Christmas Roast Tandoori Chicken - a memoir, in food

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Christmas Roast Tandoori Chicken

Yoghurt

Ginger and garlic

Tomato puree

Chilli powder

Cumin and coriander powder

Garam masala

Fresh coriander (finely chopped)

2 serving spoon oil

Cut chicken into small pieces, approx. 12. Make two gashes on the chicken. Mix all the ingredients in the marinade and rub over chicken pieces and insert some of the marinade into the gashes on chicken. Put foil in an oven tray, drizzle some oil, arrange all the chicken pieces and drizzle some more oil. Leave for a few hours and cook in the over turning the chicken as required.

My festive season always peaked with Christmas roast tandoori chicken. My mum was one of those proud immigrants who would hijack any Western custom, add spice or sequins and call it ‘Indian style’. Once a year, on Christmas day, she would spice and marinate halal (we’re not Muslim, it just tastes better) chicken and then roast it. As she only made it once a year, the deliciously chilly chicken, roasted to perfection, gleaming with cumin seeds, turmeric, ginger, garlic and garam masala, would be a totem for just how good the year would end no matter what had gone on before. The fact that mum was a vegetarian meant that she must have been some kind of wizard.

I once asked mum how she made it. She said it couldn’t be written down. I had to sit with her and make it with her. The act of cooking, I assumed, was a selfish way to get my undivided attention and still feel like she had something to impart on me now I lived in my own place with my fiancé, Katie, who, much as she loved spicy food, was white and thus not versed in the ways of ‘Indian style’. On our wedding day, she and I were presented with a book of family recipes curated by my mother-in-law. They veered from her mum’s stew, her brother’s fish pie and her sister’s beetroots to my family’s more exotic vadas, theplas, oondhwos and paneer. This was the first time any of these recipes had been written down. They were passed, generation to generation, by doing. They were all recipes by women on my side, because, it seemed, the women knew all the recipes. I was deemed weird for wanting to learn the simple alchemy of spices, how to make my own masala and vagar.

My mum’s recipe for Christmas roast tandoori chicken had all the ingredients and method, but no measurements. When I asked her, mum said, ‘Oh I don’t know. I just throw it all in.’

'What do I do?'

'Come and make it with me. I'll show you. It's all instinct.'

'What would Jamie Oliver say?'

'He would say it was pukka, beta. I bet he doesn't know this is an Indian word.'

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Mum died two years later. A sudden cancerous decay and she was gone as soon as she was diagnosed.

I remember going home those two weeks mum was there, living on a ventilator, sagging in an armchair, unable to go into a deep sleep. The first thing I noticed was how the house didn’t smell like the home I grew up in anymore. The kitchen was a shrine to takeaway and well-wishing Tupperware of dishes from relatives. The fridge was empty, save milk and bread. No one knew what to do. No one was hungry. Not even me and I had a Pavlovian reaction to that house. As soon as I entered, I’d feel hungry for home-cooked Gujarati food. It was probably due to years of growing up in a bedroom above the kitchen, my obnoxious rap music punctuated by bursts of pressure cooker and sizzling onions, the dull thud of my mum frying, boiling, baking, chopping. Now that kitchen was a museum of how things were and what they used to be, each surface gleaming with bleach and polish, my sister’s touch, an urge to purge the house of all bugs.

Late October turned to November and I was distracted by promoting my novel. I was living off crisps and beer and the occasional fast food, hitting book shops and libraries and clubs to read things, desperate to distract myself with anything but deal with my mum’s passing.

As Christmas approached, and we broached the subject of what to do, I told my sister, Nishma, about the recipe for Christmas tandoori roast chicken.

'In her handwriting?' she asked.

'Yes.'

'Can you photocopy it for me?'

'Of course.'

'Shall we make it?'

'I don't know. I don't think I'm good enough.'

I could cook a basic paneer or chickpea curry. I could steam rice to perfection. I could make roast potatoes and pasta. Anything involving meat I needed Katie’s instruction on because I lacked the confidence to know when it was cooked. One of my biggest fears was salmonella. I was brilliant at sandwiches.

Nishma and I hatched a plan to make Christmas roast tandoori chicken. Katie urged me to do a practice run. I tried to impress upon her that there was no practice run. You only made it once a year. Those were the rules. When it come to the subject of the chicken itself, we argued.

