Continuing with the wedding anniversary celebrations, last night’s beggar’s chicken became this afternoon’s Moroccan feast. I was remembering the afternoon, 3 years ago, before the wedding which I spent with my hands being temporarily tattooed with henna. Being the bride I had the most elaborate mehendi and all the women in my family had slightly less grand designs. Living in a small town we could only get two mehendi ladies to come home and boy, were they busy. But it was a great afternoon of families coming together, lots of loud chatter, women in the verandah getting painted up while the men probably talked cricket in the living room and peaked in occasionally to extend compliments or snigger, I’m not sure which. But this was not all that traditional – there was plenty of cold beer at hand.
There was a feast that afternoon, I can’t remember exactly what we had, my mother probably will because she really went to town. I just remember a table full of delicious looking food which I had to be spoon fed to prevent my mehendi from being smudged.
The actual wedding day lunch was something we were all looking forward to. This was only a small wedding of 120 people in my mother in law’s house and while it was a traditional ceremony, it was scaled down to the bare essentials. My father had been secretly slipped the phone number of the “the best” wedding cook in Tamil Nadu – the most closely guarded ten digits in the State. He had catered the weddings of Ministers so we had high expectations. Apparently, just getting an appointment with the guy was an honour.
Breaking with tradition, we all met with this man, that is my parents, my mother in law and myself at my mother in law’s house. He walked in, in a bubble of purity and daintiness, with his nose permanently turned up. In South India only Brahmins are allowed to cook for a Brahmin wedding. And this guy was in his full Brahmin regalia. Just as he settled himself down in a chair to his liking (while we all stood around wringing our hands, hoping that the chair was to his holi*ss’s comfort) my mother in law’s two big dogs chose that precise moment to bound in wagging their tails looking to lick the new visitor in traditional canine greeting. I never saw a Brahmin man shed his skin so quickly as one canine lick and sniff had thoroughly defiled him. My mother in law was so embarrassed and had to shoo the dogs away. Quite ominous beginnings.
Us women couldn’t even look at the man, he wouldn’t speak directly to us, let alone look at us. This type of archaic tradition is something we strong, independent educated women feel we are above but we found ourselves in this bizarre situation where one man was turning back the clock on years of women’s rights. Still, there was a wedding to conduct and our Indian sensibilities took over, not wanting to offend anyone. My poor father was left to orchestrate the uncomfortable conversation which took place purely in Tamil. It was quite clear to us and to the caterer that we did not know the protocols. The menu was discussed and being the bride I was allowed a few cheeky inputs such as unlimited aaplams (popadoms) and not the meager one per person that you usually get at weddings.
We ended up going for the traditional 23 items menu with a few “modern” twists that this don of catering had suggested, like “variety rice” – lemon rice, tamarind rice, curry leaf rice. The 23 for uninitiated, includes the salt, the pickle etc in one spoon servings for the first round. After a two hour wedding ceremony, were were famished and everyone knows that the best part of any traditional wedding is the food; one of my main reasons for opting for a traditional ceremony. My mother, my new husband and myself were the first seated with freshly plucked banana leaves (mostly from my mother-in-law’s garden) laid before us. And then it came, all 23 items ladled out in teeny portions. We ate and after a few mouthfuls the three of us looked at each other and knew that something was not right here. We were eating salt. But as people started to take their seats around us, they all seemed to be genuinely tucking in and raving about the food while the three of us were struggling through ours. My conclusion was that the head caterer had given a final tasting and asked one guy to add more salt to everything and that guy in turn asked a server to stir everything and he forgot. So we, the first three customers, got all the salt at the top of the dish. What can I say, I’ve had better wedding lunches.
While he may have disappointed the three of us on the food, he did organise everything else quite well – the flowers, the shaminana, the chairs and my favourite – the traditional little yellow bags, we call manja pais, which are like giveaway gifts. Each guest gets a little bag with a coconut, a few vethala (Betel nut) leaves and a banana, all auspicious. My mother and I fought for this bit of tradition. The bags were specially printed and on this holidayback home I brought back the remaining bags. They are printed in Tamil, and say “Dear Guests, Thank You Very Much for Coming. Gayatri and Aswan.”
So to mark the wedding lunch we had three years ago, I kept the salt jar far far away and we went for a Moroccan Feast: Tabouleh or couscous salad, Moroccan fried chicken and beetroot salad.
The beetroot was boiled with skin on till a knife passed easily through. They were so deliciously fresh and sweet that it just needed a bit of salt and a tiny splash of vinegar. The chicken was picked off last night’s beggar’s chicken and given a Moroccan twist with some chilli powder and cumin and then tossed in a hot pan in some olive oil.
For the couscous, follow packet instructions. Mine said add 250ml of boiling water to 200gms of couscous in a flameproof bowl, cover and allow to cook for 15 mins. I add a bit of salt to the couscous and once cooked, I added finely chopped onions, tomatoes, green chillies, cucumber and coriander (Indian kuchumber) with a pinch of salt. Never use a spoon to mix couscous or the grains will stick, always use a fork.
Instead of boiled beetroot you could make a beetroot raita, by putting the boiled beetroot in a blender and then adding thick yoghurt with a few cloves of minced garlic and drizzle with olive oil.
The whole meal was just as delicious as it looks.
If you think lunch was exciting, hold on to your napkins, I still have to tell you about our “news worthy” anniversary dinner at a local restaurant.