I’ve decided
I’ll get
a Christmas tree!

an imaginary one
in every room
following me around

filled with glittering stars
plucked straight out
of my sky

ribbons of silver
and blue
from kanchipuram’s looms

garlands of jasmine
from kennedy
and eglinton

and at its top
will sit
a bird

a sweet nightingale
singing and calling out
to my dead brother.

Renuka Mendis
Toronto, December 10, 2017


There is only one day when Ambal Trading closes its store in Toronto

Tomorrow, Monday, November 27 is a day of commemoration for many Tamil people.
My beloved Ambal Trading on Parliament Street will be closed on Monday. This also happens to be the only day they close the store in the year. Ambal Trading has kept me grounded for so long. They’ve been open for quarter of a century from what I’ve heard. A true Toronto-Tamil institution which has kept me alive.

I lit a candle last night.
I will light another tonight.
I will light another tomorrow.

Mankind has an embarrassment of riches in its count of thefts and losses. In all seriousness we should start a candles-lit count.

sacred leaves

Here. Mango leaves hanging in an apartment in Toronto. Bought at Ambal Trading.


There. Jaffna onion saplings on its iconic red soil. Circa 2013.





Renuka Mendis, Toronto, November 26, 2017

Note: Content originally posted on Facebook. Photo credits by the author.

Tomato Sandwiches for Estha

All I needed was a lime. Needed as much as Estha needed to make sense of why he was being sent off to his father on the Madras Mail train. As much as Estha didn’t want to be sent off from Ayemenem I just didn’t want to go outside. The contrast in the weather was it. From torrid thirty Celsius to a suddenly sorrowful ten. It’s hard to adjust though we have done it many times before.

Just one lime,

for pol sambol,

To eat with bread

go home for a little bit.

Unable to walk up the road to get a lime. Feet refusing to step outside. Heavy as great big logs. Or was it the reminder subconscious of the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man that kept me from walking up the road in search of citrus. The reminder of reminders of other Orangedrink Lemondrink Men. They’re all men aren’t they. The weird cousin. The babysitter. The makers of bamboo boats. Gardeners of bangali rosa.

No lime. No pol sambol for bread. Yet several tomatoes ignore me on the shelf, ripening. For cold soup which still needed lime or lemon. I was still not going out. Not today. Not even for sweet comfort food from school days. Great big plates or parcels of tomato sandwiches. I lived off them. Buttered or margarined depending on my mother’s kitchen budget. Bread stuffed with a tomato sambol made with sliced onion, green chillies all seasoned liberally with pepper and salt. Most of all lime. But no lime for sandwiches either. Even Astra margarine tasted muscularly rich those days. And then it all came back, what Arundhati snuck into my heart as I read alone. That tiffin box of tomato sandwiches Ammu makes for Estha for the train ride, the banishment. The saving.

It is true I have been a bit obsessed over Roy’s writing since encountering The Ministry of Utmost Happiness which is awaiting a re-read. Although I had read God of Small Things when first published for some strange reason I had completely forgotten everything I had read. As if it had been lobotomized by literary lobotomizers. I finished the re-read the other night. Perhaps Arundhati Roy has now become my favourite living writer for the truths she illuminates about families and love. About birth families and families we create. About justice. And about injustices that are unearned making sense of the world. Most writers take you to the edge of the abyss and push you over. Arundhati never does that. She walks into the river holding you by the hand and closes the circle while feeding you fire and tomato sandwiches. Because she’s a gentle soul.

The rule around here as fast and true as the rule for who will be loved and who will not be loved, is the hard and fast rule that there are no tomato sandwiches without lime or lemon. Yet, thinking of Estha’s banishment-escape-salvage-train-ride I started making tomato sandwiches without any Limedrinkman limes. My beloved school days lime and black pepper drenched tomato sandwiches replaced by Estha’s tomato sandwiches in his tiffin box on the Madras Mail, the “Flying Rani.” If you have read Roy this will make sense to you. If you have not then you will have to read The God of Small Things post haste. Until then you can try my tomato sandwiches although I doubt if these are what Ammu packed for Estha that day. Or was it Kochu Maria who made them. Kochu Maria who sliced the bread, the tomatoes. Kochu Maria who buttered the bread. I will have to ask Arundhati when I see her next time. I hope she is writing another book because I cannot get enough of her.

This will make two good sandwiches for lunch for one. Best to be had with a book in bed with a pot of tea.

You will need:

Four slices of good whole wheat bread (I made mine) toasted.

Butter softened to near spreadable consistency.

Mayonnaise – Hellmann’s Real works for me. Always.

A good and very ripe medium sized tomato sliced thin.

A shallot or quarter of a small red onion sliced very thin.

A few small green chillies to taste, sliced thin.

Salt and pepper to taste.

Olive oil to taste.

A fat peeled garlic cut in two lengthwise.

Make the sandwich:

In a small bowl season the sliced onion and chillies with salt and pepper to taste. In a separate bowl season the sliced tomatoes with salt to taste and toss gently without bruising the flesh too much.

Take the toasted bread and carefully grate the cut side of garlic on one side of each slice. Don’t overdo it as it will taste too garlicky and overwhelm the tomatoes. Butter one side of the other two slices liberally.

Lay the garlic-infused slices garlic side up on a cutting board. Arrange the tomato slices in several layers letting the juice somewhat drench the garlicky bread. Spread a few dollops of mayonnaise as you prefer over the tomatoes. Sprinkle the onion and chillies, not too much just so you have a hint of onion though feel free to go overboard on the chillies. Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil. If you have none drizzle some Indian or Sri Lankan sesame oil and think of Tilo and Ammu.


Fresh green chillies, especially the un-mature tiny ones (preferably straight out of the garden) marry well with tomatoes if you can handle it. I love how it burns the tongue while the tomato sweet talks to soothe. Possibly why I live for tomato sandwiches. That contrast of sweet sweet tart tomato against the stabbingly piercing chillie burn. Definitely illicit.

It must be said the key to a happy tomato sandwich is also in the right seasoning. Just the right amount of salt and pepper. Especially the salt and not too much pepper. The tomato will refuse to sing without the perfect amount of salt and too much pepper will make her go mute. Like what happened to Estha. Remember the important lesson of how Estha stopped talking. All the lessons. Breaks my heart this cruel fucking world and its rules for love and not-love.

But I digress. Top with the buttered slices. Carefully cut in half on diagonal or straight. Depends on whether you are reading in bed or on the sofa. Diagonal can get spilly messing up the sheets. Yet, the solace of tomato sandwiches will reign. Spills, crumbs and Orangedrink Lemondrink Men be damned.


Renuka Mendis, Toronto

October 9, 2017



The City, awash, in Lilac

It was May long weekend. My dear friend Leah made a big dish of lasagne and had me over. Their back yard in the annex was thriving. The quince tree was in bloom in scarlet flowers. Their lilac tree was in the later stages of bloom but not a thought of fading. Two houses away a wisteria canopy over the back porch. Walking to the subway towards Bloor all the lilac trees were fragrant. Laden with perfect flowers sometimes their perfume mingled with the waxy richness of Lily of the Valley.

the chill and the rain
a lot of rain
left us a bounty
to fill a thousand temples
for love for each other



Heavenly blossoms – sweetly fragrant – soft like clouds.