'The chicken needs to be free-range,' Katie said.

'We get it from this halal place. I'm sure it's fine.'

'How do you know it's free range? Halal doesn't mean free-range.'

'Seriously, can we just do it as it once was for once?'

'Well, I won't eat it if it's not free-range.'

I was close to pulling out the ‘my mum’s dead’ card. ‘Please, can you just… we need to bring everyone together.’

'We could change their ways for better. By getting free-range.'

I caved. Eventually. I bought three free-range chicken, had them cut into 8 pieces each and with 24 pieces of chicken went home for Christmas.

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Nishma’s kitchen was different to my mum’s. They were the same space, just under different regimes. Under my sister’s regime, you cleaned up as you went along, you used exactly what you needed and no more, you had the television on Comedy Central so you could have Two and a Half Men on in the background. Under my mum’s regime, you could make a mess. These were two important distinctions. As soon as Katie and I arrived, Nishma announced, ‘I’m not cleaning up after you.’

'You don't have to clean up after me. I can clean up after myself.'

'I need to clean up after you.' Nishma had never taken any interest in cooking. Thrown in the deep end, she relied on the thing she knew she could do - make things spotless again.

'How about we marinate the crap out of this chicken?' I asked. Nishma nodded.

I took out the recipe mum had written. It was strange seeing her handwriting. It was proof she had lived. It was more than a photograph or more than a memory in fact it was what she look like, it was what she did. After mum died and I looked through all her handbags, looking for things that we might need to know about, appointments that needed to be communicated to my dad or phone numbers for people we might need to contact, I found a lot of dirty tissues and a lot of lists. It was the handwriting that made me feel the weirdest because the things, cheese, milk, Weetabix - they were written so casually, by a person who had lived. Now she wasn’t here anymore, it was a struggle to remember the mundane things she did. You just remembered static images of her face, not of her doing things, not of her stood in the kitchen, one flip-flopped foot up on a chair, cutting potatoes into the cup of her hand with a serrated life. Not her writing lists or recipes. Not her taking a tissue to blow her nose, something it seemed she did a lot.

The recipe listed the things we needed for the marinade.

Yoghurt, ginger and garlic, tomato puree, chilli powder, turmeric, cumin and coriander powder, garam masala, fresh coriander - finely chopped, two serving spoon oil.

We didn’t have any tomato puree. Only four cherry tomatoes. Katie suggested we chop them up finely and add them in with sugar. I said no. We had to do this properly. We could not deviate from the recipe.

After fifteen minutes of argument, Nishma called a truce by placing mum’s metal marinating bowl in front of us.

'Now what?' she asked. 'There's no measurements to go on.'

'Two serving spoons of oil,' I said. 'We start with two serving spoons of oil.'

'I think that's too much,' Katie said.

'We stick to the recipe,' I said, firmly. I picked out a serving spoon. Nishma poured out one then two serving spoons' worth of sunflower oil on to the spoons before I tipped them into the metal bowl, spoiling its sheen. Nishma added a squizzle - a technical term for slightly more than a drizzle - for luck.

'Now what' she asked again, her tone like that infuriating Why? bird from children's television.

I opened the tub of yoghurt. ‘Mum hated yoghurt,’ I said.

'Why was it in a lot of her recipes?'

I shrugged and plunged a table spoon into the tub, airlifting two healthy dollops into the metal bowl. My sister opened the spice tin and with a teaspoon added chilli powder, turmeric, cumin and coriander powder - a fierce spice called dhana jeera. I took out a former ice cream carton from the freezer, filled with flat-packed layers of pre-chopped garlic. I broke off a healthy square. I did the same with the ginger, slightly less though. I looked at my sister. ‘She chopped this.’

'Weird,' she said.

'Yeah, her DNA is on this.'

'And all those tissues,' Katie added.

I added the squares of pressed garlic and ginger and stirred, watching them quickly defrost and spread with the vigour of my spoon action. The marinade was brown and grainy. Exactly how it should look. I dipped my finger in and tasted. Nishma baulked.

'That's disgusting,' she grimaced. 'How does it taste?'

'Kinda vaguely like Christmas roast tandoori chicken…'

'Vaguely?'

