food indi

mutterings over methi chicken

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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  • Reply
    January 18, 2016 at 3:38 am

    It was so wonderful reading this bit. About the profession that has no visiting cards, about these women who we take for granted. Once when I was cribbing about a maid to someone, she had said something that stayed with me. Somadi, just be grateful that they are there. Becuase of them you have the time to do your job and do so mant things you would never had the time for. As you said, that had they not been this poor, we would never have met them!
    Enjoy more experrmanes! Love to Ibi.
    I miss Yani a lot.

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      January 18, 2016 at 10:01 am

      hi soma,

      it is so good to see you, me dancing you read this. one can write books on the subject. i tried my hardest not to go on… i wanted to make a point. so unfair… billions of people struck by poverty, so much potential in them lying unrealised, them living in dire unwealth… where are the ideas that will change that. bring more and more people into the fold of those who have… and really, domestic work is a pretty essential sector, especially if you want those skilled at other things to be freed up to do what they can do… plus, it never harmed anyone to have freshly cooked interesting food every day or good care at home. the world is now restaurant and fast food eating all the time (we’ll pay $200 dollars on a meal, talk much about social justice and philanthropy). people have forgotten to wear cottons and real yarns, because they need ironing… and on the other side innumerable people live in sick poverty. so where is the harm if they work with honour and are not sold into other horrific things and run their homes? offer some hope to their families?
      it’s not as though high and mighty economic ideas are actually making much difference, the number of the poor keeps growing… and the statistics on slavery and prostitution just keeps getting more and more horrific.
      tell you, this whole thing needs to be looked at honestly and with intelligence. singapore and other countries allow domestic workers to come to their countries not out of a sense of charity… it’s because they are needed… for the betterment of many things. and really we all know how much our children love their titas and anis and how much care they get from them. gosh, i still remember the nannies i loved and the only one i didn’t.
      i made ibi read this piece. she looked mighty pleased… i asked her if she knew cato.

  • Reply
    Nirmala Bhattacharya
    January 18, 2016 at 3:54 am

    Lucky you, here in the US most of us end up doing all the work ourselves even if we can afford to get help.

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      January 18, 2016 at 10:28 am

      hi nirmala,
      i do feel fortunate. i know the system in the us is very different. i wish there was some real understanding of this work and how much it really does for everyone, from the employer to employee and beyond… and the slight frown attached to the idea of domestic help could be examined. i know how much it contributes… yeah, lucky. and as with all relationships and employments, there are risks and disappointments… but it all sure does make life better.

  • Reply
    January 18, 2016 at 7:29 am

    Hey Indi,

    I really enjoyed your rumination on this ‘politically touchy’ topic. There are so many things going through my mind right now… So many points I agree with… From the taboo of what to call domestic help… You better not call them servants… but it does not matter how you treat them. From the expectation of honesty from them… when a request for increase in pay is met with horrified denials, while simultaneously paying more for a single meal in a restaurant than we pay them in an entire month. Oh also lets not forget that a request for monetary help will more often than not result in a list of everything that the poor employer is suffering from at that moment. And wrecking the pay curve… making life difficult for the rest of the honest employers… From defending your right to hire them in face of silent and sometimes not so silent accusations of laziness and avoidance of responsibility. My personal favorite is that arch look brimming with sympathy for my poor husband.
    In our culture though, we have experts, as you call them, for pretty much every possible necessity within the house, from cooking, to cleaning, to ‘ooper walay kaam’, to gardening, to driving. Frankly there is no shame in hiring or actually being the help. This is how our society worked. And actually during the times of my grandmother and even my mother…the relationship could span over generations. The parents would work for the parents and children would work for children. If someone has been with you for twenty years or more… well they do become part of the family. They became confidantes, advisors, friends. Times are changing though…

    Now your point of Ibi might, under different circumstances, having her own cooking show. What is that saying/quote/prayer… There, but for the Grace of God go I… Circumstance and opportunities… that is the difference, the only difference so help us God!

    So fabulously written Indi… When can I expect an invitation to try out the Chicken Methi? I assure you, I have a very adventurous palette.

