A translation of B. Jeyamohan’s Tamil short story ‘Pradhaman’ (2018). The story in Tamil can be read here.
‘How many coconuts?’ asked Aasan, the masterchef, doubling up his ankle-length vaetti and tucking the cloth in at his waist. I had not finished counting. “About four hundred, I think,” I said. He came and stood by me, hands on hips, and turned his eye around. “More like five hundred and thirty,” he said. I looked at the pile of coconuts and then looked at him. “They are a bit smaller than usual. Give me the exact number when you finish counting. If we have six hundred, that would be good. Even better if there are fifty more. We want coconuts with plenty of milk,” he said. “Why?” I asked. “Lei!” he made an impatient noise, “Didn’t you feel the adai, how it’s turned out? It’s a little thicker than usual, will soak up lots of milk,” he said, and went back.
Maniyan and I finished counting the coconuts together. There were exactly six hundred and thirty of them. “What does he carry up in that head of his, some sort of a calculating machine?” asked Maniyan. “He is very particular about keeping count,” I said. “Some head, up there. But what did you think the whole culinary enterprise was? A lot math and measurement,” said Maniyan. “I mean, taste is in the numbers, yes. But there is always something beyond numbers in good food, something divine. The gods should arise out of the food… the flavor is something else altogether then.”
I looked at Aasan making his rounds, inspecting each ingredient, issuing orders. I have never seen him pick an ingredient up with his hands. He estimated everything with his eyes and nose. To test coconuts, he would ask someone to knock two coconuts against each other as he watched. “They’re tender, put them aside for milking,” he would say. But I was dumbstruck when he asked for a similar examination of two blocks of jaggery, and then pronounced, “There’s lime in it, keep it away. Go tell Kumaresan Pillai that we need the jaggery replaced.”
Nothing seemed amiss to me when I looked at the iron-coloured mounds of jaggery heads. “Lime?” I asked. “They add lime when they boil the palm sugar juice to extract the jaggery. Makes the jaggery nice and white, rock-solid, but it shows its face when we make the syrup. It’s the motor owner’s precious daughter who’s getting married tomorrow. You know what they say. Like an elephant in a festival street, the dessert is king in a feast. Whatever else we manage to do well, if the dessert is messed up, then it’s no good. So go tell them to replace it,” said Aasan.
I stood there wondering whether I could ask Maniyan to go with me. Aasan turned to him. “Dei,” he ordered, “go see whether we have enough tamarind wood for the fuel. Just a third of the lot needs to be dry, make sure the rest of it is green,” he said, and turned to look at me. “Go, go tell them,” he said. As Maniyan moved away, I hesitantly went to the section where the kitchen utensils were stored. Subbu Pillai was standing there. “What?” he asked. “Aasan wants the jaggery replaced,” I said.
His face shrunk into a frown. “Did we pay for the whole load of jaggery just to go back and buy more? Just use what you have,” he said. “I cannot tell him that. If you want you can go and talk to him yourself,” I said. “Just go and tell him I said it can’t be done. Go on now,” said Subbu Pillai. “Aasan didn’t send me here to talk to you. He sent me here to talk to the owner,” I said. “To the owner? Do you think the owner sits there to tally your jaggery accounts? You’ll get it hard with a slipper!” he said.
I gave him a look and went into the house. He ran in behind me. “Son, listen to me,” he pleaded. I understood what he was afraid of. “So, you are the one who purchased the jaggery?” I said. “Me? Buy jaggery? I just made a bulk order…” said Subbu Pillai. Then he sighed. “Do whatever you like. That’s what he gave me, and that’s what I brought in. I don’t know anything else,” he said. As I resolutely walked in, he followed me, “Son, hang on, wait!” But by then I had entered the ladies’ wing of the house.
A sea of colour bobbed before my eyes. I had never noticed till then that there were so many shades of silk, that women wore so many different pieces of jewelry. And it was not like I was new to weddings: it has been three years since I started accompanying Aasan on his wedding catering rounds; I have worked in eighteen wedding kitchens so far. And if Aasan was invited to cater a wedding, they were grand, seven-story-canopied affairs, with the bride wearing at least three hundred sovereigns of gold.