Bordered in white lines drawn by whom?


Garlands for the braid of an apsara, celestial or terrestial, as the sun waned reminding me of heavy jasmine garlands.


Closer to transient perfection – same garland – jasmine-like yellow centres.


Spring’s magic, that only lilac proves.


Magical. Same tree, same branch, different flowers.

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, May 25, 2017

A pin, a staple or a needle? Yet it draws blood. With Rinaldo Walcott

Life is full of betrayals. Yawn. Cliche. I know.

But don’t you hate it when you think you are in a safe seat and you end up getting scraped and bloodied. Was it a needle? A pin. Or a lost staple.  Whatever it was which left my lower thigh well and truly scraped at Innis Town Hall today it’s one thing I didn’t need.  What is it that even on the best days, in the best spaces you get to inhabit every few years you end up doing something completely stupid like this. Getting your blood drawn by a very thin metal object hidden inside a foam seat? Is it a metaphor? If so when was a sponge a metaphor except for absorbing everything. Not a Trojan Horse for an attack weapon for unsuspecting idealists. Forget the damn pin, needle or whatever the hell it was. What exhausted me was not injury but my efforts to ensure no one else gets hurt tomorrow or the day after. Especially tomorrow. Day two of #blacklike. The officials at UofT’s Innis Town Hall don’t have their ears (and hearts?) turned to safety that well. It took some explaining including a blood stained tissue to prove to them that even a soft seat has the potential to injure. But let us talk about tomorrow.  It will be day two of Black Like.  Just make sure you don’t take the seat I was in today.  Before tomorrow some notes from today.

Here’s what went down today and will go down tomorrow. Right here at Blacklikewho.ca: “These conversations will celebrate 20 years of Black Like Who?: Writing Black Canada, while also centralizing Walcott’s fantastic (in the Richard Iton sense) oeuvre of writings on black studies, queer theory, diaspora studies.”

The morning panel was an invocation of quotes and content from Walcott’s writing and what they meant to each one of the presenters. What I say here may likely be direct quotes or thoughts from notes I took down. At the end of the first panel the audience sat silent swimming in thought and ideas having been taken to another place where we had never been. I’ll try to riff on what I heard with apologies to the presenters and to Mr. Walcott. In his new book Queer Returns he takes us to a new imagination of humanity. A creole way of being. We will be hearing about that tomorrow.

Speaking to a participant we talked about how the language we use affects how we feel. As if we are two (or three, or four) different beings. One for English. Another for another native tongue and then we become another person in creole. Now, more than ever, we need another language of being by rejecting the multicultural lie.  “A grammar for blackness.”

The Canadian multicultural experiment, just like the colonial experiment, has stripped communities and different diaspora of a full humanity. This continues. What is it that we are constantly told by those who are already in places of power. Be like us. Reinvent yourself. What they do not articulate is that like god’s purported desire to make sure man was made in god’s own image the mainstream’s siren call for reinvention is not dissimilar. Be like us. Reinvent the way we want you to be. Or you don’t be. That is the Canadian experiment. A continuation of the colonial experiment.

Today we got the best nuggets of Walcott’s thoughts and words as an examination of what is happening to us and our bodies, and how the dominant society is implicated in entangling black people and people of colour in a web of controls and corrals. Of systemic exclusions and disablements and death itself. I must qualify that the discussion was mainly based on the black experience. However those experiences translate equally into the experiences of people of colour; if not directly but very close.

So here is what I saw and heard today: A riff of sorts.

James Baldwin, Stuart Hall

looking backward AND forward in time.

Refusing to bow down to the master text of the West.

Christina Sharpe! Christina Sharpe! “Writing blackness is difficult work.”

Still. Jogging.

s t i l l

Share pain, pleasure, displacement and hope.

A series of returns again and again.

The flood at the Toronto islands.

Regent Park lies of gentrification and progress. But progress for whom?

It’s a tough geography – Canada 150

Caribana is fifty

Still. Carding. Financializing.

Black gifts to Toronto – Blackorama, Caribana

Dionne Brande. Beloved.

Kissing my ass could bring you closer to god.

Never gonna be respectable.

Black? for whom?

Masonic temple Not gonna do it.


law for chattled persons

grammar’s sonic register

Nova Scotia what happened?

the american imperial state at pearson airport

the “other” line full of blacks and asians

nostalgia is a lie

fungibility is fertile ground for flight

creep – Radiohead


no language is neutral

Sylvia Wynter

Shad on beloved Q

Baldwin on Richard Wright’s Native Son

Failure of protest novel

state violence

In the Wake

Moonlight, Get Out.

Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates

how to live in a black body

The body is a place of captivity

The body is a place of domesticated space

The body is regulated, inhabited, invaded.


Christina Sharpe – look laterally not hierarchically

cultural workers of any stripe

Forty acres and a horse

subsistence farmers

holding space is too material

accountability to each other
policy does not save anything

policy does not dictate action

holding each other

policy does not save lives

not prison reform – but no prisons

bailing out black mamas

black freedom and liberation

the long emancipation

hold dearly to one’s speculative political imagination


on Trump – voicing support for the FBI. are we?

fear of the abyss in face of the destruction of the state

grammars for thinking blackness

logics inscribed on your bodies

kinds of ways black body is seen and explained

grammar’s rules and regulations

articulating impossibility of adhering to rules and regulations

a grammar for blackness – a radical move

I am arguing for the impossibility of Black Canadian Studies – RW

assemble fragments of our lives

run, jog, stand still

listen! disobediently cos  we’re jammin’ still.


Update: May 26, 2017

A brief update from UofT with respect to pins and needles:

“After several search attempts, a single sewing pin was located and removed from the cushion.  The day before the event that you attended, the theatre hosted the Toronto’s Knitters Gild.  Unfortunately, it seems one of the attendees sewing needles made its way into the seat cushion.

We have had no other complaints from anyone sitting in the same seat, therefore it would seem you are the only person to come in contact with it.
If you still have medical concern, please see your medical doctor.
On behalf of Innis Town Hall, I apologize that you have had a negative experience.”



Renuka Mendis

Toronto – May 18, 2017

Tahini heaven with an assist by Feta

This tastes like everything. A salad. A main course and yes even an ice cream sundae in bits and pieces.


Sundae Salad starring Tahini dressing and Feta

Every kitchen must have a bottle of tahini going. Some doenjang in the fridge not to mention several favourite vinegars and at least a few kinds of seeds. Every cook must be able to properly roast a chicken regularly with no effort. Thus a steady supply of leftover cold roast chicken. As to good veg what can beat broccoli eh?

The taste of mysteriousness in tahini, the ice creamy taste that apple and honey brings combined with the saucy sense you are eating a good meat roast with two veg thanks to the chicken and yes, veg.  I oughta call this Sundae Salad. Kept taking me back to one of the earliest Sundae experiences from my youth in Colombo. The knickerbockerglories at Zellers in Bamba near our school. Some of my early and sweetest food related memories. With everything from nougat, a jammy cherry-like thing on top, toasted cashews ground up, toasted peanuts, some fruit, and so on and so forth all in air-conditioned Colombo comfort. If Halo Halo were a salad this might perhaps come close but then you might want to debate me on that.

