Bandra in the 1980s was a different place. It was a time when we could leave the front door unlocked, when all the neighbourhood kids would meet after school to play, and there was no dearth of open spaces to run wild and free. And then around 8pm, we would all head home, completely spent, ready for dinner with the family. I would burst through the front door, nose wrinkled in anticipation, trying to guess what delicious mix of ground spices and vegetables would be served up that night. A peep into the kitchen would confirm masala-stuffed pomfret, Goan sausages (my favourite before I turned vegetarian), palak paneer, sorpotel, a stuffed suckling pig (at Christmas time), or chicken cafreal. The chef in my family, who would be stirring the curry and adding in extra chilli powder, would turn to me and ask, ‘Hungry?’ Plate in hand, I would grin and reply, ‘Always, Daddy!’
Growing up, my father Anthony Joseph Pereira, who was an inflight supervisor with Air India, did 99 percent of the cooking. Having a dad who did all the cooking was a little strange, I guess. I knew it wasn’t the norm but it was normal for us. It just made sense that the person who cooked the best would be in charge of feeding us. And my dad wasn’t just a good cook, he was something of a legend among my friends and extended family. “Is your dad making crab curry anytime soon?” my best friend Priya would ask, trying to sound nonchalant, but failing miserably; “What do you have for lunch?” my classmates would casually inquire, peering into my tiffin box; “Your dad is AWESOME!” colleagues would exclaim each time I showed up to work with a generous portion of leftovers from the family Christmas party.
Dad’s own father passed away when he was just a young boy, so that meant Tony, who was the youngest of four siblings, was forced into the kitchen to help his mom with meal prep at the age of ten. My grandmom Maria was an excellent cook, the kind who didn’t ever need to consult a recipe (those were for amateurs!), and he proved to be an excellent apprentice. Grandma and Dad would cook in the morning, filling up three lunch boxes for his sisters, using a mortar and pestle to grind spices. They would churn out curd curry, potato chops, dried salted bombil and prawn rechead. She taught him everything he would need to be a pro in his own kitchen – skills that would come in handy as my mom hates to cook.
It’s not that my mom can’t handle the basics – she can make a decent dal, her roast chicken with red chillies is moist and flavourful, and she still makes the best scrambled eggs I have ever tasted. My mom can cook, but she just hates to cook. When Dad was away on work, she was more familiar with the takeout menus than what vegetables were in season. And, so she took on other duties such as handling the finances, taking care of the house and helping us with our daily homework.
Mom was also the designated sous chef – chopping up handfuls of garlic and ginger, rolling the ground meat and veggies into balls ready for the frying pan, making sure the large pan with the red handle was ready to use and washing up afterwards. We would often hear Dad bellow, ‘Bern! I need more coriander. Bern! Can you wash and cut the potatoes? Bern! BERN!’
Being a brilliant cook doesn’t come without its drawbacks. If we go to a restaurant, there’s a high possibility that the food will be a disappointment to my dad; he’ll glance at the menu and the prices and mumble, “I could have made this for hundred rupees and it would have less oil.” In his defence, this is all true. Tony is often horrified by the poor quality of ingredients used in the food industry today. For the most part, he cooks and eats healthy, but desserts have always been his weakness. And British pub food when on holiday. I’ve heard rumours about him ordering and enjoying steak and kidney pie, or bangers and mash washed down with a pint or two of a pale ale.
As he got older, my dad admitted to not enjoying having to cook so much, and we would all feel horrible about this. We’d offer to make our own meals, we’d implore him not to cook for the next few days when we could see he was tired, but his reply was always the same: ‘I’ll just make something simple, it’ll take me ten minutes.’ And, in under ten minutes, he’d be serving up some Goan fish curry and rice (he makes sure we always have fresh fish in the freezer), pan-roasted potato wedges with rosemary and thyme, or Chinese-style sautéed prawns and mushrooms.
My parents’ relationship is atypical for sure, but in the best kind of way. I was brought up witnessing what a true partnership looked like. And, from a young age I learnt that real, decent men do whatever’s best for their families, rarely putting themselves first, and they have no patience for outdated societal norms. These are all traits I look for in a partner myself, and many an ex-boyfriend has failed to live up to these (almost-impossibly) high standards. And, if a date is making me dinner for the first time, it’s hard to be suitably enthused. I have a man in my life who cooks amazingly well and he does it with minimal fanfare.
I wish I could say that I inherited my dad’s talents in the kitchen, but I didn’t. I’m not a bad cook but I can’t whip up something fantastic with whatever is lying around in the fridge, like he can. I have tried to watch him and learn, but he’s all about ‘a pinch of this, a dash of that’. He makes every recipe his own, and by his own admission, never remembers what he did differently each time. But every single dish is an unequivocal success. I went home for Christmas last year to find my dad was experimenting with different kinds of risotto. One day, since he had run out of cheese, he decided to use some of his Thai spices instead. And suddenly, we were having fantastic Thai-flavoured risotto for lunch. If I’ve learnt anything from my dad over the years it’s this: Don’t be afraid to experiment, take the time to do things right and it’s best to have your seafood killed before you bring it home and certain sensitive family members have a chance to name and befriend them. (I’ll always remember you, Louie. You were a great lobster pal.)
From Tony’s Kitchen: Paya (Lamb Trotters)
1 dozen trotters, cleaned and cut into three.
1 tsp jeera
1 tsp pepper pods
3 large pieces of ginger
50 garlic cloves
2 small pieces turmeric
4 large green chillies
1 bunch coriander
2 large onions, sliced
* Wash trotters thoroughly and boil in cooker with just enough water to cover them.
* Add salt and a few cinnamon and clove pieces and simmer for an hour.
* Make the masala by grinding the jeera, pepper pods, ginger, haldi, garlic, green chillies and khotmir till it becomes a fine paste.
* Sauté the onions and add in the ground masala.
* Add trotters with the stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 15-20 minutes.
* Enjoy with freshly toasted gutli, sliced onions and a squeeze of lime.
The author is a communications professional based in Vancouver, Canada.