Subbu Pillai’s wife approached me. “What do you want?” she asked. “I want to meet the owner,” I said. “You can’t meet the owner now. The lawyers are here, he is talking to them,” she said. “We want the jaggery replaced. Aasan says there is lime in the jaggery that we received,” I said. Her face changed. “You don’t have to go in there and bring this up now. I will talk to someone and make sure you get a replacement,” she said.
‘No, Aasan said that I had to tell the owner. So, I should go in and tell him,” I said. “This dastardly fellow, I don’t know what he has gone and done now. If this reaches the owner’s ears, he will slipper him…son, you wait here, let me go and talk to the man who handles the goods and make sure that you get some good quality jaggery,” she said. She clutched my arm. “Wait, what’s the hurry now? Here, one minute,” she said. I was not sure what to do.
She pulled at my arm, “Come in.” “No,” I said. “Why are you squirming like a bride? Come in now,” she said, pulling me into the room. “Stay here,” she said. I hesitated, “No, I…” but she would not listen; she took hold of me and plopped me on a wooden chair. She brought me a plate with a fried lentil vadai and a sweet laddu on it. “Eat,” she said. “No, I don’t want anything,” I said. She lightly smacked the side of my head.
I took a bite of the laddu. “The jaggery should be of first-class quality. You can’t fool Aasan,” I said. “That’s right, keep eating, I will go right out and make sure the shopkeeper sends you first rate jaggery soon,” she said, and walked out. I was left alone in the room. The room had lots of things lying around. Brass utensils, wooden boxes of all sizes and shapes. A cane basket full of flowers. The scent of rose perfume filled the room.
As I sat munching on my snack, a girl entered the room. She looked at me, one eyebrow raised. “Who are you?” she asked. I got up. “Aasan, jaggery…” I said. “Oh, you are here with the catering group?” she asked. “Did Amma come here?” “Amma?” I asked. “Yes, Amma, my mother,” she said. “Who?” I asked, when I heard a voice at the door. “What are you doing here?” A middle-aged woman wearing a mango-yellow silk saree and a red-stone addigai around her throat entered the room.
The little girl said, “I was looking for you. Everyone over there is asking for Neela.” The lady placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Who’s the boy here?” “I came here with the catering group… in the kitchen,” I said. “Who’s catering?” she asked. “Aasan,” I said. “Aasan?” she asked; her eyes narrowed just a bit. “Velu Aasan. From Thirparappu, the Nagamootu house…” I said.
I was not sure why her face changed the way it did. “Oh,” she said. Then she lightly smacked the little girl on her shoulder. “Go tell them that I am coming,” she said. The little girl flung her long plait with its soft three-balled kunjalam bobbing at the end behind her back and went away, her thighs rustling within her long silk skirt, her anklets jingling.
The lady turned to me “Are you Aasan’s son?” she asked. “No, I came here with him,” I said. “How many children does he have?” she asked. “Children? But Aasan is not married,” I said. “Not married?” she asked. “Yes. Aasan keeps vow by Hanumar, the bachelor god. He never married,” I said. “Oh,” she said, and then, “Alright, finish your snacks.” But she sat in front of me right there on a three-legged stool.
I was not sure why she was crushing and twisting the end of her saree like that with all her fingers. The silk saree had been finished up by tying the threads at its end into a row of knots like little kunjalams, and here she was, twisting and scraping, as though she wanted to undo all of them. When my eyes met hers, she smiled. “When did you arrive?” she asked. I had finished my snack and was looking around for a suitable place to put my plate away, her question caught me unawares. I started. “Who?” “You. All of you,” she said.
“We came early this morning. Then we sorted all the goods. Aasan came just now, in the afternoon. You must have seen our van standing outside? It says Sri Chitra Caterers, Thirparappu on the side.” I said. “Yes,” she said. “Matador,” I said. I liked to keep that word in mind and use it when I could.
Subbu Pillai’s wife came in. “I have asked them to haul away the old stuff and bring in fresh jaggery. Good stock. Your Aasan can eat his stomach’s fill if he likes,” she said. I nodded and went out of the room.