Why it even hand hints of bagel. Toasted poppy seed topping. That’s what. By accident one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Been longing for a tahini dressing fix and happened to have perfect roast chicken (not that dry stuff), steamed broccoli and a day full of distractions with a long neglected piece of pork shoulder in the bottom of the fridge. A hot day (and now threats of severe thunderstorms and notice Ontario’s first Tornado happened today, or was it yesterday). The delicate little flowers on the tree outside in bloom like a great big bouquet and Marisa Lazo got easy bail. Rightly so. Lots of excitement around and spring allergies abound. I’m thinking thank heavens Marisa Lazo did not decide to climb a crane today because I’ve so far noticed high winds, rain, possibly lightening coming soon. A good day for a salad eh?

As to the dressing the core of the story is tahini. Made smokier with doenjang and a little smoked paprika. The dressing supplemented by lemon juice, sesame oil and consistency adjusted with water. Grace Hot Sauce gave it an edge and the vinegar a hint of tang. The mystery ingredient is grated ancient apple that has been sitting in the bottom of my fridge possibly since January. Ha ha. Appears it lost something and gained something over time. Honestly. No onion by the way. It would be too harsh and definitely sacrilegious.

Here goes. No strict recipe but general idea appears below. Try to match it or feel free to improvise and substitute. This is a keeper for me with hot days to come soon. Amounts are approximations and likely this could easily be the only square meal one might need once a day; and definitely happy-making.

Ingredients for Tahini dressing

About 1/3 – 1/2 cup tahini well mixed so it is not just oil

About 1/4 cup lemon juice

2-3 tablespoons of microplaned ripe sweet apple (skinned) (or pureed)

1-2 tablespoons of sesame oil

1 teaspoon of honey or more to taste

1/2 – 1 teaspoon doenjang (or miso in a pinch)

1/2 teaspoon Grace Hot Pepper Sauce (or your favourite vinegary hot sauce) or more to taste

1 – 1 1/2 teaspoon or more to taste of Ceylon Coconut Vinegar (or malt vinegar if in a pinch)

1 small clove garlic, microplaned into a fine ground light mush

A pinch of smoked paprika

Ingredients for salad

1 1/2 to 2 cups steamed broccoli florets, chilled. Then sliced thin lengthwise into fork-sized pieces

About a cup of cold cooked roast chicken cut into 1/2 or 3/4 inch cubes. Make sure it is not dry or overcooked.

1/2 cup cubed cucumber cut into 3/4 inch cubes

1/2 cup cubed ripe tomato

1/4 cup seeded green pepper cut into bite sized pieces

a little cold water to adjust consistency

salt and pepper to taste

Topping for Sundae Salad

About a 1/4 cup of largely crumbled feta

About two tablespoons of toasted pumpkin seeds (toasted under broiler and cooled)

About a tablespoon of toasted poppy seeds (just put under broiler for a minute or two till it starts to hint at smoke). Leave to cool.


First the salad dressing. Place all ingredients in bowl and whip it together with whisk.  It should be a creamy consistency, like heavy whipping cream. If it is too thick adjust consistency by adding cold water in drops. Taste for seasoning and adjust acid, heat and sweetness as well as salt and if needed pepper. If you want to do this in a food processor, go ahead. Still I feel the garlic and the apple should be pureed or microplaned just before using so it’s a smooth fine ground fresh mush.

Lightly combine vegetables and chicken in a bowl. Add enough salt and pepper and adjust seasoning. Using half the vegetable chicken mix, place in two serving bowls. Dribble generously with dressing then half the nuts and poppy seeds. Add rest of salad ingredients and dribble more dressing. Then top with feta and remaining nuts and poppy seed.

If there is excess dressing, refrigerate in sealed container for a few days. But likely you’ll want more dressing as you mow through your Sundae Salad.


Serves two as a light meal or one very very hungry person.

Sardines comfort after terrible Day One at India v Australia in Bengaluru


Given their small size everthing is crisp and you eat them like chips. Crunchy. Fishbutty anyone?

I taste kiri hodhi in sauce Bearnaise. Should I call it Baranasi Source? I taste pol sambol in Grace Hot Pepper Sauce.

So when I ran into a bag of frozen sardines at No Frills for $3.50 memories of childhood treats of fried fish, pol sambol and fresh bread from the bakery up the road came flooding back. Outside the weather was brutal. The type where your ears freeze and fall off and dogs carry them off for TV snacks. Yet. Buses still ran. I was out of toilet paper. The trip had to be made. I could’ve easily chickened out Friday night after work and headed straight home. But a great big No Frills I’d never been to was around the corner. Those big huge ones you usually find closer to the City’s edge where the aisles are huge and the stocks are vast. For example, the No Frills at Dufferin Mall though it’s not at the city’s edge. It’s there to make sure all the Italian nonas, Portuguese and Chinese mamas are made happy. A deli, great veg. Good butcher section. Fresh fish. It’s a fiesta going to that place. And way cheaper than Loblaws. Those thieves. The one I went to at week’s end on Friday night was not up to that level but still it was strollable and any respite from stepping out into subarctic vortex-like chill was salvation.

Back to sardines. Little ones no more than 2-4 inches long. The best for me. Flash frozen while still jumping on the boat. Fried fish, bread and pol sambol is mothers milk to me. Not had often but cravings take me there. A treat my mother made for me. Just for me. Not with sardines but with Salayas a.k.a. Belt Fish in Chinatown. A very bony fish with sweet tasting flesh best had with a crusty loaf and pol sambol doused with fresh lime juice. She’d make it for me before heading out in the morning to teach and sending me off to school lighting up my day as I walked into daily confusions. Back to sardines in the  hear and now.

Stocked up with toilet paper and fish at No Frills. The berries were just not worth having. Puny and pricey. Ridiculously pricey. The bus did not take long so dogs couldn’t have a treat of my frozen earlobes. Got home. Threw the bag of fish in the freezer and hit the sack to catch some sleep before the massacre to come via live-stream from Bengaluru at 11:00p.m. After Pune we’ve all been worried if India had lost it’s way. On Saturday night in EST it had. Fortunately I kept falling asleep through the night so the horror was seen through a snow globe of sleep and weary limbs. Yes in Pune Kohli was out for zero. He did twelve times better Saturday in Bengaluru. He was out for 12. And all of the Indian team have 189 to show for it. It’s subarctic outside. The neighbour is spewing cheap dope smoke through the wall and the window is open so I don’t smell that shit. I hate my life.

I keep waking up all night long on Day One. Throughout the night hearing Ravi Shastri still sounding all upbeat. Why can’t they sound funereal. To match the proceedings. That’s what kills me these commentators. Always upbeat. Drives you to drink at 4:00a.m. you know. As in a nightmare saw the last wicket fall. And in a continuing nightmare Aussies are 40 and no wickets fallen at end of Day One. Hell. That’s what you call a rough night at cricket with or without drinking. The salvation was sleep at 6:05a.m. on Saturday.

