By Naseem Rakha
Two days after Dad died, he made us dinner.
We sat at my table and we ate a feast of Qabooli Biryani and Mirchi Ka Salan, both dishes typical to Hyderabad, India where Dad was born and raised.
Qabooli is a lentil Biriyani made with basmati rice and channa dal. It requires a careful hand washing of the rice, rinsing out all the starch from the grains until the water runs clear. It requires a sorting and picking of the dal (golden lentils), ridding any that may be of poor quality. Then the two, the rice and the lentils, must be drained and let dry. The same must be done with the finely sliced onions, squeezed of excess liquid, they must air dry before they are carefully set in a half inch of sizzling hot oil and stirred to a delicate golden brown. The Qabooli requires garlic and ginger to be peeled and puréed into a fine paste, and then a grinding of spices. It requires a precise measurement of turmeric, cardamon, coriander, cumin, cayenne, mint and fresh squeezed lemon. And then, and this is critical, it requires that both the rice and channa dal be par-boiled to a place that is not quite done, so that once the five elements—the rice, the dal, the golden onion, the garlic/ginger puree, and spices are all layered together, and then drizzled with an infusion of cream and saffron—it can be covered, and sealed and baked to the exact point in which when a spoon breaks into the it‘s golden surface, each hand washed grain emerges tender and whole and separate and distinct.
The second dish, Mirchi Ka Salan or Green Chili Curry, is the equivalent of creating a Mole, it is time consuming and complicated to make. The paste itself has more than 12 ingredients. But the end product is unique and flavorful; it is one of my favorites.
When my sister came home on Monday the 12th of January, Dad was in the kitchen preparing to cook. It was 6:30 in the evening, the College Football National Championships were on the TV, and Dad was at his cutting board preparing the onions, his kitchen towel characteristically tossed over his shoulder. When Shameem asked what he was starting, she felt exasperated that Dad had taken on such a big project so late in the day. She had worked all day, she was tired. But, this was her dad. And we all knew his days were limited. There was the kidney disease, the heart problem, the iron build up from transfusions, the fatigue, the pink hospital form taped boldly to his refrigerator: Do not resuscitate. So Shameem set aside her exhaustion and spent the rest of the night cooking with Dad.
What surprised my sister most about the meal, she told me, was how much food he was preparing. This was not just for the two of them. Dad clearly had something else in mind. Perhaps a party the coming weekend. She didn’t ask. Instead they chopped, and stirred, and fried, and mixed, and boiled, and baked their way through the might. Finally, somewhere around midnight, they finished and put it all in the refrigerator for another day.
That day came the following Friday, 45 hours after Dad died from a tumble on a Portland Streetcar. Earlier in the day my family and I had gone to the funeral home and arranged for his cremation. Then, before heading back to my house, we went to Dad’s place, opened his refrigerator and took out the last meal he had ever prepared.
When my father came to the United States in his early 20’s, he had no idea how to cook. In his home in Hyderabad, India cooking was the work of servants, not the family and definitely not the men. Still he attempted to replicate the food he most missed. But trying to cook Indian food in the 1950’s and 60’s in the US, when Indian spices were not as ubiquitous as they are today, made the process of cooking a challenge. Yet he did not give up—collecting recipes and spices and experimenting at every opportunity.
One of Dad‘s favorite things in his later years was to have friends and family over for large meals, even though those meals, particularly as he got older, would often take him more than a week to fully prepare. It frustrated him that his arthritis made it slower to peel and chop, or that the onions would seem to burn more frequently, or that he‘d forget ingredients, or would sometimes spill an entire meal trying to transfer it from one heavy pot to another. It frustrated him that cooking would make him so tired. Still, just the weekend before he died, Dad told me he wanted to make Shrimp Pulau one last time. It is another time consuming dish, and it is also a dish, due to his very limited diet, he could no longer eat. Yet, that is what he wanted to make, for us, his children, all of us in our forties and fifties now, all watching our father with greater and greater levels of anxiety and sadness and love.
Unfortunately, Dad never got to make the Shrimp Pulau. Two days after he made the Qabooli and Green Mirchi Ka Salan he had his fall while riding the streetcar. At the hospital he refused treatment. He told us he was going to die that night. We fought him. We wanted him to live. But he knew better. He understood that his fall was a way out from the longer more agonizing death he faced, and then four hours after sunset, with Portland‘s lights glimmering out the hospital window, he died. His breathing became more and more labored. We could not imagine saying goodbye. And then, he was gone.
We brought the meal to my home after the funeral arrangements were made—three tired, distraught children, heads spinning, knees wobbling, all in need of comfort, and not knowing how to find it. And there it was, seeping into the house from the oven, the scent of rice and dal and ginger and onion. Saffron and chile, turmeric and cardamon. The scent of Dad bent over a stove, cooking for us one last time.
Naseem is the daughter of Mohammed Allah Rakha and Beverly Francis Schafer, both of whom are now gone. She raises her 15-year-old son with her husband in Oregon. She is the author of the award-winning novel, The Crying Tree, and is a journalist and geologist and naturalist. And she spends her free time backpacking, gardening, knitting, reading and writing. Dad‘s recipe for Qabooli Biryani and Mirchi Ka Salan, can be found on Shameem Rakha‘s blog Scratch: For the love of all things homemade.