Maniyan came up to me. “Why does he want so much green wood for the fire?” he asked. “The green wood makes up the second layer. It stays and burns for a long time. The dry wood will burn away like dry leaves,” I replied. “Oh,” he said, and then looked at me out of the corner of his eye, “So you have decided then? This is what you want to do for the rest of your life?” he said. “Book learning doesn’t agree with me,” I said. “Eating agrees with you, I suppose,” he said, and wandered off to see to the wood supply.
I went to Aasan. “They said that they will send someone over to take away the jaggery right away,” I said. “Who?” he asked. “Subbu Pillai’s wife,” I said. “So, he has a hand in all this. The bastard. It doesn’t matter how many times you warn them, they won’t stop getting their hands on the good stuff. If we don’t keep watch on everything, then it is we who are stuck with a bad name,” he said. He turned to Murugesan. “Lei! Get my chair.”
Aasan had an armchair that he used when he wanted to sit down in the store room. He took it along with him in the van wherever he went. Murugesan brought in the chair. Aasan sat in it and swung his legs over to rest them on the armrest. As a rule, Aasan spoke to no one. And if he did speak, it was to swear or scold. I have never seen Aasan smile. “He is a bhootham, a goblin. One of the twelve thousand that catered at the wedding of the gods Siva and Parvathi long, long ago, now reborn like this,” Maniyan used to say.
Manoharan, Sivaraman and Muthusamy got together and started sorting out the items from the grocer’s in front of Aasan. From where he sat he called out to me, “Start scraping the coconuts. The milking can wait till later. Go check whether the vegetables are prepped.”
After weighing which of these tasks I should do first, I decided to go and check on the vegetables and went to the chopping section. There were mountains of eggplants glowing purple in the lamplight, green flower-stalked okras piled up, clusters of stout plantains and raw bananas. The men had just settled down with their long knives and chopping planks, ready to start dicing. They were talking among themselves. Some of them were rolling up betel leaves, smeared with lime, peppered with areca nuts, to tuck into their mouths.
“Aasan was asking whether you had started prepping the vegetables,” I said. “Go tell him that we are on it,” said Namachchivayam. “Looks like he’s the heir,” said Umaiyorubagan. I avoided their eyes and went to the place where the coconuts were piled up. A hundred extra coconuts had been delivered in a sack. Arunachalam and Shanmugam had started breaking the coconuts. A huge brass cauldron was placed there to catch the water when the coconuts broke.
When the first coconut broke with a slight ‘tup’ like a cracker and the water streamed out, I felt the usual light frisson of excitement run through me. Arunachalam never hacked at the coconut more than once; it was not even a hack so much as a gentle tap like a head-butt. I could never break a coconut without hacking away at it at least three times. “Only when you can break a coconut in a single tap will you start learning what cooking really is,” said Arunachalam.
“That’s no big deal,” said Murugesan. “You see up on the coconut there’s a bump? You need to tap it just above that, right in the centre of the curve. Not hit it with a lot of force. Go close to the spot with the knife and rap it hard. Your arm should have a lot of power when you bring the knife down,” he said. But I never had the firmness of hand to do it right, there was always a tremble in my arm.
As if they had heard a good joke, the coconuts kept breaking into broad grins in Arunachalam’s hands, revealing their white kernels as they splintered into two and fell to the ground. “You want some coconut water?” asked Arunachalam. I shook my head to say no. “Check how many thiruvalakkutris we have,” he said.
We usually bring in our own coconut scrapers. The coconut scraper is a contraption with a balancing plank made of wood or metal; a swan neck that curves upwards at one end of the plank is tipped with a circle of sharp teeth for scraping. The ones we bring in are at least three times bigger than the domestic scrapers that you find in household kitchens. Ours are meant for the men; the diminutive scrapers in the domestic kitchens are the ‘women’. I examined the scrapers in the sack. “Eleven,” I said. “That’s not enough. It looks like we left a few behind. Go borrow four or five thiruvalakutris from the people here.”
“But we can only find female scrapers here,” I objected. “That would do. However, four or five of us need to keep scraping to finish everything on time. Remember, we have six hundred coconuts to scrape!’ said Arunachalam.