Still little sleep to be had and up at 10:30a.m. with sparkling light through my huge windows. A clear blue sky harassing sleep and still frigid out. Very frigid. Violently so. Makes one thankful to be inside. I wanted more sleep but wanted comfort more after last night’s hell. Best to mix some dough and get more sleep. One thing led to another. A basic focaccia was made. Fish was fried and sandwiches were had. Papers were read in bed. A holiday was taken away from the world. Fried sardines on fresh bread with dousings of Grace Hot Pepper Sauce.

Pics: Time travel to Kotahena circa 1970 by way of fish, chillies and bread. The horror of an awful Day One in Bangaluru was temporarily forgotten. Click on photos for gallery with captions and guidance on frying fish.

So. How to fry fish. Small fish especially. Or any fish cut up. In Portugal sardines run from May into as late as December. Here in Toronto if you live anywhere near little Portugal you’ll smell them grilling as the weather warms making you crazy. The fatter the sardine the better is what I’ve heard. That’s how the Portuguese allegedly do it. Which is fine enough.

Balapitiya where my father hails from down south is also a town where many fisherfolk inhabit or did when we used to go there as children. Mendis, Zoysa, Silva are the names. Portuguese derivatives or direct descendants one may argue, or not. Those mad seafaring folk. Remnants of the  Portuguese colonizers. These wild seafaring cousins of mine and allegedly of Sinhala Buddhist clans. A type of small Tuna is very famous in that area. Balaya. Though my father’s family wouldn’t dare kill a fish (though they ate them from the market) and no meat was ever cooked in their home my father grew up to be an avid angler and hunter. I can say I know a thing or two about good fish.

Small sardines or similar fish, be it anchovies, herrings or small fish from the same family are beloved. Often deep fried. Basic seasoning that goes into it is a liberal amount of turmeric powder, fresh ground black pepper, fresh ground dried red chillies with sea salt (or use kosher). This is the general recipe for all fish that is fried in my family. And as soon as it comes out of the deep frying pot you drain it on newsprint or paper towels. Season some more with salt in case it needs that. Douse it in fresh lime (there were no lemons in the Ceylon I grew up in). When frying small fish the entire point is to make it crunchy so the entire fish and bones is edible. The same treatment is given to chunkier and larger fish. These small fish are ideal as small fish go so you can eat the entire fried fish, bones and all. However the Portuguese sardine tradition seems to go for the fattest sardine. But what do I know.

Fried sardine sandwiches – Makes about five sandwiches which will serve two to three unless you are really really hungry and depressed after a bad night at cricket.


About 10-15 very small sardines (each about 4-5 inches long)

Oil for deep frying

Teaspoon or more Turmeric powder

Fresh ground black pepper to taste

Dry red chillie flakes

Sea salt crystals (or in powder form)

Grace Hot Pepper Sauce (or similar like Tabasco) – alternatively use fresh Lime/Lemon juice

Good crusty loaf of bread for about five sandwiches. Or fresh focaccia. See link to recipe below.

Margarine or butter.

How to: For about five sandwiches I used fresh baked focaccia which gives the sandwich some heft. Use any good crusty bread cut into thick slices. You will need three to four fish per sandwich. As an introduction all you need is liberally buttered bread, seasoned fish as described and then deep fried, Grace Hot Pepper Sauce or similar. Or just use fresh lime/lemon juice. If no hot sauce you can up the dry red chillie seasoning. I’ve become very fond of the Grace Hot Pepper Sauce option because you simply splash it on and it’s perfect. I’ve come to like it even better than the lime/lemon juice on fish. Also saves the trouble of citrus remnants sitting around in the fridge. Not to downplay importance of citrus juice on fried fish or any fish but this works. Trust me.

First preheat oven to 350F.

If using frozen fish make sure they are singly frozen. Place in bowl in cold water and they will defrost. Keep changing the water every ten minutes or so and ensure it’s really cold. Takes about 20 minutes at most. As they defrost carefully remove the scales using your thumbnail. Don’t break the skin beneath the scales. Gut the fish using tips of fingers by pulling out the gills and intestines. Rinse in cold water. Drain and dry gently using paper towels. Place in a dry bowl.

Add the seasonings to cleaned fish. First roughly grind up the dry red chillie flakes with salt in a small mortar and pestle. The salt will act as an abrasive to make it easier. Not to powder it but a rough grind so there’s still texture. Add it to the fish along with turmeric and fresh ground black pepper. Lightly mix with fingers.

Ensure oven preheated to 350F.  Get yourself an oven proof tray to keep the fried fish hot and place in oven. Once oven is ready heat oil to 375F in a deep pot. Fry in small batches of no more than four or five fish. Fry till crispy and brown. Drain on paper towels. Don’t over fry then it gets too stringy. As soon as the oil is drained (a minute or two) transfer to tray in oven to keep hot and keep frying till you’re done with the entire batch. Transfer to oven as they drain.

If using focaccia cut into sandwich sized rectangles where 3-4 whole fried fish can fit in. Or slice a good crusty loaf and butter the slices. Lay about 3-4 fish per sandwich laying it flat on one slice. Douse fish with hot sauce. If you don’t have hot sauce fresh lemon or lime juice will do. If no hot sauce make sure to increase the amount of red dry chillies in the seasoning. That is unless you are not keen on it being too hot.

Eat while the fish is still hot in between the slices. Would be great with drinks or a big pot of tea on a lazy weekend with the newspapers.

Focaccia recipe via New York Times: https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1014533-whole-wheat-focaccia

You can use any oil. For this I used sesame oil (the South asian type not the Chinese oil which is too strong).

Pics and recipe by Renuka Mendis.

Toronto, March 5, 2017

Tricks with Yorkshire Pudding made in Ceylon, circa 1927


Yorkshire Pudding recipe from the Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book. At page 56.

Are you mad? You might say. Yorkshire Pudding in Ceylon? What. Still in the colonial age? Actually not quite. This recipe comes from the Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book, first published in 1927. Since I could walk and talk this is the only cookbook that was at home and referred to often whenever guidance was needed. Not for roasting meat and eating strange puddings with it but for ghee rice, lamprais, milk toffee, high-trad sweetmeats, more rice and almost all the curries. A fascinating amalgam of  issaraha kaema and passa paththe kaema. What? No matter that’s another story. Point is the recipe posted above is not representative of the entire cook book. It was an amalgam of all the food you might want to create. From soups to nuts. Tamil, Malay, Sinahala and Kandyan recipes. Various toffees and even a fascinating section for Invalid Cookery. Jellies for when you are sick et al.  I have pored over this magical gem of a book since I could start to read and it is beloved in many a Sri Lankan home. Later as the family grew my mother’s expanding collection of recipe sources in Women and Home, a British magazine which got mailed to her and those she collected herself in her own handwritten recipe book supplemented our access. Every day during the week there was Housewife’s Choice on the radio where recipes were read out and my mother quickly managed to write down as it was read out too fast by the announcer. When the need for birthday cakes turned up she took  cooking classes where mostly Western fancy food was taught and those too have ended up in her recipe book. Back to Yorkshire.

