Chapatis from Hell

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
A day out to a friend's allotment to sample some Asian cuisine ends in mayhem

Submitted: August 12, 2017

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Submitted: August 12, 2017

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Chapatis from Hell

- a summer interlude

The allotment is beautiful at this time of year – summer, but not high summer. The summer that comes after spring, when everything bursts into bloom, but is still fresh and sweet – not overblown and jaded. I both love and dread the steady procession of plants coming into flower – waiting for the pleasure of seeing each one, smelling, touching and in some cases tasting it – but knowing that their appearance is like the inexorable hands of a clock, marking out time – the days, weeks and months of an all too short summer.  Already the vetch is out – every year I shudder as I see the harebells, those delicate pale blue cousins of the bluebell, knowing that autumn is almost upon us.

In these long hot days and cooler evenings, my Pakistani friends Fasal and Sayeed often cook on their allotment – an assortment of daughters, cousins, daughters in law and mere acquaintances being pressed into service to grind spices, chop vegetables and knead chapatis for the feast to come. A chimney pot is highly prized amongst their community, and they are lucky enough to have acquired one, which they have adapted to cook in the style they know at home.  After much experimentation and many cracked pots, Fasal hit on the idea of fixing one in the centre of an old “dolly tub” – a galvanised barrel once used in Lancashire wash houses – and pouring a layer of concrete between the two. He inserted a pipe for a draw-hole at the bottom, the prototype was declared a success, and many succulent nights followed.

A fire of sticks is lit in the bottom, and while it is bright, pans of curry can be cooked on top.  When it dies down, pans are drawn off, chapatis rolled on a makeshift table, wetted and stuck to the earthenware sides. These are so unlike anything cooked on an indoor stove – the texture and taste completely different. The heat sears the outside giving a surface like silk, covered in satisfying air blisters, with an earthy taste something like a stone baked pizza, and a soft, mealy inside that soaks up curry beautifully.

It was a quieter, smaller scale affair the night my friend Janet, who has a garden in another part of town, visited. Just Fasal and Sayeed, the old couple, and their daughter, preparing a modest supper for themselves and me. Janet, not having happened upon this phenomenon before, and being something of an amateur builder herself, made a thorough inspection of the chimney-pot cooker, announced that she could build one like that, and invited Sayeed to bring her husband and daughter and try it out in two days’ time. 

I should explain that Janet is one of the “don’t cook, shan’t cook” brigade, and a large portion of her life is spent in attaching to herself people who do and will. I tried to point out quietly that she was on a loser with this one, that Pakistani matrons make a point of retiring from all household duties the minute they acquire a daughter in law (the term being synonymous with “slave”), and Sayeed was now onto her second. Janet, however, preferred the evidence of her own eyes, this was Sayeed, wasn’t it, and she was cooking – brilliantly – wasn’t she? I knew that cooking for Sayeed nowadays was a novelty, a bit of light entertainment, and there was no way Janet would get her into heavy duty cooking at her place.

“Nonsense!” Janet said, calling out “You like cooking, don’t you, Sayeed?” to which Sayeed replied,

“Yes”.

“See,” said Janet, turning to me. I did not tell Janet, who had obviously made up her own mind, that this meant nothing. The woman is affable, and says yes to anything.

Off went Janet in search of chimney pots, dolly tubs and cement, while the next day Sayeed said,

“I think better Janet come here, more fun”, which I took to mean she had already reconsidered her position.  I said I would put this point of view to Janet, but when next I saw her, exhausted and covered in cement, she would not hear of any backsliding. Sayeed turned up at my house for the verdict:

“Sorry,” I said, “Janet build chimmaney, take two days, she say better come now.”  I find it simpler to adopt Sayeed’s speech patterns, it makes communication more direct.

“Okay,” was Sayeed’s answer, “I bring Farah and Asra do cooking.” Farah and Asra are her two daughters in law. I don’t know why, but the picture of the seven children they have between them never entered my head. In the meantime, I had casually invited along two teenage girls who, bored with the school holidays, had been helping me clear out the frogpond. I didn’t see them being a problem, and they might be interested to see another garden.