When I entered the kitchen storeroom a second time, Subbu Pillai was there again. “Now what? Your asafoetida stinks of cat piss?” he asked. “We need some thiruvalakkutris,” I said. “Why? Don’t you bring your own coconut scrapers when you come to cook? Next you will come asking us for knives.”
When I went in, the lady with the redstone addigai entered. “What do you want?” she asked. “A thiruvalakkutri,” I said. It was the local word for the scraper on our side of the hills, close to the Kerala border. “A coconut scraper?” she asked, replying in Tamil. “Wait, let me see if there is one around,” she said, and disappeared into the small room adjoining the kitchen. Subbu Pillai’s wife was there, placing flowers into small boxes. “He’s asking for a coconut scraper,” she said. “A thiruvalakkutthi? We need one here. There are two more that he can have,” she said.
She opened a palm leaf basket and fished out four scrapers. “Are these enough for you?” she asked. I felt its scraping edge with my fingers. “It’s gone blunt,” I said. “That’s all we have,” she said. “If you scrape it with a file it can get sharper, you know,” said the lady with the addigai. I remembered that we always had a file on us. “Yes, true,” I said, and picked them up. They kept sliding out of my grip.
I put them down, looked around, and finding some banana fibre, used it to tie them together. Still one kept sliding out. “I’ll take that,” she said. “No,” I said. “Lei, give it to me,” she said and came with me bearing the scraper.
I placed all the coconut scrapers in the room with the coconuts. “Only four?” Arunachalam turned to ask, when he recognized her. “Ammini, madam, is it you?” His tone was deferential. “Do you live around here now?” “I came early this morning,” she replied in a low voice.
“So, I take that are related to the motor owner?” asked Arunachalam. “Related on his side. His sister is married to the motor owner’s nephew,” she said. “Oh, like that? I see…” said Arunachalam. “Alright, see you then,” she said quietly and turned around, when Arunachalam said, from behind her, “He is over there, by the hearth.”
She turned and gave him a penetrating glance before going inside. I looked at Arunachalam. He smiled. The lady had a slightly plump, round face; her shoulders glowed bright like a tender banana leaf. She was very fair, so you could see a very faint moustache above her lips. On her erect, prow-like bosom the addigai sat in place as if inlaid in gold.
“Look at her gait! Like an elephant!” muttered Murugesan. “The gloriously slow gait of a noble elephant…” he said. Arunachalam indicated with his eyes that I was present; Murugesan looked at me and flashed his yellow teeth.
I followed her. She stopped in hesitation just ahead of the row of open fireplaces. Placing one hand on her hip, she sighed deeply. Afraid that she would turn around and see me, I moved slightly to the right where bundles of banana leaves had been stacked on top of one another. I picked up a few bundles that had rolled away and placed them on top of the stack.
She kept standing there for some time. She did not turn around. She didn’t seem to be aware of anything around her. She looked beyond the small doorway into the kitchen where rows of open hearths had been constructed on bricks laid against each other.
I peeped into the doorway so that I could see what she was looking at. Aasan was standing next to the first fireplace. Bhaskaran and Karunakaran were piling logs of wood on the hearth that had been washed and cleaned with cow dung. It was customary to start cooking the feast by placing a small, shallow rounded vessel called an uruli on the fire, heating ghee – clarified butter – in it, and roasting pieces of green chillies and ginger to make a dry ginger curry as a side. Start from the ginger, the ancient manuals say.
Diced ginger and green chillies lay waiting in a palm leaf basket. There was also a very small ball of jaggery in there. The dry ginger curry is tasty only if an appropriately small amount of jaggery is added to it. Kumar and Madhevan brought a tub of ghee to the wood-fired stove, lifting it on each side by a rope tied to the sides of the tub. Aasan bent low and examined the ghee with his eyes. It was yellow and grainy like sand.
Baskaran arranged the logs properly and turned to look at Aasan. Aasan gently dug out a small portion of the ghee with a ladle and laid it out on the logs. Even from afar, my hair stood on its end when I saw the ladle’s edge gently caress the surface of the ghee. The sight of the wee little dollop of ghee melted my heart. When Aasan handled ghee or butter, it was always a very gentle affair, as if he was coaxing it out with a feather.
