“You need to let them soak some more.”, she said, when I was about to turn over the vessel containing wet poha. They had been soaking in water for about an hour now, enough for the fragile little wafers to become a soggy mass. Yet, I turned to her, acknowledged her instruction and did as she bade me leaving the poha alone. There was no getting around her when she was the back seat cook.
A week ago she had decided that the coming Sunday we would make kanda poha per her instructions and so far we had deviated from every rule in the poha making book. I had yet to chop the onions, we had run out of fresh coriander and grated coconut, the must haves for a perfect plate of kanda poha. “Can I move to the onions now? And perhaps add a potato or two?”, I asked her. “Has the poha soaked enough?” she asked, for the fifth time. “Yes, it’s been swimming in water for an hour and now it has drowned, can we rescue it?”. “Yes, yes, do that now or you’ll get lumpy poha! What have you been waiting for?”, she chided, forgetting completely that a short time ago she had issued an entirely opposite order. I quickly turned the poha vessel right and checked the contents. They were not entirely beyond salvage. I picked some onions and a couple of potatoes from the basket and took them to her. She had perched herself on a chair. We had moved into the kitchen so that she could oversee the entire cooking process, but I had kept some distance between it and the cooking range so that any stray tadka spices would not fly to her. She was not entirely happy with it though. Looking at the contents of my hand, she approved of all but one onion, and then asked me to show her the first cuts.
I began the chopping, occasionally taking the chopping board to her for inspection. Amidst comments like, “Too thin!”, “Too fat!”, and some sarcastic ones like, “We are making “kanda” poha, right? So add more kanda!!” we got the chopping done. I chopped the chilies as well, too quickly for her to realize.
“Now?”, I looked at her.
“Take the kadai, the big one that you like. Put it on the burner with a high flame”.
“How much oil?”, I asked.
“Just about this much”, she said showing me her fingers put together like a scooper.
“Okay”, I said pouring oil in the kadhai.
“You know the sequence, right? Which spices for the tadka?”, she asked me.
“Thinks so, else please guide me.”
“Okay so, put in some jeera and mustard seeds first, let them pop. Then add salt, I think.”
“Should I add the turmeric powder then or go for the salt?”
“Right, turmeric powder it is. Don’t forget the salt though!!”
“No, I will sprinkle it once the poha is added.”
"Not the poha right away, it goes in last, before the salt!"
So it went. She told me the ingredients, their quantity and sequence. I did try to make suggestions now and then. All through the process, she wanted to involve herself in the cooking, to check if the kanda, potatoes were cooked, that the poha was the right colour from the amount of turmeric added and so on. I did not let her leave the chair for her own safety. And then she wanted to stir the poha in the kadhai, but I refused to let her. Her hands were in no position to handle the load of poha in each stir. She was sure she could have done it, she insisted as much, but could not overcome my opposition this time.
Finally, it was time to let the poha cook to perfection and we retreated away from the kitchen to let the steam do its work. As the smell of poha wafted in the house she went off to have her bath and get ready for breakfast. She chose to wear a new outfit that day and called me all the way to her bedroom to admire it. She smoothed out every little crease in the fabric while I spoke about how good it looked on her, like all hand printed cotton always have.
We had our fill of kanda poha shortly after. It had turned out to be really good. Some friends unexpectedly dropped in around that time and they were also treated to this snack from the Konkan. They loved it too.
My first memories of kanda poha as a child were of this fulfilling dish being served steaming hot by Mum for our midday snack at 5 pm, almost once a week. My grandpa at the head of the table, me, my sister and my Mum on the remaining chairs partaking of the yellow goodness. I always had an extra quarter of lemon squeezed on my share for the tangy after taste. I have loved this concoction of carbohydrates, vitamins and spices ever since and can have it as one of my meals every single day. I have also developed a discerning taste for well made kanda poha, nothing less will do. And it helped that my Mum never made okay tasting kanda poha. It was always fantastic, always!
30 years later that Sunday, when I just carried out the "doing" part of the poha under Mum supervision, it turned out to be just as good. To the friends who had just dropped in, Mum could not stop raving about the great job I had done when really all I had done was listen to her step by step guidance and carry them out. For a woman who has undergone 4 surgeries, 30 chemotherapy cycles, 9 radiation cycles and hosts a tumor in her brain, for a woman who cannot remember where her room is in the house, replicating the taste of kanda poha over and over again is no mean feat.
Operation kanda poha being the grand success it was, Mum has now moved to tastier things to prepare on the coming weekends. She never lacked the confidence, or shirked a challenge, and then she has us as her "hands". Be sure to smell some apple pie baking when you next pass our house. And no, don't drop in, we like having our pies and eating them too.