I must have been in my teens when I tried this recipe. Once. I was not impressed. This was before the days of muffin tins or bun tins. I did not get the point of it at the time. But I tried and it was edible. I would have far preferred a fresh baked slice of bread from the bakery up the road. Because the recipe did not tell you about preheating the generously oiled baking tin to smoking; we missed out on the golden crusty glory that Yorkshire Pudding truly is. Then I forgot all about it.

In the early eighties when I set up house and wanted the mysteries of flesh fully unraveled I came across a Yorkshire pudding recipe once again but in a different book. Step by Step Guide to Meat Cookery by Audrey Ellis. Though once again not bothered with until I ended up in Canada. Meat was more plentiful and ingredients more accessible for a broader and varied culinary existence. Eggs were cheap and milk was cheaper. Most of all meat seemed more affordable. Especially beef. I probably had forgotten about both the meat cookery book and the old recipe from home for Yorkshire pudding by then.

Soon after I set up home here in Toronto, and almost by accident as I was reviewing what I call the Meat Cookery Book I came upon this recipe in the Audrey Ellis Book. It’s easy to miss as it is only mentioned in passing in a paragraph. By then I had accumulated at least one muffin tin and this is the perfect Yorkshire pudding recipe for me. I load the tins with lard or oil (almost a centimeter) and heat it up to high heavens before adding the batter to it. This is the key to the crispy wonder they become. The ubiquitous twelve a tray muffin tins really make this easy work. So make sure you have one (or two). This, in my books is the best recipe to accompany roasts that it has almost become sacred around here. It’s simple and basic but crisp and tender. It’s nothing fancy. The recipe makes a little under dozen small individual ones. I’ve come across recipes for huge ones on the internet but these are perfect. No other recipe will do and I now have a long relationship with this one and will not let go.

Yorkshire Pudding (Recipe  Adapted from Step by Step Guide to Meat Cookery by Audrey Ellis. Recipe at Page 10 hidden away in a paragraph.)  Makes about 10-12 small puddings which should serve two to four people easily as accompaniment to Roast Beef with usual trimmings and gravy and a good red.


2 oz. (1/2 cup US) all purpose flour

pinch of salt

1 egg

1/4 pint (US 2/3 cup) milk or a mix of milk and water

In a large bowl whisk the flour with the salt using a balloon whisk so salt is fully incorporated. Or you may prefer to sift the flour into the bowl with the salt. Make a well in the centre and add the egg. Also pour the milk/water to the well. Using a wooden spoon or the whisk first combine the egg with the liquid and slowly draw in the flour surrounding the well. Go slow at first so there are no lumps. I feel a whisk does a better job of de-lumping in the early stages.

Anyhow the “well” in the middle technique is a basic batter skill that you already know about; very likely. It’s also how crepes are made.

You will end up with a smooth batter with tiny bubbles in it. Cover and let it rest for about an hour or even a bit more if you are too busy cooking up a storm.

Oil a 12 tin non-stick (ideally) muffin pan with lard or cooking oil. I usually also make sure to leave about 1/4 cm of oil in bottom of each pan. Preheat oven to 425F and place rack in middle. Heat the oiled muffin tin till it starts to smoke. Remove from oven and divide the batter equally into each of the tins. (Sometimes I only fill about ten tins). Best to use a 2 cup measure with a spout to pour the batter as it gives you more control that way.

Bake for 12 – 15 minutes till crisp and golden brown. Keep an eye on things after 12 minutes so they don’t burn. (It might smoke a bit). I recently learned a trick where you make a slit in each pudding in the last 5 minutes of the cooking time and you put it back in the oven so it does not fall when it comes out of the oven. Also makes the entire confection even crisper which I loved.

Serve straight out of oven and piping hot. It’s important to time this and plan in advance so it’s ready to go minutes before serving with the rest of the meal. Perfect with a good roast beef, veg and gravy. The classics. You can easily let the batter sit outside at room temperature for an hour. If you need more time let it sit in the fridge and bring it out about an hour prior so the batter is not too cold when baked.

Over time I’ve also loved to make these Yorkshire puddings for midnight snacks.  They are marvelous with butter and Marmite. Not habitually but a wonderful go to  treat if you are pulling an all-nighter or watching cricket coming to you from the other side of the world which usually happens while most people are asleep in EST.

Which brings me to the real tricks. And now I digress. Perhaps you will forgive me for not posting a photo of the basic puddings because what I really wanted to talk about was this. Here goes.

Twitter is a dangerous place. As I stayed up all night reading I kept getting distracted pining for late night snacks to go with a good read. What to do. You go on twitter and run into pornographic photos of golden brown Yorkshire puddings rising in the oven making matters worse. Surely I should just have a little yogurt and carry on reading. Or should I perhaps whip up some gougères with a little cheddar (this is at about 2.30a.m.) or isn’t Yorkshire pudding simpler. Whip up some batter and into the oven. Keep reading and out it pops straight into my tummy. Late night yorkies with butter and Marmite. The last one saved to have with a little strawberry jam for desert. This is an entirely other Yorkshire pudding experience which is not conventional. No roast meat involved and usually done in your night clothes while the world sleeps. Can we call them Yorkies then because that’s what we call them around here.

The thin crispy outside is unique in the realm of crispy treats and your teeth sing biting into it cracking up it’s crisp cover. Soft creamy insides are heart melting and sinfully good yet sweetly comforting. Most of all it’s all so irresistible in the wee hours of the morning when you’re a little peckish. My taste buds bamboozled wondering if it’s gougères with cheddar or plain Yorkies. But wait, surely there’s a way to add cheddar to Yorkies batter to make a treat. Who wants to be stirring a pot of desnse choux pastry at 2:30a.m. when batter is easier. Is it possible? Does the science permit it?

That is how in the wee hours I took a break from reading about a foetal Hamlet’s shenanigans (or more from his mother to be precise) and did a quick google search for “Yorkshire pudding variants.” Try it. It’s madness out there. Eight ways to flavour your Yorkshire pudding batter. And so it goes. Why didn’t I ever think of it all these years. Decades. Not even a toad in the hole. Uniquely reserved for roast beef and for last resort late night snacking. The only variant allowed was adding some butter and Marmite on it. Tradition you see. But that night in the company of said foetal Hamlet by way of a certain Mr. McEwan, a little drunk, I broke with tradition.

Of course I know toad in the hole is related. Same thing with a sausage in it. Yorkshire pudding though is a bit too sacred to muddy it with nonsense like some people have been doing of late with hoppers. Colouring it with beetroot to make it look red like red velvet cup cakes, using it as a salad bowl etc. I like consistency in things that have worked for a long time. Things like hoppers, pol roti and definitely Yorkshire pudding.

Despite all the strictness and rules I surprized myself when a slew of recipe ideas talked of throwing a little pesto into the middle of the batter, or a little grated cheddar. Why waste pesto on this. Pesto belongs with pasta and even better in the lustiest sexiest oozing grilled cheese (more on that later except to say it’s homemade bread, mozzarella and a little more of some extremely pungent cheese or the other for depth along with a thin layer of pesto). Since I had some feta floating about in a jar of brine since New Year’s might as well use it, I said to myself. Mushed it up with a little fresh mined parsley. A touch of chilli flakes for heat. Once the batter was in the pan (in little muffin tins) I plopped about a teaspoon each of the feta mixture right in the middle of each pan and baked it as normal. Don’t over-brown it because it will take away the flavour of the feta and parsley. So it’s a bit of a fine balance in the last minutes of baking time. Mine should have come out about two minutes before and is a touch too brown yet scrumptious.