Kumaresan Pillai held a little brass lamp; he extended its small flame to Aasan. The men were blocking her view. When she reflexively crossed the threshold and stepped into the kitchen, her hand dropped to her side; the gold bangles she had stacked on her arm clinked against each other as they slid down to her wrist. Hearing the sound, Aasan turned around, and saw her. His mouth slightly agape, his eyes fixed on her. Then he turned and placed his palms over the flame in Kumaresan’s hand. “Great mother, Mahamayi, goddess of illusions!” he said, bringing his palms together.
With a slight quiver in his hands, he picked up some camphor from Kumaresan’s plate. He kept it under the log with the ghee on it, lit another bit of camphor, and placed the flame on the first. The camphor caught fire with a start; the ghee picked it up and blazed forth up into the air. The blue flame leaped up, twisting and curling like a tongue whose buds had awoken to taste.
Aasan picked up the small, shallow uruliand placed it on the fire. Kumaresan and Baskaran covered their mouths with their palms and ululated. Aasan scooped out three dollops of ghee with his big ladle and upended it over the uruli. As the ghee melted and ran down the deep curve of the vessel, he turned around; Baskaran was standing ready with a plate full of perfectly diced green chillies. He quickly picked up two big handfuls and tossed them into the crackling ghee. He brought his palms together, “Mother! My goddess!” and then with a sigh, he signaled to them to continue, and walked back towards his chair.
Baskaran started tossing the green chillies with a brass ladle. The aroma of the chillies roasting in ghee spread through the kitchen. Borrowing fire from the first hearth, the others had already started lighting the rest of the fires. The sides – dry vegetable curries – would go on the flames first. Seven sides usually, including citron, gooseberry and bilimbi. The dry gravies and the lentil-vegetable stews would be cooked next. The preparation of the lentil-and-tamarind heavysambar would commence only at midnight. The gravies with ground coconut in them, just before dawn. It was only at dawn that the huge, bronze urulis for the pradhaman, the king of sweets, would ascend the fire.
When the pradhaman became mellow and creamy, the men would remove the urulifrom the wood-fired stove and take out all the logs. On the same stove, they then placed huge pots filled with water. The water would start boiling as soon as the pot touched the stove. Then the rice went in, and a lid was placed to cover the top of the vessel. In a short while the cooked rice would emerge at the mouth of the vessel, blocking it and building up like bubblefoam. Then we would haul out the rice with huge slotted spoons, spread it out on mats, and keep it covered with banana leaves and a second mat on top. This way the rice would keep hot as if on slow-burning husk-fire till the food was served.
The salt-and-tamarind tang of the sides would waft through the kitchen at first. Then came the smells of coconut and cooked lentils. But when the first scent of the pradhaman emerged, all the other aromas would melt into the shadows. The scent of melting jaggery, creamy coconut milk and steamed, mellowed rice-flake adais could turn one’s head. A hush fell over the kitchen then; people engaged in various tasks in all corners would stop and watch. It was like we were in the temple of the goddess at midnight, waiting for the moment, when, roused by the clamour of the urumidrum, the oboe-like magudam, the pot-shaped muzhavu and the bells, the oracle-goddess suddenly wakes in the body of the priest. Before the first growl in his throat, before the first tremble in his limbs, his eyes would have already signaled the arrival.
She went and stood next to Aasan. Her bangles tinkled. Aasan turned around indifferently. “They said that you would be here,” she said. Aasan did not look directly at her. “Yes,” he said, “How are you?” He turned as he spoke to Baskaran and summoned him. Baskaran offered a rolled betel leaf that Aasan tucked into his cheek. “Your husband is here with you?” he asked. “They are all here. My son is studying in Madras. He couldn’t come. But I have brought my daughter along,” she said.
He said nothing. “He is also here. His brothers, mother, they have all come,” she continued. “Yes, I heard that you are related,” said Aasan. “Yes, we’re close relations,” she said. “It has been a while, no?” he asked. “Yes, you don’t come to our side very often, do you?” she said. “Why come there? The folks in Nagarcoil on that side of the hills don’t appreciate the taste of our cooking. My area is over here, near the Kerala border. The Tamil fellows complain that our cuisine is all red rice and coconut stew.’