'Well, the spices won't have been cooked yet. I bet it tastes disgusting.'

'It tastes very garlic-y.'

I added a pinch of all the spices again and stirred. ‘More salt,’ I said.

'There's no salt in the recipe.'

'Mum put salt in everything,' I told Katie. 'We should put salt in.'

'I thought you wanted to follow the recipe exactly,' my wife said and flashed me a sarcastic smile.

'We shouldn't put salt in if it doesn't say salt,' Nishma agreed.

'Well, then, the marinade is ready.'

The next job was to slice into the raw chicken to help the marinade to seep further in. My mum always used a small serrated knife. Up until I moved out, it was all I knew and I rarely needed it for anything other than cutting slices of cheese. Moving in with Nishma, I got used to proper knives. They felt different than the serrated knife and so when I’d go home those years I’d moved out, and I’d help mum in the kitchen by cutting vegetables, I would have to relearn the basic knife skills I had picked up not living at home.

Cutting two gashes into each piece of chicken was difficult. There wasn’t a point as such to thrust in to break the skin. You had to swipe the whole of the blade across the chicken. And there was only one knife, so my sister and wife watched while I ploughed through 24 pieces of chicken, slicing away like I knew what I was doing, when all I knew I needed to do was not slice my hand off.

Chicken gashed and the marinade rubbed all over them, we put the bowls in the fridge to marinade. Katie looked at me and said, ‘What do you have with them?’

'Roast potatoes.'

'What do you do for gravy?'

'There's no gravy.'

'That sounds horrible. So dry.'

'Hey, that's how we get down. We're trying to recreate old Christmases.'

'But it sounds horrible…'

'Oh no, it was always delicious. Wait till we do the broccoli Indian style.'

'What's broccoli Indian style?'

'Spicy broccoli.'

'I'm not sure about this.'

Katie had only spent one Christmas with us. And that year, my mum and Nishma were travelling to India on Christmas Day. I’d been disappointed that Katie wasn’t going to be able to taste Christmas chicken, the one thing I raved about the most. It just so happened that the one year I had finally convinced her to come to my family for Christmas, my mum wasn’t going to be around to cook. So she and I took over, and with the serrated knife of doom, made the most traditional Christmas lunch you could make.

It went down in history. Even my mum enjoyed the black pepper and rosemary potatoes and steamed broccoli and gravy and nut roast. She did put extra salt on everything too.

With the chicken marinading overnight in the fridge, we set about doing traditional Christmas eve activities - I helped my dad unflatpack a bed, Katie put on Christmas songs and Nishma watched television, biding her time till Eastenders.

My dad was going through a particularly bad time. I’d lost a mum, but he had lost the person he did everything with, the person who did everything for him. He was lost. He didn’t want Christmas. He didn’t want us around him, fussing and forcing a lovely time on everyone. He wanted quiet, a bottle of vodka and old Bollywood songs on full blast.

I walked down the stairs after making the bed to discover Nishma standing at the kitchen table, with the plates of chicken in front of her. I asked her what the matter was.

'This doesn't feel right,' she said. 'There's no way the marinade is going to work.' We weren't the most confident of cooks. It was like one of those actions films where everything goes into slow motion, excruciating slo-mo, like when a grenade's dropped or a character you kinda like is shot ruthlessly. I dived towards Nishma as she lifted up the bottle of sunflower oil and poured it over the chicken. I pulled the bottle out of her hand. 'There,' she said. 'Perfect.'

I could hear my dad coming down the stairs and not wanting to argue in front of him, I smiled at her. I knew, in my heart, that this was not Christmas roast tandoori chicken. This was a ruined mess, swimming in unwanted oil. I helped Nishma put the chicken back in the fridge. I took a second to stare at it before closing the door.

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I woke up early the next morning. Katie was going through the ‘night before Christmas’ tossing and turning of barely-concealed excitement, and I was up, worrying about the chicken. I knew it was going to be no good. It needed to be good, because it tasted like mum’s chicken, then for a second, it wouldn’t hurt so much, it would feel like she was alive. The house would smell and taste like how she made it and it wouldn’t hurt in my stomach so much, and maybe my dad would smile and maybe my sister wouldn’t be afraid of mess anymore and maybe, just maybe, my mum would live forever because at any time, I could conjure her by cooking the food she made. It was a big ask but there was a lot riding on this Christmas chicken.

