i took these pictures when i went to the kitchen for my second helping this afternoon. i looked at the methi chicken, boneless slivers of chicken cooked with fresh fenugreek leaves, and thought in what way is she less than a chef?

an adept, bright, inventive, innovative, fearless cook is she. there’s nothing she is not willing to try and learn to make. between us we call dishes concocted over our little confabulations and cogitations… experiment (pronounced ex-perri-mane). like this afternoon’s methi chicken.

the recipe was casually concocted last night. we agreed on not putting garam masala, dry red chilli would go into the tadka instead; other than that, sliced onion, garlic paste, kashmiri chilli powder, maybe a pinch of turmeric, juliennes of ginger, and of course a whole lot of chopped fresh methi leaves. how about tomato, she asked; i disagreed, i’d prefer amchur i said. she looked uncomfortable. always a sign to read.

i asked, what is the matter. no, she replied, don’t put amchur powder, then the sour will make the bitter in the methi leaf “catch” the chicken and it will be too much. i said, so why do you want tomato, that too is sour. she shook her head, that is a “different” sort of sour so that should be fine.

it was. and more than fine really. it was delicious.

she has never cooked with fresh methi in her life. she started just the other day when we heard of weekly supplies to a store nearby. before she came to work in our house, she had never cooked any indian food. in fact, she had barely ever cooked. she’d said she had helped out with the cooking with her previous employers, they were chinese, but she wasn’t really fond of cooking. she was thirty eight at the time. she had come from her village in the philippines to work as a maid at our place, her primary duties: taking care of our newborn baby and cooking.

ferolyn fernandes, ibi to us from that first day more than fourteen years ago, she was the aunt of our part timer who had recommended her when i’d said i needed someone to take care of things at home after our daughter was born. she was a mother of four, the eldest child was nearly twenty and already working at the time, but the other three were between five and seventeen and still at home. her husband was also there. however, she was the main breadwinner, the one who would leave home, hearth, family and travel to unknown lands, work as maid in strangers’ homes and feed the family, educate the children, help acquire some land, repair the dilapidated house, get the kids married, etc. she was i think educated up to class five or six, she had married young, and gone on her first tour of duty soon after her first child was born. it was in malaysia if i am not wrong.

as i mentioned earlier, ibi was clueless about indian cooking when she got here.

now she advises me on which tadka to put in which dal, how to balance a menu for a dinner for ten guests each with his or her preferences. just this friday evening she made the most wonderful chinese food with a touch of indian taste. the julienning of bamboo shoot, carrot and ginger was delightful. we discussed how to make burnt ginger fried rice, checked it on the net, and she made this beautiful rice with her additions and permutations thrown in.

from khao suey, to laksa, to thai green curry, to kucho goja as i recall my mother making it, to baghdadi jewish chicken chattani as my mother in law made it, to banana leaf wrapped fish with a parsi style coriander coconut chutney, to banana flower cooked the bengali way or just as a salad, to brownie without butter, to gefilte fish, to biriyani minus ghee or yogurt, to topsy turvy pineapple cake, to shammi kabab (with masoor dal not chana because my grandmother used to say that made the kabab softer), to idli and ex-perri-mane chutney, there’s nothing ibi can’t make, improvise on, or is unwilling to venture into.

on a trip to kerala recently, i fell for the beef fry made by a friend’s aunt. it’s the syrian christian way of making a lovely dry spicy beef. took the recipe and my friend kept saying one had to get the right spices and process to hit the right note. ibi made it once, i told her to change a couple of things and then the other day the same friend tried it, he has mentioned at least three times how good it was, and he is pretty particular about that kind of food.

of course, curry is now easy peasy. she has a funny smile on her face when i tell her to try new ingredients. she does do that, but always with her own twist to the tale.

the only thing that fazes her is dough… rolling it is not her favourite activity. but she doesn’t balk at it. every now and then she tries to bake bread, and makes aloo paratha or missi roti or even luchi. we laugh about the anything but round shapes of her creations.

my daughter eats canteen lunch at school when she chooses too, otherwise for the past eight years ibi has woken up at five thirty in the morning and made her fresh “tiffin”… lunch box.