“But the flavour here is something different,” she said. Aasan did not reply. “To be honest, it has been fifteen years since I last ate at a good wedding feast,” she said. “Why? You don’t go to feasts over there?” he asked. “They cook everything so differently over there,” she said. Aasan said, “Yes, they don’t have pradhaman over there. Only a lentil-based sweet porridge. Here we have coconut in everything,” he said. “Yes. Where’s taste without coconut?” she said.
Aasan looked up at her. “Honestly, there is nothing called taste. Taste is just what the mind gets used to,” he said. She said nothing. “If we will it, we can train the mind. We should strive to train it. Instead if we stay fixed on one taste, we will end up losing a million others. This world is filled with all kinds of flavours. South Travancore is just the few kilometres from Mavelikkara to Thuckaley. Our cuisine is prized only within these borders. The world is wide open! What does an American eat? What is an African’s palate like? Everyone eats for taste, you know.”
“But not all taste is ours,” she countered. “All taste is taste. The mind should not control the tongue. You let the tongue be, it will go forth and get used to all flavours,” said Aasan. “It’s all good to talk about,” she said. “Why?” he asked. “Nothing,” she said, and then, “I’m leaving.” “Sure. I have things to do as well,” said Aasan. She kept standing there. “Alright. I will be there at your daughter’s wedding. I will fill the air with the aroma of my pradhaman, okay?” said Aasan. She said nothing and walked away.
Aasan turned to look at me. “Go check if the vegetables are prepped. We should start the scraping the coconuts soon,” he said. I looked as she walked away. I turned to Aasan. “She has a daughter,” I said. “Why, did you go sniffing at her ass?” asked Aasan. I shook my head as if to say no and then went to the chopping section again.
Even as I entered, the fresh green scent of cut vegetables hit me in the face. Evenly diced pieces of okra and eggplant were piling up in front of my eyes. The men joked and talked among themselves as their hands did the chopping reflexively. “Who does this fellow think he is, Aasan’s tail? He’s here to oversee us?” asked Madhavan Patta. I completely ignored their talk and sat down to look at the vegetables. It had only taken them an hour, and they were almost finished.
I went to the area where the coconuts scraping was in progress. An array of banana leaves was laid out on the floor; the men sat with their scrapers on the leaves, one folded leg balancing the plank of the scraper. Amidst what sounded like hundreds of pigeons cooing together, the coconuts turned into mounds of white foam. I took up a spare scraper and sat down to scrape. I had sort of learned how to scrape coconuts by then. You take a broken half of a coconut, choose a sharp edge and scrape three times till the kernel is all grated and gone. Then you start from the bald spot, turning the head round and round till all the coconut is scraped out. If you get the rhythm right, then it’s really easy.
Rhythm is integral to doing anything well. For the rhythm to be right, we must not think about it at all. There is a rhythm in our hands, a rhythm in our eyes. Only when our mind interferes with the rhythm do we miss a beat. When you are scraping a coconut at top speed, it just takes an instant, one missed beat, for the scraper’s teeth to take off your flesh. It’s more painful than a knife wound; it takes a long long time to heal. The cooks call it catscratches. “Catscratches? The next ten days are going to be really sweet,” they would say. Catscratch marks never fade.
We scraped up the grated coconut heaped on the banana leaves and placed it aside in palm-leaf baskets. Uncle Nagu and others fed them slowly into giant stone mortars and ground them with huge stone pestles. “People in my town say that when it comes to Malayalee cuisine, there’s so much coconut that you need a press for the grinding,” remarked Mani Mama. “Yes, there’s coconut in everything,” said Kumaran. “And what have you seen, young grasshopper? You should have been at the wedding of Moolaiyamveettu Pappu Thambi’s daughter. Forty baskets of coconut pulp leftover after the milking. They brought it all back and buried it under our banana trees,” said Unnamulai. “They could have fed the cows with it,” said Kumaran. “For what joy? For the cows to eat it all and spray us with its shit?” said Unnamulai.