This is also a tiny birthday present for my Yorkshire pudding friend, Saskia. She notices these things and jumped on it when I posted a photo of these Feta Yorkies in some other social media joint and it also happened to be her birthday. I promised to write this up that day but you know how it is.

So this is to February girls. And to Yorkshire pudding. I’ve already posted what I first encountered in our beloved Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book as well as the true recipe for Yorkshire pudding which is the base for the variants below. What follows are two variants. Feta. Cheddar.

When you add things to the batter it does not rise into giants nor is it too rich so expect that. It’s not like this is Tim Hortons. The recipe I use also does not have too many eggs and is very basic which makes the perfect canvas for the flavours, or indeed to sit side by side with a roast. On the issue of too many eggs. I’ve seen many different recipes on line but I believe too many eggs makes it too rich under any circumstances. Why over-egg the pudding.

Parsley Feta Yorkies. Cheddar Yorkies. Perfect for a late night snack or if you’re burning the midnight oil. Or make it for a party straight out of the oven and serve with something bubbly or that ever obliging Vinho Verde. It will be sensational.


Cheddar Yorkies

Cheddar Yorkies – Makes a meaty dozen

Double recipe of Yorkshire pudding batter.

1/2 – 1/3rd cup of good quality old cheddar, grated using medium holes.

Prepare batter. Cover and let batter rest for about 20-30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425F. Prepare the muffin pan as instructed, preheat and fill the muffin tins. Immediately, working quickly and fast add about a teaspoon (divide your cheese to roughly twelve portions) of grated cheddar into the centre of each tin. Bake for 15 minutes watching to make sure they do not over-brown or burn but do not disturb the oven for the first 12 minutes or so.

In the last 3-5 minutes of baking remove the tin and make quarter to half inch slits to let out any steam using a sharp knife and immediately put it back in the oven for a further 3-5 minutes being careful not to let it over-brown.

Bake until golden brown. Remove to a tray lined with paper towels and eat immediately while still hot.

Optional: You may use this recipe without doubling it. You will get smaller and crisper cheddar Yorkies and will have to shorten the baking time a little. I prefer not doubling it.

Parsley Feta Yorkies here from my night with Nutshell:



Parsley Feta Yorkies – Makes a dozen

One recipe of Yorkshire pudding batter. Do not double.

1/2 – 1/3rd cup of good quality Greek feta, mushed up and broken using the back of a fork.

2-4 tablespoons of fresh minced flat leaf parsley (Italian parsley) or to taste

Dry red chillie flakes to taste

Prepare batter. Cover and let batter rest for about 20-30 minutes.

For filling: Mix the feta with parsley and chillie flakes.

Preheat oven, prepare the muffin pan, preheat as instructed and add fill the muffin tins. Immediately, working quickly and fast add about a teaspoon (divide your feta mixture to roughly twelve portions) of grated cheddar into the centre of each tin. Bake for 15 minutes watching to make sure they do not over-brown or burn but do not disturb the oven for the first 12 minutes or so.

In the last 3-5 minutes of baking remove the tin and make quarter to half inch slits using a sharp knife and immediately put it back in the oven for a further 3-5 minutes being careful not to let it over-brown.

Bake until golden brown. Remove to a tray lined with paper towels and eat immediately while still hot.

Renuka Mendis, Toronto

February 25, 2017.


Deutrom, Hilda. Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book. Revised Fifth Edition. Lake House Bookshop. 1964. (at page 56).

Ellis, Audrey. Step by Step Guide to Meat Cookery.  UK Edition. The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited. 1974.

McEwan, Ian. Nutshell. Alfred A. Knopf Canada. 2016

Luxury is Sauce Béarnaise


If anyone asked me what was the best thing I did in the last few months I’d probably forgotten the answer. Memories of a million culinary escapes tend to get buried and lost in ice storms and mental fuzz that February brings. However if you asked about the last day or so I’m still dreaming of the luxury of Béarnaise sauce on my tongue with teasings of moist salmon washed down with cheap Portuguese vinho verde. The wine’s memories of sweet summer now a long dead dream I swear will never be recovered.

Just as Julia said you need to master the art of French cooking. Not to show off nor to waste on the unworthy. Making a fine sauce is its own reward and it’s slightly dangerous, this one. It’s a bit like tightrope walking because ideally it’s made by hand and there should be no machinery involved. A large bowl over a pan of simmering hot water is where the sauce is conceived, gelled and born.

If your whipping hand is too slow or the simmering steam is too hot you end up making scrambled eggs, I am told. On the other hand if it’s not hot enough you’ll be whipping a good while and consequently learn to adjust the amount of heat to allow just the right rate of slow thickening when the whip leaves ephemeral ski trails of it’s tracks on the surface. Pure joy.

I refuse to serve salmon without this sauce to accompany it. All you need is a cup of melted unsalted butter, some white wine vinegar, Dijon, an egg or two, shallots and tarragon – all of which are staples in even the poorest home around here one would hope. Feel free to bash me if I sound a bit like Marie Antoinette who I cannot stand. Yes I know that shallots are more expensive than regular onions. If you must then use onions but shallots will bring you an entire other world which regular cooking onions cannot. If I may coax you get yourself a small bag of shallots in Chinatown for $1.99 just for this recipe. Scrimp save make do and find a way. Or if you are like me ask your greengrocer to just sell you one and if he wants your patronage he will let you. Tip: Your relationship with the local greengrocer should never be taken lightly. It must be carefully nurtured. Indeed with every greengrocer you have dealings with.

True that food prices have gone up but if you look around there are still ways around it. Why only yesterday I saw unsalted butter at one of the posh groceries around here for $3.99. I’ve yet to taste it, but I doubt if it could be particularly bad for cooking purposes. Not sure how it would work on toast though.

As to the sauce in issue. Though I have never held in my arms a beautiful woman dressed in only a thin layer of luscious beautiful silk I swear this sauce has to be its culinary equivalence. I can eat it with a spoon like ice cream. I am told this is also excellent with steak.

First get yourself a sauce pan large enough (usually a medium sized) on which you can easily nestle a medium sized stainless steel bowl. If the bowl is too small it’s too close to the hot water in the pan, if it’s too big the bowl will fall off the pan without nestling and you will lose your sauce. Then get your favourite balloon whip. The point in the bowl is that it’s perfect for whipping which is the basis of the sauce’s creation.

If you are serving salmon, I usually broil it with skin side facing up having lightly seasoned the fleshy surfaces with salt and pepper and a quick dab of butter. All it takes is about five minutes under the broiler. Also have prepped your vegetables and take that timing into consideration. Usually you can whip up this sauce in about ten minutes (not including prep time) as the veg cooks. It’s much like making a big breakfast. Some orchestration is at play so everything is ready at the same time. On the other hand make the sauce and you can reheat it over simmering water in the same bowl if you prefer to get it out of the way first. Though I do enjoy the theatrics of living dangerously while the salmon broils with the risk of overcooked vegetables hanging over my head.

