At my book club meeting last week, we were reading a book that is based in the Balkans, in which superstitions, magic and myths form an important part of the narrative. That was our cue to discussing superstitions and how they work across different cultures.
It was a fascinating topic because there was such a range of practices and reactions. The Scandinavian ladies found it faintly amusing because superstitions have more or less disappeared from their culture. The American lady was similarly bemused, and stated that superstitions worked in her culture only at a very superficial level – a black cat crossing the path meant bad luck, for example, but not that one would do anything about it.
It was the Libyan, the Greek and the Indian lady who had a lot to say! In some cultures superstitions are recognized for what they are – we know there is no logic to them, but hey – what’s the harm?. So using Vaastu to design your house (Indian) and reading the coffee grounds (Greek) are just tools in your kit to draw good luck towards you and your family, and push away the bad things that might happen.
The concept of Nazar (the Evil Eye) is something that is common to many Asian/Middle Eastern cultures, and a lot is done to keep it at bay – black kohl marks on a child’s forehead to make him `ugly’ , hanging up Evil Eye charms, mumbling ancient incantations while burning red chillies or adding oil to wine to check the level of nazar…all these are quaint leftovers from a time when a lot of the material world was still `unknown’ (from a scientific point of view), and life was hard and unpredictable (alas, still is for masses of humanity…)
Leftovers they might be, but superstitions tend to seep into our collective DNA and many of us practice them still, at one level or another, in one form or another, religious or social. Every time we say `touch wood /knock on wood’ we hark back to a time of `pagan’ religions when evil spirits were said to reside in trees and woods so knocking on wood meant they could not hear your hopes. For many, Friday the 13th still evokes a mild form of dread or an expectation of strange events. At a deeper level superstitions are also a way of connecting to our culture and our roots, and can even be something that makes us feel special or loved and protected.
Superstitions crossed my path in the form of my late grandmother-in-law who left us 3 years ago, at the blessed age of 101. When I married, I moved into my husband’s house as the third generation – us, my mother-in-law and my grandmother-in-law! In India, that’s absolutely not unusual. My first pregnancy was a difficult one – and , my How To Survive A Difficult Pregnancy kit included doctors, bed rest, home remedies, good food (too much of it), and…superstitions and magic charms! Nary a week went past without her `removing’ the nazar that had been cast on me, or tying up some seeds / herbs into handkerchiefs and spiriting them under my pillow for the safety of my little one or tying various threads and charms onto my arms to keep me healthy. What could I say? To logical, educated, independent me, it was just a game, something I would tolerate just to please her. Now when I look back, I know what love, what caring and what hopes went into all those charms. As a mother, I am now often tempted to perform some protective magic rituals on my kids!
She was quite an amazing person, and the extended family misses her still. Without getting into a teary-eyed exaltation, I will say that through her persona I discovered that it is not necessary to be very educated to be intelligent, well informed or have a load of common sense. Just about literate, she had an amazing ability to grasp new concepts and a was blessed with a fantastic memory. She never ever used a calendar and knew in her head, all the birthdays and anniversaries of her 7 children and their wives, her 20 grandchildren and their spouses, and her 6 great-grandchildren, apart from those of sundry friends and relatives. She would do quick-as-lightning sums in her head, whether it was calculating the exact change from the cook’s vegetable shopping trip or the ironing man’s complicated pricing at 90 /55 paise per garment depending on size.
She was a superb cook, and what people recall about her still is that no one left her house hungry, no matter what time of the day or night they visited (in the old days, in the absence of telephones, having a group of 10 people descend on your house at lunchtime was common…just thinking of it makes me shudder!!). With limited resources and a abundance of patience, she could dish up a simple meal in no time at all, all the while keeping up a very social, warm chatter.
One of these time-tested dishes was tamatar-pyaz ki chutney (Tomato-Onion Chutney). It is something that can be cooked with up ingredients that are always present in an (Indian) kitchen, takes no time to put together, and served with fresh hot rotis (flatbreads) and yogurt, is a delicious, nutritious and comforting meal. In Italy I would recommend it with freshly grilled piadinas…yum!
TAMATAR-PYAZ KI CHUTNEY (TOMATO-ONION CHUTNEY) (Prep time 10 mins, cooking time 5 mins)
* Ripe tomatoes – 4 (sliced)
* Red onions – 1 or 2 (sliced)
* Garlic cloves – 6 (sliced)
* Fresh green or red chillies (optional) – 1 or 2 (chopped)
* Spices (use as many of these as you have – a big pinch of each) – whole black peppercorns, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, nigella (kalonji) and sesame seeds
* Vegetable oil (not olive – I feel it’s flavor is not very compatible with Indian food) – 1-2 tbsps (the more the better it tastes!)
* Salt – to taste
* Sugar – 1/2 tsp
* Ideally, fresh green coriander and mint leaves (I had neither, the day I cooked this)
– Heat oil in a pan until it’s smoking
– Lower the heat and add the spices, except for the sesame seeds
– After 10 seconds, add the onions and garlic (yes – 10 seconds…so the spices do not burn and make your dish bitter)
– Fry for 3-4 mins until the onions are translucent
– Add the tomatoes and fry another 3-4 mins until tomatoes are soft but still retain their shape
– Add the salt, sugar, and chillies, switch off the heat, and cover
– Let it sit around for 5 mins so the residual heat brings all the flavors togeher
– Uncover, scatter sesame seeds and fresh coriander and mint over the dish, and serve warm or at room temperature
So did you learn anything special from your grandmother? I’d love to hear from you!