Janet was late picking me up, nothing new in that, and the two young ladies, Maria and Gaynor, had already arrived when she backed up the car.  The arrangement was that we would shop for ingredients, then pick up Sayeed and Fasal. At this stage I had not yet revealed Sayeed’s secret weapon.  I suggested Maria, Gaynor, the dog and I should go help Janet with the shopping, guide her to Sayeed’s house, then leave her to load up the Asians and their gear, while we walked through the fields. Janet would not hear of it. She could easily run us up and come back. It was not a problem.

We shopped for veges and then went to Sayeed’s. One daughter in law was present, plus two boys and a baby, most of the kitchen equipment in hampers, and large amounts of spices. Janet asked Sayeed to go along with her to buy the meat, this she thought would reassure the woman that everything was halal, and also help in getting the authentic Asian price, and not the European one, which we all believe to be the way things are run. I had already told Janet I would not eat halal meat, on the grounds that I did it once and suffered a stomach bug, but also because I cannot see why, if I go to their house and eat their meat, they cannot eat ours when they come to us. I take the same view with vegetarians.

Janet dropped me and the girls off at her smallholding, with strict instructions not to let the dog in the garden. The resident geese, Donald and Dora, had goslings, and Donald was likely to attack.  Janet’s property is situated on a steep slope – at the top a disused catering van sits in a paved courtyard – pretty enough to start with, with its raised fishpond, and walls wreathed in clematis and ivy – but now transformed into an outdoor restaurant with a green awning, tables and chairs. From this point the land falls away sharply, in a jumble of trees, lawns, shrubs and flowers, to the flat piece at the bottom where there are greenhouses and sheds.

I began some basic food preparation, and the girls asked if they could explore. Shrieks of delight led me to look over the wall, to see they had found a trampoline and were jumping, falling and laughing fit to bust. Thirteen year olds are delightful – by fifteen they would be utterly ruined. Now at the emerging butterfly stage, they could behave like young ladies one minute, children the next, without being aware of the incongruity of either.

Some time later, Janet shot past the courtyard, shouting

“Quick, open the gate! Hurry!” At sixty-five I do not make a point of hurrying anywhere, and Janet is prone to dramatise every situation, so I walked rather than ran to let her in, where nothing more was amiss than that a passing policeman had objected to her loading the car with the contents of a Pakistani kitchen and six members of the ethnic race.

“I have to go back for the rest of them,” she panted, unloading quantities of pans, rolling pins, flour, spices and oil, as well as Sayeed, her Number Two Daughter in law and three children.

There was much ohh-ing and aahh-ing as the chimney-pot cooker was admired and approved. Janet, anxious to fetch the rest of the party, handed them the charcoal she had bought –

“Can you get the fire going?”

She was quickly informed that charcoal was not acceptable.

“Pakistani cooking only wood,” pronounced Headwoman Sayeed. 

“Oh God!” said Janet. Ignoring my advice to “take no notice”, she headed off for the woodpile, in an inaccessible corner of the garden, to reappear, panting and heaving, minutes later.

Soon a bright fire was burning, Sayeed pointing to where steam was issuing from the dollytub, announcing -

“Smint (cement) no dry,” in an accusing tone.  Ignoring the tables provided for food preparation, Number 2 Daughter in law squatted on the flags, tearing vegetables into bits, as Mother in Law had decided to make them into pakoras, not the curry for which they were intended.

Next crisis was oil.

“Where is oil please?” I quickly located the 2-litre bottle of extra virgin, noticing it was half empty as I handed it over.

“We need more, please.”

“Why?”

“For pakoras.”

“What did you use the other for, then?”

“Chicken curry.” So a whole litre of oil had gone into it. Yuk.

“How much more do you need?”

“Lots”.  Having forgotten to bring dog food, I had to go to the shop, so offered to fetch some. I brought two 2-litre bottles of Flora –

“Only needing one,” was the comment when I returned.