which chef will do all this for me? and she does much more really.

without her and her niece, our part timer who cleans the house and does laundry, our life would not be organised and comfortable the way it is. we certainly would not be eating shammi kababs and biriyani and chattani and laksa at home. the work they do is important, meaningful, happy making, and it allows us to do the things we want to do. in exchange, they get decent-ish salaries, the sort a household can afford, not a company.

but what the money does for them, is exactly what my earnings do for me. with it they take care of their family, they feed, they clothe, they educate, they pamper, they love… essential stuff. they are employees just like most of us… and really they are professionals.

only that their profession has no respect… no face.

i keep hearing people refer to maids and cooks and nannies, often the same person all three rolled into one, as helpers. helper? what’s that? i tell ibi and her niece, remy (with us now eighteen years) as long as they don’t own the word maid and stop viewing themselves as “only maids” and their jobs as lowly and base in some way, they are being unfair to themselves and allowing others to be the same.

i watch how quickly ibi learns things, how well she arranges flowers, or how smart remy is with setting the table, organising things, how good they both are at their work… and i feel the impact, the terrible say, poverty has over lives.

these are two talented women, actually many of the servants (there, i use another taboo word… but really growing up i remember hearing meera’s bhajan, “chakar rakho ji mohe chakar rakho ji…” a hymn to krishna, that says, keep me as your servant… we are all servants really and ha there is no shame in that) that i’ve seen ever since i was a child, are great at what they do and they learn all sorts of skills, plus often they are caring and kind and put up with a lot.

once in a way one of them turns out to be not so good at their work, or they filch, or talk back, or lie… well that happens with even bankers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, presidents, billionaires, copywriters. why we should expect any different, especially from those people who have not even had a fraction of the opportunities the others i mentioned usually have had, is anyone’s guess.

suddenly, the one who has nothing must have the moral standards of a saint and impeccable work ethics, while the ones who have a lot need not bother with any such thing.

no one chooses to be born poor. and this poor is grinding, debilitating, the sort that makes you leave your kids for years and go earn a meagre living somewhere far away. actually if you aren’t seriously poor you wouldn’t take up this job. our first maid, a part timer, was this nearly seventy year old tribal woman who cleaned and did laundry in five homes in jamshedpur, the steel town i moved to after getting married. when we employed her, she asked for a salary of rs 40 (not even one singapore dollar at the current rate, then it would have been about seven dollars), we agreed. i was told later i was spoiling the “rate” which was rs 35. she was working so hard so she could educate her grandson in an english medium school, her only son was a contract labourer and an alcoholic, who earned sporadically.

i wonder when this vast vast number of people who work in homes, who often go from very poor countries to wealthier nations or from villages to cities to earn money in an honourable way so that they can do what every working person does: take care of their families, will be seen as a group that deserves respect, acknowledgement. a group that is pretty essential really.

okay, i know places where the norm is not to hire help for domestic work, in fact it’s sort of looked down on, as in you’re “weak” if you have help, and i know exactly how tough things get in the middle of this mad demanding life of ours… pasta and polyester and a sense of run and rush all the time. sorry, it doesn’t seem exciting.

here, even if it may not be the most well paid job, ibi earns, ibi takes care of her kids’ needs and even desires. her hand phones disappear regularly, how not to give it to daughter or son or whoever if they ask for it.

it was her off day, when she got back, i asked my daughter what she thought of the methi chicken. she said, it was nice but a bit soft.

so i chatted with ibi, who smiled and said, yes, she had noticed that. because she didn’t want the chicken to become too dry, she’d used a bit of corn flour… experrimane. no, next time, that had to go, it also made the dish a tad flat.

and yet, she is no chef.

ibi is our maid. she contributes much to our lives. not that she is faultless. in fact, if you have seen the pink panther strikes again, you may remember cato, the inspector’s chaotic servant… ibi reminds me of cato. including baleful stare and scary tactics. had she been born just a little less poor, we might have never met. who knows, she might have been doing television shows as the experrimane chef.



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