Monday, February 22, 2010

The Soul in Chicken Soup

Dear Rushina,

As you know, the past few weeks have been particularly trying and I’ve been looking forward to an opportunity to get away. So the perfect opportunity presented itself when my assignment submission due date coincided with my mom traveling to New Delhi. With my mammoth paper submitted to the office, I was off to Delhi for some ‘girl’ time with my mom and sisters. The reunion was and has been wonderful – especially with my mom, who with her wit, patience and unwavering dignity is an incomparable confidante. And as with all relationships, food has been a very intimate witness.

Like many mother-daughter relationships, ours was a tempestuous one that mellowed into a wonderfully warm, accepting one. Whenever I fell sick as a child, my mom would make me chicken soup. Not a Knor packet variety. Chicken soup in my part of the world is made a little differently, more hands on. Chickens played a pivotal role in the life of old, being used for religious rituals, as medicine and for other important social occasions. This being the case, choosing a chicken to feed to a sick person involves selecting one which is young and fat. Young would be what my mom (trying to sound more ‘with it’) called ‘teenage’ chickens (no, she didn’t know that there were mutant turtles who were the same age as well). Old enough so one could tell if it was a budding rooster or hen, young enough that the meat was impossibly tender and succulent…and fat! The technique to determine if it was fat enough would be to hold the chicken by its legs with one hand, gently restrain the wings with the other, turn it upside down and blow on the bottom so that the feathers part. If you could see the pale yellow fat underneath the muslin thin skin, the meat would have a characteristically buttery texture. I still pick chickens in this manner when I’m home and can enjoy the luxury of selecting from our spirited local species.

The chicken chosen, my mom would dress the meat and marinate it briefly with salt, chillies and wild ginger. Wild ginger, grows um, wild in the forests in around Kohima (and I’m sure in other areas in the state as well), during the rainy season. It has a sharper taste and aroma than its market cousin. The leaves are especially fragrant and have a slightly tangy flavour that offsets fatty meat curries especially well. Marinated, my mom would put the pot of chicken on the fireplace and let the burning wood slow cook it into a thick buttery broth.

Pampered as I was, she would feed me the soup and my illness would always go away, just like that! (I hadn’t figured out then that it was probably the fact my doctor parents were treating me which made me better) As I grew up and mom and I went through our tough times, I’d only have to think of her soup to realize that nothing was worth fighting over, for too long at least. And then I started making her the soup once in a while, to convey through the soup what our verbally reserved culture prevents us from saying with words.

For the past three days, I’ve urgently unburdened myself to my mother because she leaves for home tomorrow. She listened, gently gave advice and tonight, she made me chicken soup.

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