The Silver-Leaf Pullao
Mid-1970s. We’re in Delhi, he's had a panic because my small vanity case has gone missing. I’m not that worried, presumably even in India you can buy a toothbrush and toothpaste. Well, we’re on Connaught Circle, pretty near to Connaught Place, which is supposed to be posh—it's certainly full of Americans in Flower-Power gear, shopping—but mind you, the hotel’s pretty scungy and the European-style loo that Raju insisted on (to the desk clerk’s mystification) is continually getting bunged up.
By this time it’s sort of starting to dawn that in between the anxious fussing he's trying to force me into a sort of calm, Earth-Mother rôle. You know: don’t worry, dear, come to Mummy, it'll be all right, kind of thing? Which isn't me. Aren't I entitled to a panic, too? No, apparently not. Dare say the parents were right all along, and the whole relationship’s a mistake. Just my luck.
I suppose the Earth-Mother thing is in the Indian tradition, and I should’ve thought it out instead of rushing in with my great boots on, as per usual... But heck, he was keen, and nobody else was offering at the time— Yeah.
|Nurturing the Baby Ganesh|
So he decides we're gonna go to this really nice restaurant that I'll like. This is “really nice” as in approved by the vast and boring white middle classes of the British colonies and ex-colonies, geddit? I’ve liked everything else, even if it wasn't really nice, so... Oh, well.
“That sounds good. But I’ll pay, Raju.”
He doesn't actually let me pay, as such, not in the restaurant, no. But he lets me give him the money beforehand. Oh, well.
Help: the restaurant, which is really nice, sparkling white tablecloths and shining silverware, is full of huge, I mean GIANT, Sikhs! It mainly has booths, with the tables set well out from the benches, and you can see why: it’s to accommodate their tummies. Not racist, merely literal. Very comfortable benches, padded. Yep, I could stay here all day, just sitting and eating, and those guys (it's only lunchtime) sure look set to!
I'll like the chicken pullao—anxious again. All right, I better like it.
Later. I do like it, it’s wonderful. Very delicate, not too hot—though as that other stuff he let me eat was quite hot, why is he bothering? No, I won't ask. I haven’t let on that back home I’ve got a couple of Indian cookery books. You can't buy them in the shops, never mind the floating Paisley muslins, Afghan coats and greying Indian metal dangly earrings and necklaces that the well-off trendy students are getting around in these days (and that I can’t afford). I sourced them from elsewhere, don't ask, I’ll have to lie. They have got recipes for similar: I sort of understood all the instructions except the “scatter with silver leaf” bit. Now I get it!
It’s very, very thin, so thin it kind of floats. It is silver. Like gold leaf, geddit? Only silver. Not leaf-shaped, like I vaguely imagined, but just oblong pieces, mostly broken up as they hit the surface of the rice and chicken. Quite safe to eat. Okay, it goes down with the rest. Doesn't taste of anything.
Woefully extravagant? Yeah, when you think of the maimed beggars that hang round the train station, it sure is. They’re illegal these days: he had a panic on merely sighting them and warned me not to give them any money. As he appointed himself in charge of the money before we left the hotel, that would’ve been difficult.
Am I shocked and horrified by the sight of these beggars? I ought to be: all very, very thin, some minus limbs, including children... I can imagine the indignation, horror and protest they’d induce in my politically left, right-thinking friends back home. I am very sorry for them, but that’s different. Somehow the sight of them, combined with the hugely crowded streets and the never-ending racket and bustle of Delhi under its wide blue sky, with its mixture of Old Colonial heavy white verandahs and tumbledown local structures, and its ubiquitous dust, has induced in me a sort of wide acceptance: the ever-turning wheel of Fate, kind of thing. Yes, I did read Kim when quite young, but it didn’t make that sort of impression on me at the time. Now, quite unconsciously and without meaning to or even thinking about it, I just feel it.
I don’t say so, of course. Raju’s impressing upon me how down the government is on these street beggars... Well, yeah, his subject is law, I guess he has to respect the country’s laws. –Other foreigners, quite possibly Americans, though not necessarily identifiable this time by Flower-Power gear and strangely coloured backpacks, are giving the beggars money and no-one’s stopping them...
Well, that’s India for you. Fortunes chucked away on unnecessary real silver decorations on your chicken pullao on the one side, and starving beggars on the other.
Paris, some months later. I try out my version of the recipe (sans book) on my French friends and expat student buddies. Great approval from both the French and the Kiwi contingents. Mm, well, it's got something to do with the splendid quality of the chicken available in France, I think, but I'm glad they like it. I have managed to find some spices, yes: great little Algerian épicerie (no pun intended, “spice” comes from the French word) just along from my very scungy 5th-floor “studio,” i.e. one-room flat.
Pullao with Chicken
500 g rice 500 g chicken pieces
2 tablespoons blanched almonds 1 large onion
1 tablespoon chopped ginger or 1/2 teaspoon powdered
2-cm cinnamon stick 3 cardamoms (seeds of)
2 teaspoons ground coriander 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon black pepper 3 tablespoons butter or oil
1/2 teaspoon salt water
Optional: 2 tablespoons ground almonds
1. Cut chicken into pieces about 5 cm long. Remove most of the skin and fat and take out as many bones as possible. Slice the onion finely. Crush the cardamom pods with a heavy implement and remove the seeds, discarding the pods.
2. Heat a deep lidded frying pan or electric frypan on moderate heat. Add the cinnamon stick and heat in the dry pan for a few moments until it begins to release its odour. Remove.
3. Add butter or oil and heat. Put in the blanched almonds and fry gently until just coloured. Remove.
4. Then add onion, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger, cardamoms and black pepper and fry gently until the onion is soft and pale gold.
4. Remove onion and spices, add a little more oil or butter if needed, and fry the chicken pieces gently on all sides until only just coloured.
5. Return onion and spices to the pan, add the rice, salt, and ground almonds if used. Mix with the chicken.
6. Add enough water to cover and simmer, covered, on medium-low heat for 45 mins, or until the chicken is cooked through, the rice is soft and the liquid absorbed.
Serve hot garnished with the whole almonds. Serves 4-6.
Try it—I hope you like it, though it’s not as good as the restaurant’s. Those Indian gentlemen with the tummies were certainly a reliable indicator of the quality of the food there!