Grandma’s cooking prowess was legendary. The only indulgence she allowed herself, despite her spartan lifestyle, was cooking. And her dictate was stern and unflinching – anyone who visited our home in the morning, family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, whosoever, was not permitted to leave without having lunch.
Having faced the ravages of Partition that brutally dispossessed her family of their home and hearth forever, extravagance was unknown to her. And this reflected in her austere lifestyle, especially her style of cooking – simple and unpretentious. Her culinary magic would transform the most humble and unassuming of local seasonal ingredients to the most exotic and delectable of dishes.
“Grandma, I want to cook myself”, I demanded one morning. Still in my early teens, drawn to the magnetic appeal of the alchemy of cooking, I was desperate to cook on my own.
Grandma broke into rapturous laughter. “So my little princess wants to cook !!!!” And dismissed my plea.
A week later I make another earnest attempt to convince Grandma. To let me cook.
She gives it a patient hearing. But then firmly asserts,”You need to really be focusing on your studies.” Ignored yet again.
So all of next week, homework gets completed without even a nudge from Maa, I wake up at the first call in the mornings and in the evenings, I am at my lessons before it is dark.
And in a week I am ready to make an appeal yet again.
For once, or so it appears, the zealous efforts of mine have not gone unnoticed and Grandma does get swayed. “What do you want to cook ?” she queries.
Without a thought I say “Payesh“.
So one fine morning, with much flourish and fanfare, pomp and shine, I embark on my mission to cook payesh.
But the joy, alas, is short-lived.
Even before I settle down to cooking my payesh, the milk threatens ominously to spill over. Grandma instructs me to stir the milk. I rush for the ladle. That I have left in the pot of boiling milk. I touch the ladle and my fingers are singed. The milk spills over. End of cooking.
The wait to the second attempt is long.
But disaster strikes again.
The milk sits patiently on the stove. Under Grandma’s hawk-eyed surveillance. “Just keep stirring occasionally”, she reminds. Someone calls for Grandma. I sit obediently stirring the milk. Just as instructed. And then something, I just cannot recollect what, distracts me. I can assure just a couple of minutes. No longer. But the next I know the milk is burnt. Beyond repair.
The spate of failures continues unabated.
Milk gets spilt. Burnt. Split when I add the jaggery too early. I overcook the rice and it reduces to an unrecognizable confused mash. I add the rice too late and then am not patient enough to wait for the rice to be cooked. And once embarrassingly, I even add salt instead of sugar.
Finally I learn how to cook payesh.
The milk is properly reduced, the rice cooked right and the sweetness not overpowering.
But despite all that, the payesh doesn’t taste even close to Grandma’s version.
“Grandma there must be something you add to your payesh that you forgot to tell me”, I almost complain.
“Nothing”, she answers as calm as ever.
“There must be something”, I retort. “Yours tastes so much better.”
“Just remember to cook it with a lot of love,” she advises before disappearing for another of her evening chores.
Grandma’s arcane riddle, shrouded in a mist of enigma to an innocent me back then, makes me smile this morning as I stir my pot of payesh. Just cook the payesh with a lot of love and trust me it does taste divine.