I got out of bed.

'Where are you going?'

'Toilet,' I lied.

'Is it time for Christmas yet?'

'It's 6am.'

'Okay, wake me up in 30 minutes. Christmas should start at 6.30am,' she said and rolled over to face away from the door.

It was our first night in our old bed, which had been gathering spiderwebs in dad’s garage for a year while we lived in a rented flat with its own furniture. Now Nishma had finally moved into my room, dad, feeling alone had insisted we turn the spare room into Nikesh and Katie’s room, for when we visited home. Even though we lived 25 minutes away by car, it comforted him to know that our bed was in our room. We should have slept better on it because it was so comfortable. It was the night before Christmas, though.

I crept downstairs and as quietly as I could, pulled the trays of marinated chicken out of the fridge. My fears were met - the yoghurty marinade had separated from the extra unwarranted dollop of sunflower oil and there was a thick greasy film swimming around the chicken. I poured the excess oil out into the sink, trying to stop the marinade from disappearing with it.

'What are you doing?' Nishma asked from the doorway.

'What are you doing up?'

'You were making so much noise. I came down to check you weren't making a mess.'

'No, I wasn't making a mess. There's too much marinade.'

'There isn't.'

'The oil hadn't mixed with the marinade. The chicken was going to be oily and not tasty.'

'What do you know?'

'I don't. I'm making this up.'

'So was I,' my sister said and disappeared upstairs.

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A detente arrived at ten o’clock when it was time to fire up the ovens. The plan was to pre-cook the chicken and take it over to our aunt’s for lunch. The detente was partly out of nerves that this was it and partly from the peace-offering Buck’s Fizz from my ever-festive wife. Once the ovens were ready, we placed three trays of chicken in, stared at the oven and shrugged.

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Nishma and I tried a piece, two hours later. Just us, standing in the kitchen, with my dad and Katie next door talking. She and I had a moment where we were to test the food, see what it tasted like, see if we had achieved our goal. It was hot, still steaming, in a glass bowl. I picked up a fork and sliced a chunk off. Nishma did the same.

'Smells about right,' I said. She nodded. We both sniffed again for reassurance. I was hoping the smell would immediately transport me somewhere, take my home, take me back to this kitchen, but it feeling more alive than it did now.

'Every year mum asked me if I wanted to learn how to make this,' Nishma said. 'I don't know why I always said no.'

'Me too.'

'At least we have the recipe…'

'For what it's worth.'

'Mum's chicken smelt stronger than this, more chicken-y.'

'Yeah.'

I lifted the chicken to my mouth and put it in. There was a cacaphony of tastes, the lilt of the lemon, ginger and garlic working like a tightly knit terrorist cell, the piquant persistence of the chilli powder, the warm gloop of charred yoghurt and the singe of cumin all dancing in my mouth, like a parade of elephants, all surrounded by bhangra dancers hoisting their arms in the care, trumpets blaring, dhols banging and banging incessantly, everyone in a concentric circle around me as I rolled my head back in a hypnotised dizzy crowd of jubilation and I could see my mum in front of me, in a red saree, turned away from me and I ran towards her, the loud banging jubilant music all around us, the smell of roast tandoori chicken burning off my nasal hairs in orgiastic glee and I reached my mum and I span her round to say hello, to say that I finally understand, to say that I want to learn to say that I want to know where my home is again and… it didn’t taste anything like my mum’s Christmas roast tandoori chicken. It tasted like an imitation. A poor imitation you’d get at a shit restaurant where you know they know the food is bland and tasteless and they’re not trying hard enough and they know. And it was all my fault for following the recipe and not my pallette, for not being a confident enough cook to understand the mysteries and the majesty of Indian spices and what you needed to do to make everything taste like mum would make. It didn’t taste right but I tried to do this robotically and without love, because I didn’t know how to make the food, and without that confidence and intimate knowledge of the spices I would never be able to recreate those dishes my mum made that made me. It tasted okay. It just didn’t taste perfect.

And I swallowed the chicken and looked at my sister.

'It needs salt,' she said. And I agreed.

Author Nikesh Shukla eats Indian food. Nikesh blogs about Indian food.

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