“Coconut makes our cuisine, there’s no doubt about it. But the coconut comes alive only in a good pradhaman, when it melds and mellows with the ghee and jaggery…” said Shanmugam. “And when I say pradhaman, I only mean adai pradhaman, made with real steamed rice flakes. Anything else that’s called pradhaman, we drink it thinking it’s adai pradhaman,” said Unnamulai. “Why do they call it pradhaman? Let’s see if you can tell.” “Because it’s the first…the king!” I piped up. In Malayalam, pradhama means ‘the prime one’. “But they serve it last,” he countered. “In the temple, the principal god gets his offering last, no?” I said. “The boy is sharp,” said Unnamalai approvingly. “There may be thousands of flavours, but the pradhaman’s taste is supreme. Like the prime minister of the country.”
“These days, in Nagarcoil, you can buy ready-made adai in the store. Just tear the packet open, pop it into coconut milk, boil it, and presto, your pradhaman is ready,” said Kumaran. “That’s all made of refined flour. Its stretchy and bloated. A good adai is made from white raw rice. Not once has Aasan bought ready-made adai from the store. The taste of Aasan’s pradhaman lives up to that reputation,” said Shanmugam.
“Aasan has people at home to make the adai for him” I said. “So, did you make it?” asked Shanmugam. “Yes, I stood by while they were making the adai yesterday,” I said. “How do you make it?” asked Kumaresan. Aasan always makes sure he supervises the adai-making himself. “You first grind the soaked rice in water and spread it out on a banana leaf. You then roll up the leaves, steam them, and dry them in the sun,” I said. “In the sun?” asked Kumar. “No, no, not when the sun is very hot. If it dries completely, it becomes brittle,” I said. “But it should not sour up. It should dry in a day. Otherwise it turns sour.”
“What a finicky job. It’s just easier to get the ready-made adai. As if the fellows here can tell the difference,” said Shanmugam. “That’s why you are grinding coconuts over here, and he sits in the chair over there,” said Mani. “Aasan has restraint. He never indulges in anything. He would have made a thousand batches of pradhaman, yes? I have never seen him drink a sip. Not even seen him place a single drop of it on his tongue.” “He knows what sweet is,” I said.
“You know when the pradhaman mellows and melds together? In a surprising frission of sweetness? That’s the only time I bring my hands together in reverence, ready to fall at his feet – Aasan, guru, my teacher! Otherwise who would want to work under this man who flares into a temper at the drop of a button? Has he ever said a kind word? Offered a smile? Stone-face!” said Shanmugam.
I went back to tell Aasan that the coconuts had been milked. “Ask him whether this is done,” said Narayanan as I passed him. He was finishing up the avial, a yoghurt-and-coconut vegetable gravy, with coconut oil. “He’ll tell you if it’s not done. The scent is enough for him to tell,” I said. He kept stirring the avial with a long wood-handled ladle and added a little more coconut oil to it. Aasan made a little grunt from where he sat. “See?” I said. “He can stay right where he is and tell all the flavours,” I said. “What flavour does he know when his tongue touches nothing,” asked Murugan, who was standing next to him. He was stirring the lentil curry.
Sukumar who was standing to my right and working on the dry thuvaran asked, “Why doesn’t he taste anything?” “If he tastes one thing, then the taste sticks to his tongue. After that, he is not able to taste anything else,” I said. “It’s said one who tastes everything has no taste buds left.” “So, you don’t eat as well?” asked Manikkam. “Only sweet things,” I said. “That’s right. He’s at the right age to taste all the sweet things.”
They hooted with laughter. You could speak your mind when Aasan was in the room. He had no ears. No tongue either. Just grunts. I wandered off again to the area where the coconuts were being pressed for milk. The ground coconut was now being sieved through a new cotton vaetti, five feet long. Two men held the corners of the fabric weighed down by the ground coconut, wound it around and wrung it tightly to extract the milk.
I returned to the kitchen again. The avial and the dry vegetable curries were being taken off the flame. Two men passed a bamboo rod with ropes wound to the ends through the two curved ‘ears’ flanking the huge vessel to haul it up. They set it down on mounds of sand spread out on the storeroom floor and closed the mouth of the vessel with a bronze plate. It had taken me whole a year’s experience in the kitchen to learn that there was a knack to finishing up the gravies and taking them off the flame. The gravy keeps boiling in the vessel from the residual heat even after it is removed from the flame. If we let our tongue guide us and wait for the dish to finish cooking completely before removing it from the flame, the gravy tends to get overcooked. The vegetables go soft, the lentils go dry and the taste is ruined.
