Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Grapes of Friendship

Grape Sonth

Photo by Amruta Nargundkar

This post marks the beginning of the first anniversary celebrations of Shruti’s Blog!

And… it’s a Mum’s Day tribute to my mum, who, for a very long time in my late teens and early twenties was my only best buddy.

Then I got engaged…. and thereby hangs a tale …

At that time for some reason I had a famine of friends. It could have been that a hitherto close group was scattered after we moved on to different courses and colleges. We had moved house and I had lost that luxury of walking over to my friends’ to hang out.

Or, it could also be that I had discovered it wasn’t uncool to be friends with mother.

She and I did a lot of things together – we learnt music together under the same guru, we attended all music recitals in the city, organised music programs in our music school, did our riyaz together at times, were members of the Hyderabad film club and saw scores of brilliant international films, read hundreds of books – squabbling over turn-taking but happily exchanging notes once finished, went to art exhibitions and handloom expos together and cooked together.

I can’t think of a more perfect description of a best friend. 

I remember those lazy summer holidays when Mother and I used to sit in the balcony of our house, overlooking the Badi Chavdi market, and watch the world go by. There is nothing more relaxing and refreshing than sitting in the company of one’s best friend, in companionable silence broken only by a shriek  “look” or a nudge - by a gesture or eyes- in the direction of whatever we wanted the other to look at.

No further explanation would be needed and we would burst into wicked peals of laughter or a wistful “awww” or a disapproving shake of the head.  But most of the time our attention would be grabbed by the same things and we would only have to exchange glances to confirm that we were laughing at the same heifer bulldozing her way through the vegetable stalls, scattering scared shoppers and stealing a bunch of coriander here and a head of cabbage there. Or exclaiming at the cute monkey baby clinging to mum as she greedily leapt from rooftop onto the street to grab jalebis from the platter being offered by the priest from the nearby Hanuman temple.

One of our most favourite sights to survey was the Shivanand Bhel Puri Centre. This was a food cart or “bandi” selling “chaat” which would be parked for the evening right under our balcony, giving us a bird’s eye view of stall from the keeper’s side.

The stall keeper, who we had christened “Shiva” after the name of his business, would wheel his cart in place a little after teatime. He came with most of the cooked stuff in place. He would park his cart and chock the wheels with random stones lying around. Mother and I would wince in unison - why doesn’t he didn’t wash up after handling stones from the side of the street. (Shake head )

Shiva’s setting up of his mise-en-place would then deflect our disapproval.

We would watch enthralled as he set about chopping the onions finely, holding a short and curved bladed knife called “chaush” knife in Hyderabadi, in one hand and the plumpest pink onion in the other. He would then deftly cut tomato flowers and chop the coriander really fine, forever fascinating us with how he produced the finest shredded coriander without a chopping board. I suppose it was possible for the coriander wouldn’t be washed at all.

Well, that was not the only thing that never washed. As is his tribe’s wont, Shiva had a particular aversion for washing anything, including his hands. But then we never saw a tea towel as well.  That is, if you didn’t count his grimy shirt and pants.  Yes, the fellow wiped the extremities of his body, including his nose, quite blatantly on the nearest available spot on his clothes.

Notwithstanding this, Shiva was a very skilled cook.

His cutliss /pattice (potato patties) were perfectly shaped. He would know when to flip them and when to relegate them to the edges of the large tava. When ordered,  he would bring them into the centre of the action, allowing then to sizzle while he excavated some of the cooked peas from the crusty “ragda” barricade and pulled it into the thick of things. He would throw in chutneys from cute porcelain jars and mysterious powders from unidentifiable tins. Some water from the spurious multipurpose plastic mug went in to adjust consistency, but more so the volume.

The delicious spicy, minty aromas wafting up towards us would have us mother and daughter sniffing with our noses in the air like ogresses. Then caught in the act, we would burst out into giggles. Poor Shiva never knew what an awed audience he had.

The ready ragda pattice would then be transferred to a suspicious looking saucer. Shiva would garnish the dish with sauces, chopped onions, and coriander and savoury sev with great aplomb, and pocket the soiled notes, ready for the next order.

We would gasp and grimace, almost in pain. She had taught me well. To this day I am obsessed with washing hands after handling notes and coins. Thanks, Mum.

The next customer would want pani puri, so Shiva would fish out another saucer submerged in the by-now-dirty-dish-water in the tin bucket, shake it dry vigorously and place it in the eager hands of the customer.

What once again would arrest us was the nimble thumb-punching of a little puffy puri, scooping in of the boiled potato and chick peas with one hand and the splashing of the sweet and hot green chutney with little wooden paddles with the other hand.

The hand would then dexterously dunk the stuffed puri into the spicy water from the cool depths of the terracotta matka pot and swiftly land it onto the saucer, which by now would be trembling with anticipation. All this while Shiva’s other hand would have sinisterly picked up another puri from the glass windowed section of the cart - and the roulette routine would go on…

Mind you, Shiva simultaneously handled many customers on the pani-puri beat. How did he remember who wanted more mitha (sweet) and who preferred more tikha (hot)? How did he know how many puris each person had had?

We would try to count the puris from our vantage, but in vain, for we surely lost time. Unlike Shiva, who wouldn’t lose his patience either. He would humour customers who had completed their puri round, yet wanted some more of the spicy water to slurp from the saucer.

Shiva was so multi-tasking, that mother would make him a case in point.
Yes, occasionally Mother would allow the “Mum” in her to creep into the act.

That’s the flipside of having your parents as friends.

Cooking, serving, order taking, stock taking, dish-washing- er- rinsing, Shiva was a veritable one-man show. He was also the handy man cum bouncer cum cashier- fixing the awnings, chasing the nosy cows, putting errant customers in place, pumping the kerosene stove and cleaning the burner with a pin….

But I have no regrets, only benefits from those lessons to this day. Especially the lesson on making the grape chutney. 

You see, we used to especially salivate at the sight of the sonth sauce on the stall. Mother couldn’t stand tamarind (even to this day) as it gave her acidity. Dates were not really available so readily in those days. So she would come up with ways of making the sonth at home with aamchoor, fresh raw mango and on a few occasions, with sour grapes that had nowhere else to go.

When a bunch of particularly sour grapes was losing it’s tart and taut will to live the other day, my daughter suggested that I should make a sonth for the pani puri she was putting together with a little help from me.  She had no idea what lovely memories she was unlocking, neither did I until I wrote this piece.

Coming a full circle and continuing the tradition of mother-daughter friendship and togetherness, I present to you – the Grape Sonth.

Grape Sonth

3 cups red or black sweet and sour seedless grapes (washed)
Dates/brown sugar/jaggery or sweetener (only if required)
Lemon juice/tamarind extract/dry mango powder (only if required)
Salt to taste
1 tbsp black rock salt
½ tsp garam masala
½ tsp roasted cumin powder
A generous pinch hing
½ tsp sonth (powdered dry ginger) or more
¼ tsp black pepper powder           
¼ tsp chilli powder  
1 tsp chaat masala   


Mix all ingredients in a blender and blitz it into a sauce like consistency. Serve chilled wherever a sonth is required.

This does not stay for more than a couple of days, so make small quantities only.


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