Three yolks instead of one whole egg will make this sauce even richer and thicker. Melt the butter beforehand slowly on low heat in a pot. I don’t have a microwave and don’t like them. Make sure you have a cup of melted butter and make sure it’s just a touch warm when you start adding it to make the sauce.

Learn about the thread pour. As in pouring the melted butter into the vinegar mixture very slowly and the pace of it is in the size of the stream of oil/fat. As thin as a thread so you don’t crowd it. This is the same standard for just about any emulsified sauce or dressing I make around here including vinaigrette. A basic skill you already have or mandatory to master through practice.



Equipment: Saucepan, bowl and my favourite balloon whisk. Saucepan diameter of 9″ and depth of 2.5″. Bowl diameter of 7.5″ with depth of about 3.5″. Essentially a substitute for a double-boiler or bain-marie.

Sauce Béarnaise  For 1 to 1 1/2 cups of sauce.


One whole egg or three egg yolks

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoon white wine vinegar separated into 1 tablespoon each

1/2 teaspoon tarragon leaves (fresh). If dry use 1/4 or to taste but roughly pulverized

1 tablespoon minced shallots (or onion if in a bind)

1 cup gently melted unsalted butter (melted over low heat so it does not cook) cooled to tepid


Bring to simmer some water in a covered saucepan filled a third of the way up. While the water is heating whip together in a bowl (this bowl should nestle comfortably on top of saucepan with simmering water later when combining the butter) one egg (or three egg yolks) with the Dijon mustard and one tablespoon of white wine vinegar. At this stage this is done off the heat.

Place 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar in a small saucepan with tarragon and minced shallots. Bring to simmer over low to medium heat and keep it at simmer. Watch closely while stirring occasionally until the liquid evaporates but the shallots are still moist. This takes only a few minutes or maximum four or five.

Make sure the melted butter is slightly warm but not hot and in a saucepan or cup with an easily pourable spout. Here comes the fun part. You will be pouring the butter in a very thin stream as you whip the eggs in the bowl set over the gently steaming saucepan of water. A bit like jugglery.

The aim is to combine the butter with the egg, mustard, vinegar mixture and bring it to the consistency of something a little thicker than pouring cream; and if you are using yolks then it should be even thicker and closer to whipped cream though not that thick. You achieve this by slowly cooking the eggs and emulsification which is a result of the whipping. The whipping also keeps the eggs from over cooking and turning into scrambled eggs. If you are too slow it will curdle and ruin the sauce.

Start slow. Make sure the water is simmering sufficiently to allow steam to build up under the bowl and if need be have someone pour the butter while you whip the contents of the bowl. Place the bowl over the simmering pot and start whipping fast using balloon whip while pouring the butter in a stream as thin as a few hair strands. Whip in the butter as the oil is poured in. Do not stop whipping.

When about 1/3rd of butter is used up make sure the sauce has thickened. This will happen if there is sufficient heat from the steam. If not increase the heat so there is more steam. Once the sauce thickens you may add the rest of the butter slightly faster but until you are comfortable with the process stick to the thin stream. Also from time to time stir the butter so the milk in the bottom gets mixed in. Keep adding and whipping until all the butter is used up.

Keep whipping over gentle steam until the sauce thickens. The single egg will render a double cream consistency whereas the three yolks will make it far thicker and even more luxurious.

The above recipe is a breakdown of that described in the Sunset French Cook Book* at page 70 in its section on Emulsion sauces. The book might no longer be in print but look online for secondhand copies. While Julia Child taught me a lot this book made French cooking profoundly accessible and a walk in the park when I was a new homemaker. It has a great recipe for brioche and also baguettes. A favourite of mine for sure.

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, February 2, 2017.

*Ed. Di Vecchio, Jerry Anne; Gaulke, Judith A. Sunset French Cook Book. Menlo Park: Lane Publishing Co., 1976. Print.

Photos: Renuka Mendis.

Talking about Halo Halo on the TTC a.k.a. how Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Brown* came home to roost on my way home on Friday


I rarely see men with exhausted babies or children on the bus or the subway after work. It’s pretty much a rule. Tired mom and exhausted baby, toddler or child. Mostly black women or women of colour on the route I’ve been taking of late. I don’t know why but it holds a certain poignancy observing them especially on this route when there is little light at five. Still there is joy here under the weariness at day’s end. Bonds of love, care and concern sometimes blurting out in mini-tantrums on the child’s part and flashes of desperate impatience from the mother. Yet tied together in reliability and dependence.

Occasionally I play peekaboo or secret hand-eye-signal games across the aisle with the little ones to cheer them up but mostly to pass the time; some days it works on others they are inconsolable or too exhausted to respond to my efforts. But mostly they are joyful creatures these tykes, angels and little professors. Perhaps as the days grow longer their lighter sides will become more evident.

But the bus on Friday, this past week turned out to be unusual. A little girl of nine or ten of angelic yet intelligent face and her harried mom. The bus was crowded. Everyone utterly exhausted. The conversation between the mother and daughter about having been to the doctor. The little girl found a seat between two passengers and mom stood next to her seesawing between concern and making sure she was stable on a moving bus. A few stops in a big hunk of a man with a piece of luggage the size of a carry-on-bag got on and rushed right past her. He rammed his body at the woman as he did this, pushing her aside. Yet he kept marching right on to the back. I glowered at him in anger as he settled into his seat entirely self-absorbed.

More bonds were formed. Invisible. Me, the little girl and her mom across the aisle of a bus. I was mightily exhausted myself and loaded down with groceries when the two seats by me became vacant. Mom rushed to grab them and won the race. Up close the similarities in their features were striking. The little girl’s still childish-angelic but the mother’s a wearier version of the tender and pretty flower she too must once have been. I blurted out that the little girl looked just like her, a carbon copy! She smiled back but mom declared she looked a lot like her father but was pleased to hear my observation.  “She probably has both your features but the similarity is striking” I said. Visions of friendly love-tiffs between loving parents in a Toronto apartment over how their little girl looks more like him or her happily flashed across my mind.

It looked like the little girl had eczema and was scratching away at an itch and despite the mom’s pleadings she could not stop herself. Norma’s concern and worry was weighing her down. To distract her from her itch we started chatting.

Let us call her Norma and the daughter Ena. Ena had been sick with flu and it has been very difficult with her. How she had long ago left Ena with her grandmother in the Philippines when she was an infant to come work as a nanny in Toronto. She looked pained and guilt-stricken explaining they had been reunited only since about a year ago and Ena was seven when she arrived in Canada. How it was a very difficult adaptation for both of them and her deep frustration and helplessness resounded. How Ena constantly reminded her that her family is back home in the Philippines and that Norma is not her family; despite her being Ena’s mom. Norma hoped things would improve when her husband arrived from the Philippines and that she was having his papers processed. That is when I realized how my fantasy view of a nuclear family in a Toronto apartment was only a fiction of my imagination. Perhaps it was the older child and older mother scenario which led me to believe the relationship was also as old and that any time as a nanny was way behind her. It wasn’t. Ena and her father too had been separated from each other while mom was away in Canada.

