She arrived on our back doorstep in a ragged sari very young and smelling pungent – of fenugreek. The servant woman with the tiny infant kept her paltry belongings and the baby in the store room in our house. The room where everything got dumped. Old musty smelling National Geographic and Life magazines, old newspapers, empty bottles, even some automobile spare parts.
The household needed help and she was available with baby in tow. The child reeked of fenugreek a smell I did not quite recognize at the time. I was barely a child myself. Her curries were full of fenugreek. They floated like little golden pearls gelatinous on the tongue its bitter kick tempered by the tender sweetness of coconut milk.
I have never known anyone who used so much fenugreek in curries and sauces. Every time I see fenugreek I think of her. Tiny, fine boned and wiry but infused with things I could not fathom which always troubled me. Now I know what intrigued me was her fiery passion combined with the vulnerability of living on the edge of desperation.
Fenugreek is used with great care by the Sinhalese people almost as if they are afraid of it. Just a seed or two, perhaps ten or fifteen in a chattipot full of a milky vegetable curry. Too much and it would be too bitter on the tongue. Very little is the rule; virtually puritan.
This servant woman used fenugreek as if it was going out of fashion. She believed in it and was obsessed by it from what I saw. All the food was high fenugreek. The ala kirata curry. I’ve never had such gravy; crazy with fenugreek and the potato no longer tasted like potato. It was potato and coconut milk heaven. Some illegal place she took everyone to. I remember some grumbling from one of the parental units that there was a lot of fenugreek in the food since her arrival – but it did not matter, she went on her merry way with the fenugreek. That was the only way she knew how to cook.
The only other act of importance to the servant woman was making milk from powder for the tiny wisp of a baby. A baby the colour of fenugreek. Glistening golden brown. She always made sure the child had a big black pottu on his forehead virtually covering its face made from burned sago to keep away the evil eye. She used that weird contraption I have only seen in Sri Lanka which is round and with holes in it which they use to mix milk. A pre-blender blender of sorts to cream milk with hot water and then make sure the baby was fed. The paltry infant slept in the store room on a mat while she went about the work around the house. The cooking, the sweeping, the laundry hand washed, the hanging of clothes, the drying, the folding and the cooking all over again. And all the time smelling of fenugreek.
It always intrigued me. This woman in our store room sleeping on a mat on the floor; a stranger and her baby smelling of fenugreek. I recollect she was from an estate and barely spoke Sinhalese but Amma who could converse communicated in Tamil. I only communicated with her with my eyes and nose. Fenugreek, baby milk.
Her cooking was Tamil but estate Tamil. A type of cooking that somehow had desperation as its base which I tasted in all her food. May be she was trying to cover that up with all that fenugreek. I read somewhere not too long ago that fenugreek is given to new brides in India because it increases their libido.
Is it the vulnerability and desperation as a mother driven to seek shelter and a kind of slavery in our home that spoke so pungently to me? Every time I use fenugreek I see her. She walks across the wasteland of my mind in her tattered sari with her baby reeking of fenugreek.
A few years ago I encountered an article in Gourmet magazine, which sadly is no longer alive, about Yemeni Jewish cuisine. Again very simple spartan fare with very little intricacy in it which appealed to my spartan soul I guess. Essentially the article included a pan fried yeast pancake made with wheat flour and water not unlike the Sri Lankan appa which really is very hard to make. A stew made with very simple ingredients but cooked for a long time; essentially a broth with meat and vegetables, which goes a long way when it comes to feeding many mouths. The bread, lahoh, was the closest I could easily come to making appa, a breakfast bread of sorts which I have yet to master. And the most intriguing item on that menu was hilbe. A condiment made with a few tablespoons of fenugreek soaked overnight and then ground up (in these days effectively zapped in a blender) with coriander leaves, a hot red dry pepper or two, garlic, lemon juice and salt. It stays in the fridge for about a week and it is added as a condiment to soups not unlike how we sometimes eat thosa and sambar with coconut sambal on the side.
Hilbe is jelly-like in consistency but not slimy like okra. Bitter in taste so one must use it judiciously or perhaps one gets addicted to the bitterness. Making hilbe was a weekend project for me because I wanted something to jazz up the leftover sambar I pulled out of the freezer to eat with some cooked grain or the other. I have to be careful with money till Legal Aid pays me so I am being careful not to go to the supermarket looking for basmathi rice and instead am ploughing through various grains that have been sitting in tins for years – bulgur, couscous, and even some old red country rice; instead of just bending down to the Tilda brand pure basmati rice in a bag sitting in the corner of my kitchen. Serendipity also had it that a bunch of coriander laves which I had properly washed, spun dry and wrapped in paper towels and stored in a plastic bag – which extend their shelf life by may be at least a week; without which they rot fast and end up as food for my pet worms. So the confluence of events, my fifty-fifth birthday, not being too flush with funds, and a good ready washed stock of coriander leaves had to result in one thing – hilbe on my birthday.
One must soak the fenugreek overnight and the latest fenugreek batch I bought also had a bit of sand in it which requiring a lot of washing and your fingers end up smelling like fenugreek. And when you make the hilbe each time you touch the bowl or the soaking water (which is used in the hilbe) your fingers become perfumed more and more intensely with fenugreek.
And that is why I had to write this down today. On my fifty fifth birthday I start it as a homage to a woman, a virtual slave, with a baby – desperate, who has marked my life with fenugreek. Its perfume brings her back to me. I am in the store room of our house in Kotahena face to face with a thin gaunt woman in a tattered cotton sari with bright bright colours and a baby and his milk; and the strong smell of fenugreek which I have carried with me and which smell has intensified over the years with experiences – mostly bitter. So to me fenugreek is all about the bitterness of life and how important it is in galvanising who we are and what we do and what sustains us as we walk alone across the wasteland that is life.
How I wish I could take a magic rocket ship to that store room and then walk to the back of the house; sit on the haalpettiya and eat a plateful of rice and ala curry – reeking with fenugreek. No one else cooked like her. And I do not even know her name. It is also said lactating mothers are fed fenugreek. But this woman had no milk to feed her infant and she was happy to get baby milk powder as part of her wages but now I realize she added all that fenugreek so she could lactate and be less dependent on her masters and mistresses and in a desperate attempt to start lactating again. May be her milk returned and she moved on. I wonder where she is now. I wonder whatever happened to the baby. It must be about forty or so by now. Life.
4 tablespoons fenugreek seeds cleaned picked and washed (of stone or sand)
1/2 cup cold water
4 cloves garlic
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
2 teaspoons salt
juice of 2 lemons
1 small dried hot red chile, seeded
Soak seeds in water overnight so they are soft. Best to do it in fridge if weather is warm for they may sprout. Blend all ingredients including soaking water until a coarse soft jellylike puree. Serve as a condiment. Good with pita or on falafels. I eat it with yogurt on toast and use it like mustard but somewhat judiciously as it has a bitter tang. Can keep in fridge for about a week. Very herbal and slightly bitter.
[This piece was first written in February 2012].