“Knowing when to take the gravy off the flame is like befriending a twelve-year-old girl. When friendship ripens to love and mellows into marriage, the girl would also be mature,” said Murugesan to me. When I said nothing in reply, he laughed. “The fellow is shy!” he said. “Look here, you can learn everything that there is to know about this world just by standing in a kitchen. Get your brother some betel leaves and areca nuts and cigarettes whenever I ask, I’ll teach you everything,” said Murugesan.
Four people brought in the giant urulifor making the pradhaman. It came swaying gently like a boat held aloft by waves. Aasan threw a careless look at it. They lowered it on the hearth where the coals had been spread out readily. From where he sat, Aasan gestured with one hand for the men to lift up the west end of the uruli just by an inch. When I looked, everything seemed to be fine. However, when the west end was adjusted, I could see how it sat in place even better.
Tin barrels filled to the brim with coconut milk were brought in, rigged like palanquins and hoisted on the shoulders of the assistants. As the uruli filled up with the milk, the phrase it always evoked came to me once again. An ocean of milk. Someone would inevitably say that at this point. “That’s enough. Any more milk, and Vishnu would come here to lie on it,” said Kumaresan. “With snake in tow,” said Murugan. They all laughed. I have always observed this. Whenever we start on the dessert, an unusual mirth fills up the room.
The coconut milk had come to a boil; it was thickening up. When cow’s milk boils and creams, a mild meaty smell fills the room. But when coconut milk boils, it has the scent of sweet grass. Then there’s the scent of the ghee melting into the mix. An even finer sweetness. You would think at this point the taste would be sweet as well. But it would be a little sour, with an oily texture that stuck to your tongue. When it became a bit thicker, Murugesan liked to add jaggery and coffee to it and drink the concoction.
The adaihad been kept soaked in molten jaggery syrup. They transferred the pieces onto slotted spoons and slowly lowered them into the boiling coconut milk, making sure that the rice flakes were not sticking to each other. They kept the coconut milk on a boil till it started becoming creamy. As it boiled away, they added more coconut milk, a little bit at a time. The jaggery lumps were covered with a cloth and hit it with a pestle till they crumbled to bits. They boiled a little water in another vessel, added the jaggery to it and cooked it till it became syrupy. Using a ladle, they scooped off the syrup from the top and filled a big brass vessel with it. When people make pradhaman at home, they tend to mix the jaggery directly into the coconut milk. But I have noticed how when we make a huge quantity of jaggery syrup, the stuff that lingers at the bottom is grainy like sand and tastes very different. So even when I cook at home, I don’t skip the additional step of making the syrup and straining it.
The creamy coconut milk had now combined well with the jaggery syrup. As it thickened, a film of cream covered the surface; bubbles broke out on the top. Murugesan and Kumarannan kept stirring the mixture to keep it from burning at the bottom. So far it only had the scent of boiling coconut milk and melting jaggery syrup; now it started acquiring the redolence of a sweet porridge. However, it had not quite reached the particular aroma of a fine pradhaman yet.
They laid another small vessel on a hearth to the side and melted balls of ghee in it. They brought in the freshly made ghee and added it in small quantities to the spluttering pradhaman, while they kept stirring. The aroma of the pradhaman did not arise even then. Aasan made a grunt and beckoned me with a finger. I got the spittoon for him. He spat into it, rinsed his mouth with some water in a jug nearby, and sank back in his armchair again.
Most of the people around the kitchen had stopped whatever they were doing and were gathered around the hearth with red, spitting coals; by then the flames had been fully doused out. They were waiting for the rise of the pradhaman. Although the men who were stirring had their eyes on the pot, their ears and bodies were trained on Aasan.
The armchair made a loud creak. The sound echoed through the room. Aasan stood and extended his hand. Murugan came forward with a long, wooden-handled spatula. He placed it in Aasan’s hands and scampered back. Aasan scraped the edges of the uruli with the spatula and slowly spiraled his way to the bottom where it hit the surface with a loud metallic clang; he flipped it over just a bit. The aroma of the pradhaman arose, filling all corners of the kitchen.