My family comes from Goa, on the west coast of India. My father moved to Bombay to go to school at a young age. Growing up in a big city like Bombay, we always looked forward to our yearly vacation at my grandmother’s house on the Goan shore. It was the “city kids’ summer vacation” in the country.
Nine of us would pack into a non-airconditioned car and drive eighteen hours, almost 300 miles. Usually we’d start early in the morning. We were always hungry so my mum would pack cold roast chicken, boiled eggs and spiced pot roast sandwiches. Food was one thing we could look forward to on the hot drive. The “highways” were two lanes; the driver had to practically swerve off the road to pass someone.
By New York City standards, my grandmother’s house was primitive. Goa had no running water as it was drawn from a well. There was no electricity – we lit oil lamps at dusk each day. She had a wood-burning stove in the kitchen and cooked over a fire. This meant the kids were banned from the kitchen! The aromas I remember still awaken my taste buds and creative instincts.
Mango, cashew and coconut trees surrounded her house, and her yard was filled with mangoes that had bloomed in the spring and were just ripening. We’d pluck them right out of the trees and slice them open right there to savor their flavor. The fallen mangoes were fed to the pigs.
Our month was a typical vacation: sleeping, playing in the yard, swimming at the beach twice a day and eating. We awakened to fruit, toast and eggs each morning. At eleven o’clock, we’d have a midday snack with lunch to follow by one-thirty. Then tea was served with more food (mums almond cake and Bhel Puri) at four o’clock. Later in the evening we’d all gather for a big dinner. We Goans love to eat and drink.
Every morning at exactly eleven o’clock, we sat down with nana and were served kanji, a traditional boiled rice slurry. We were told we had to eat it because Dad ate it when he was young. The rice came from her own rice paddies, and was the typical Goan rice that’s reddish in color with a fairly strong aroma. It was more like a nourishing brown rice that we didn’t find all that appealing. The rice was sown during the monsoon season over the summer, harvested in November, and then parboiled and sun-dried on mats. So we were eating rice from the previous year’s crop.
Even though my father’s family was well to do, my grandmother always served this simple rice gruel which was very nourishing. She accompanied it with a toasted, salted fish (very close to bacalao), or with her own mango pickle, made from her trees’ unripe fruits.
Although this was not a dish I relished eating, it still reminds me of home and takes me to a place of comfort. Whatever I cook comes from the heart – from a place of comfort. I can’t make food any other way. But I also can’t prepare my grandmother’s version of kanji.
Instead of using water as the stock, I make a fresh clam broth. I substitute basmati rice for the Goan rice. I use salted, dried cod as a flavor enhancer and simply pan-roast a piece of cod to go with it. Then I finish the dish with a few of the original ingredients: a little coconut milk for the rice and a homemade mango pickle minced on the top of the fish.
Even with these changes, my recipe for kanji reminds me of my Dad, my grandmother’s house, the smell of wood fire, husky rice and the perfume of mangoes. I can still envision all of us as children, poking at our bowls of rice beside my grandmother at her dining room table. Some memories can never be forgotten.