Maria and Gaynor hadn’t been seen since No2 Daughter in law handed them the baby, and the two little boys were content to hang around their mother and play with the toys they had brought. Until Number One Daughter in law arrived with her unruly brood and mayhem broke out.  A screaming running tide of children swept out of the courtyard and into the garden, fighting, bawling, roaring as they went. Apparently this happened every time the two families met. It was total war.

The pakoras started coming, and kept on coming. Number One Daughter in Law was bossing No2 and shouting at her that she was not doing it right. No2, a poor, downtrodden thing looking on the point of exhaustion, stuck to her position at the chimney front. Mother in Law intervened, chastising them both. The old man, toothless, sitting with the baby on his knees, sucked pakoras blissfully, ignoring the carnage going on all around him. The dog, smelling chicken, kept creeping nearer to the chimney pot – every time she spied him, No1 let out a monstrous shriek and ordered me to keep him away.

I retreated down the garden with the dog, sure that the danger of goose could not be as great as that of enraged Pakistani ladies, and sat under a tree with a can of cider. I could see the two girls in the strawberry patch, eating with both hands, while the churning mass of children writhed and wriggled in and out of the greenhouses and lay on the goose-shit laden grass, beating each other to death.  More than the usual amount of screaming was issuing from the courtyard, but I ignored it and sat on.  When I returned, Janet, looking as though she was holding onto her sanity with difficulty, told me that No2, feeling that the pan needed to be raised further from the heat, and looking around for something to use, grabbed two bricks lying against the wall, and put them on top of the hot chimney – failing to notice that they were covered in tar.  Had there been a blaze, I asked, somewhat redundantly, noting the quantities of water all over the floor, and guessing the fishpond had come in useful.  But it hadn’t stopped tar getting all over Janet’s beautiful stonework.

Now Sayeed’s daughter arrived, a sharp-tempered lady, who began cuffing and slapping one of the children, a dear little boy who loved animals and who kept demanding to be “taken to the farm” – pointing to the cows in the field opposite. I could not see what he had done wrong more than anyone else, and felt sorry for him as tears pelted down his face, his brother adding to his grief by mocking his facial contortions.

I was so full of pakoras I felt I could not eat another thing, but still they kept coming, though no one wanted them.  Another spate of angry shouting broke out around the chimney pot, where the two daughters in law fought for the privilege of chief stoker, like Sumo wrestlers going for a pushdown.

“What’s the matter?” asked Janet.

“This no hot enough,” screeched No2, “this chimney pot no good, you get too much hole in bottom – needing ash for chapati”. I was unable to follow the logic of this, but before anyone could stop her, she reached for more logs and threw them in the pot where they burned merrily, making it impossible to use for chapatis for at least half an hour. Sayeed, who is very good at telling everyone else what to do, insisted that a new pot would need to be built, with the following improvements – which she proceeded to list.

Janet agreed that ash was falling through the grating she had installed, and that she had not realised a buildup of heat was needed to cook chapatis.

“Maybe if you’d used charcoal as you wanted,” I said, “it would have been okay.”

Chapatis were at last cooked, and dished out with helpings of curry, but I for one had had enough. I intended to stay behind and help Janet clear up, but when Sayeed began shouting and organising her two slaves to do it, I took the girls and left for a quiet walk home through the graveyard, where no one had anything to say.

Next day, I rang to see if Janet had survived.

“It’s total chaos down the garden,” she said, “I daren’t look closely, but they’ve been in the potting shed, opened all the jars and thrown the contents all over the floor – they’ve even torn open seed packets and thrown them around. Anyway, I’ll deal with it later. I wanted to thank you, though, for introducing me to such interesting people. If it hadn’t been for you, I’d never have had this experience.”

“Ye-es. You’re being sarcastic I suppose?” It was her own fault for going bull-headed at it, as she did with everything, and not listening in the first place when I told her Sayeed would not cook.

“Why ever would you think that?” she asked. There was a click as the line went dead.

One up to me, I thought smugly.

 

 

 


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