While the family chatted about this and that, I would surreptitiously chuck the gavar vegetable under the dining table, little by little.

Unbeknownst to everyone (myself included), my mum was fully aware of her daughter's diabolical scheme. But rather than tell on me, and let me face the fire and brimstone that my Dad and Nana were sure to unleash, mum kept mum.

Once the household had gone to bed, she would sweep away all traces of evidence from the crime scene...
Thanks, mum!

So whenever I complain to my mum about C & C not eating their veggies, she promptly reminds me of my vege(under the)table misdemeanours.

So tell me, is there any food you flat-out refuse to eat (even today)? Do you ‘disguise’ vegetables when cooking for your kids? Did you have strict parents or grandparents?

14 June 2013

Guava Jelly in my Belly

Breakfast time: Guava Jelly on sourdough
I was so excited to chance upon some guavas at our local fruit and veg shop today! In Sydney, tropical fruit like mangoes, lychees, guavas and papaya are “exotic”. Translation: we pay top dollar for them.

In India, guavas (perus) have a far more humble status where street vendors sell them piled high on pushcarts. When we were kids, as soon as the school bell rang at the end of day, us school girls would make a beeline for the guavawalla outside our convent gates (not heading the nuns’ dire warnings!). Guava selected, he would quarter it and then sprinkle salt and chilli powder. Ta-da! You had an afternoon snack to perk you up as you trundled all the way back home.

So these memories only heightened my anticipation as I unpacked my groceries and then sliced a guava in half...
...only to find that while these guavas may look all pretty and PINK inside (Indian guavas have white pulp), they aren’t as fleshy or as sweet as their Indian counterparts. So what was I to do with half a dozen guavas sitting solemnly on our bench top?

Tickled pink by Aussie guavas

  I didn't want to chuck them in the bin (I had paid top dollar, remember?). A (guava?) seed of an idea began to germinate...

I could make Guava Cheese! Or how about Guava Jelly?

First things first – guava cheese is NOT a cheese. It’s a sweet that’s more akin to quince paste (which, coincidently, is the best accompaniment to a cheese platter). And, Guava Jelly – you guessed it – is not jelly. It's jam.

The guava paste, bubbling away
As the heady, robust scent of stewing guavas permeated our house, I remembered how we used to buy guava cheese and jelly from one particular vendor when I was little...

Once a month, this guava cheesewalla would do the rounds of Bandra’s by lanes. Putting down his old tin trunk that had been perched aloft his head, he would literally open up a treasure chest replete with sweet treats and spicy pickles.
While my Nana/mum/aunt went into the kitchen to fetch the jam jars and money, he would proffer slivers of guava cheese to us kids milling around the hallway.

Not a word was spoken between the guava cheesewalla and kids; I didn't know Hindi and he didn't know English, but his kind gesture spoke volumes.

After adjusting the brass weights on his vintage weighing scale, he’d carefully ladled the viscous, translucent red guava jelly into the waiting glass jars. Mmmm! Gooey goodness. Then, the guava cheese was weighed, sliced and wrapped in parchment paper. Dad's sweet tooth would ensure that it didn't last very long. And I went to bed with sweet dreams of guava jelly on toast for breakfast the next morning...

Do you remember any particular shop keeper or corner store from your childhood? Have you ever eaten a guava? Or cooked them? What’s your favourite fruit or, conversely, which fruit makes you want to gag?

03 June 2013

To a T(ea)

Pic courtesy: Amanda M.
Recently, Caitlyn's school was auctioning off a pretty tea cosy to raise funds for breast cancer.
"What's a tea cosy, mum?" asked Caitlyn.
"A tea cosy is a cover for a teapot. It keeps the tea inside from getting cold," I answered, showing her pictures of them on (where else?) Google Images.
"Ohhhh, it's like a blankie or jacket for the teapot!" she exclaimed.
It then struck me that Caitlyn - like most kids of her generation - has never seen people around her use a teapot, let alone a tea cosy.

After all, her mum is one of those strange people who doesn't drink tea or coffee. And when B wants his morning cuppa, he just boils water in the electric kettle, scoops some loose-leaf tea into a tea ball (none of that teabag nonsense for this Indian!) and lets it steep in a cup. A splash of milk later, and it's tea-time...

B's tea this morning

But in the olden days, tea was brewed the old-fashioned way.
Since my dad always woke up at cock crow, his job was to make the tea before the rest of the household arose. There was a separate 'tea chatty' (vessel) in which he would bring the water to a vigourous boil. Then he would add the tea leaves (Orange Pekoe from 'Coin Tea') and sugar. Once it had steeped for a few minutes, the milk was added. (Milk came in glass bottles with silver and blue striped aluminium foil covers - but that's another story.)
Dad then poured this tea into a teapot which was covered with a blue tea cosy - one that had been hand-embroidered by my Nana.

I like to think the aroma of freshly brewed tea wafting through the house woke up my Nana, mum and the rest of the Pereira household. Well, except for my cousin, Wen - nothing, not even his incessantly ringing alarm clock, could rouse him out of his slumber.

We would all sit around the old wooden table in the 'back room', eating gutlis or chappatis slathered with jam and Amul butter - and the teapot with its tea cosy would take pride of place at the centre of it all.

Are you a tea- or coffee-drinker? What's your favourite brew - chai? mocha? latte? herbal tea? Did your family ever use a teapot or tea cosy?