    Love and regards,

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      January 18, 2016 at 8:50 am

      hi, saman… come over any time for that methi chicken. 🙂 i’m giggling about the look of sympathy on faces for your husband. really, how lazy are ya. you’re right about relationship between cooks, drivers, cleaners, nannies, bais, jamadars, gardeners and employers. long spanning ones often and at times not even too insistent on impeccable honesty… or very high standards of skills. there was a give and take, exactly as one has with employees anywhere else. and honestly, i feel this is an essential job… no one is doing anyone a favour, and if you have too many people working for you because you’re wealthy, your call, i know of more than enough companies that employ many more than they need when times are good and then “retrench,” “restructure,” “separate” and whatever else when the money runs low… if that’s fine, why isn’t the other? and really, the more i look at the hypocrisy of it all, the more i need to write and scream. the world is getting terribly divided in terms of wealth… the number of the poor increasing every day. the high and mighty economic ideas from so called knowledgeable people have not yet provided a solution as to how to train and make work ready these zillions of people, nor are their jobs being offered to them. so where exactly is the problem in people working as domestic help, feeding their fams, getting their kids educated, and hoping at some point they will be able to move up the crazy ladder of economic/social life. if they are not employed, superman will not be landing up to do any of that for them. i heard many years ago that the overseas filipino workers (read mainly maids) send back 8 billion dollars to their country every year. i can only feel hope and respect in that. i wonder what the contribution of domestic workers is to the economy of india… can’t be small. and there’s the contribution that you don’t see, can’t count… by helping with the smooth running of homes, by allowing people to do what they want to do, they contribute to the much obsessed about economy and gdp, at this point a raizada interjection must be added, dammit.
      yeah… crux… as you say… circumstances and opportunity.
      no one chooses to be poor. and really poverty is the most violent thing on earth. every single day, every minute, it kills you, makes you less.

      so when can i expect you.

  • Reply
    rhea sinha
    January 18, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    Indi di specially after coming to the US so many times has this thought crossed my mind, that maids and cooks, even drivers and the ironwala and dhobi were so essential in allowing me to have time to do what I felt like. The longer they have been at your house the more part of the home they become, but I also remember fondly the ones that have been with me for only a year or two. When I was learning to set my new home, when I was young and wanting someone to be a buyer at my clothes shop that had hankies feauturing as sarees. So many memories this post brings. Am glad you and Inja have Ibi and Remy.

    And am very happy you wrote a piece like this. These feel like the most tricky ones to write. So close to our hearts, and we wonder if we are going overboard (or atleast I do), but I find these very very special reads.

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      January 18, 2016 at 4:15 pm

      hi rhea, 🙂
      bahut glad you liked the piece. i have, as you have, gown up around people who come and work at our homes, and yes, even the ironing guy, the dhobi, and others and i have never thought of them as anything other than part of life. as i grew older and ran my own home, i appreciated how big their contribution is. poverty is the most unfair thing ever… but in the face of it if you seek a profession that lets you earn honourably as the way to go forward, how wonderful is that. here the rich and famous merrily steal and fudge and batteries of lawyers and others, including media, shield them… so much easier for a poor person to turn to crime, and yet… billions of poor people choose otherwise, they come and work, they earn… they often don’t get any respect… i don’t say, none of them makes mistakes or does things not so above board… but really most don’t… they serve with care and consistency, even with the most boring jobs at times… then we talk about how wonderful we are to our servants, sorry… helper. aaargh.

      honestly when i see how capable and smart many of the cooks, nannies, maids, drivers, gardeners i have seen, i also realise the great part where you’re born plays in your life. that i can’t change or fight… but surely we can give this job a name… and respect. and accept it is important and contributes hugely. tricky subject… yes. very easily it can start sounding sanctimonious. i was worried… but it just hit me as i took that helping of methi chicken and i said, what the… likhte hain. thank you so much… hankies as sarees? i want to go to this shop.
      every person i have ever employed has left an impression on me, even the two whom i had to let go… poverty, rhea, is a killing thing.

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