It was hard to comprehend though I knew the stories. Known them for a very long time. The havoc it wreaks. A little lost girl who was plucked from loving surroundings. A mother trying to assuage her guilt for having left her baby behind in ways that are desperately impractical. An exploitative system which keeps live-in caregivers like Norma forever desperate and dependent on their employers, for themselves and their families with few success stories. An inhumane economy and state, both here and in the Philippines, which perpetuates the break up of families without recompense.

I tried to explain to Norma that she was not alone and that her decision was sound and made for good reasons. How change is not always what we expect but that with care and commitment she could make things work and mentioned some organizations, including Kababayan. Ena recognized the word and was very open and started talking to Norma in Tagalog. Ena was comforted that I knew words from her home. When I asked which Grade she was in and told her that she must be doing very well in school because she is a very smart young girl; Ena was adamant to say she did not know English well and that she was not doing well in school here. Norma explained how Ena had been doing really well in school back home before she left and that everything was not working too well right now. Norma felt Ena’s English wasn’t very good, though it was evident Ena spoke well and with confidence. Although some theorize that working as domestics far from home gave women independence my observation in Canada has been this. These jobs of virtual servitude chip away at a worker’s self-esteem and keep racking up the guilt account.

Norma seemed entirely overwhelmed by her situation and was worried she would make matters worse when her husband arrived when they find out that they were no longer compatible. She had been away from him for the same time as she had been in Canada except perhaps for two trip she had made back home for  a few weeks at a time. Which was all she could afford. Just like on the bus seesawing between survival and the need to keep her family together. For Norma that was her child, herself and the child’s father vs. the reality that what she left behind was no longer there; except for the individuals. In this case a hostile and confused child and a complete stranger for a husband. And possibly Ena’s motherhood robbed by both systems.

The more we spoke the more Ena and Norma opened up. Norma speaking of difficulties and Ena warming at every mention of home. Ena is very smart and had clearly been well looked after by her grandmother for all I could tell. A confident, lovely, intelligent young girl fully able to speak her mind. When we started talking more about Ena’s home, the Philippines, and also because of my love for Halo Halo I decided to lighten up the conversation from difficulties to sweet drinks. Ena’s face lit up when I asked if she had yet had Halo Halo in Toronto. Ena blurted out that her mom had told her there was no Halo Halo in Toronto. I played along for a little while and Ena was waxing poetic about Halo Halo and I followed suit. She said she loved Halo Halo with ice cream and I quibbled back that proper Halo Halo did not have ice cream. We giggled in recognition and formed more bonds and any barriers we had fell down. We talked even more about Halo Halo about the purple yam ice cream-like ingredient on top. How I felt that Halo Halo was to me a combination of all the best birthday cakes you’ve had (on your birthdays) mixed with all the best ice cream you’ve ever had. Ena was delighted and wanted to know more of what I knew about her people, and of course, Halo Halo. She was keen to know if I had Filipino friends.

As we chatted up a  storm as the bus progressed towards our destination I had already made plans in my head to exchange phone numbers so I could see if there was anything I could do to help Ena feel more at home and to lighten Norma’s load in her transition from a single Nanny living alone in Toronto to parenting and being a spouse. She had her hands full, evidently. Ena was such a vivacious intelligent young child that I would have welcomed the opportunity to act as an aunty or an elder sister to her if it was useful.

I’d heard numerous stories through several organizations that help Filipina nannies or former nannies in their transition when their children arrive in Canada after separations as long as a decade or more. It is rarely easy. How could it be?

We talked about school in positive terms as the bus trundled on and more conversation ensued about Halo Halo. I had to break the news to Ena that there was Halo Halo, and very good Halo Halo in Toronto. How I had it as a treat on hot summer days at the Filipino food place at Dundas and Bathurst at Kanto and how it transports one to an entirely other place. Norma confessed she had kept the news away from Ena because she kept getting colds and did not want her to get sick. How there is good Halo Halo near Bathurst and Wilson at a Filipino place. In my head I couldn’t wait for summer so we could all go for Halo Halo and see Ena’s delight. But it was still February and freezing cold.

I have seen how Toronto nannies leave that work but still are stuck in low-paying low-skilled jobs. But at least when they leave nanny work they are not constantly under the thumb of a sole employer often working alone. But in Norma’s case she is still a nanny and supplements her income with part-time work in schools to cover for absences. She was not happy about this situation but hoped things would get better. Her immediate concern was making sure Ena was not sick, thus the visit to the doctor asking for antibiotics. Why? So she did not have to take time away from work being the sole breadwinner.

My hope that we might be living in the same area in proximity too was dashed when Norma said she did not live in this area but was on her way to an event which her employer wanted her and Ena to attend. Although Ena was sick and preferred to stay at home tonight Norma did not want to disappoint or to say no to her employers. So here she was making sure her daughter’s illness was manageable to make sure she did not have to say no to her employer.

I was pretty confused as to what to think and why and before we knew it the bus had arrived at the station and we started to disembark. I was overwhelmed with different thoughts. Why wasn’t her employer understanding of the fact that her daughter was not well? Why does Norma believe she could not say no to her employer simply because her employer had bought tickets for Norma and Ena? Does the employer understand that they too are implicated in this separation between a mother and a daughter and its inevitable fallout? Are they trying to pacify their guilt by buying tickets for events for Norma and Ena and do nothing more? Is this a never-ending cycle of deceit in an exchange of survival and servitude in the service of the wealthy or well to do professionals?

Norma’s life in Canada as a nanny or otherwise had also robbed her of her existence as a sexual being and also her motherhood. Both as Ena’s mother and the wife of the husband she left behind so long ago. Kamal Al-Solaylee in Brown talks in depth about this and the plight of domestics and nannies. He discusses how this exchange is akin to a form of modern day slavery which is destructive to individuals, family units and entire societies for the benefit of certain privileged classes. He also explains how money sent back benefits entire communities; but I question if these benefits are worth the price of dehumanization persons like Norma endure for decades and the heartbreak of children.

Before I could sift through my thoughts and as they whirled around in my head we had parted. In minutes I sorely regretted not having taken Norma’s contact information so we could meet again and become friends – and perhaps create an extended family of sorts. Although I have no Gods I pray, perhaps to the TTC, that I meet Norma and Ena again on the bus so we can all go for Halo Halo when the dog days of summer are here. Ena hates the winter. Who doesn’t when it is their first or second time and when you are heartbroken and homesick for your family back home. When I asked Ena if she doesn’t remember summer it seems she only remembers how awful winters are.  May be she might hate winter less with more activity and more friends and a support system to supplement everything that her mother clearly provides with great love. May be Ena’s teachers aren’t doing enough for her. May be someone can take her skating. May be I am talking complete nonsense. I came home and played that song by Paul Simon about a mother and child. I felt completely helpless at how invisible Ena’s and Norma’s suffering was.

by Renuka Mendis, Toronto, February 5, 2017.

Disclaimer: Any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.

*Al-Solaylee, Kamal. Brown : what being brown means in the world today (to everyone). New York : HarperCollins, 2016. Print.

Photo credit for Halo Halo – Renuka Mendis (Halo Halo by Kanto)

Photo Credit for TTC Logo : TTC.ca