Congee Time

"Daddy's fad" is the comment with which the children dismiss my craving for some of those childhood tastes I grew up with. And each time the better half is in a mood to pamper to my 'fad' there are long suffering looks, grudgingly conceding the need at times to give in to pater's crazy desires. Notwithstanding the exhibited disgust(?) wonder, and resignation, I still slurp and savour just sometimes, my delectable congee with galmbi chutney or crispy fried dry bombil -- that Bombay-duck fish, which alerts all in the neighbourhood to the fishy menace of a passing garbage truck.

Brought up in the South Indian coastal town of Mangalore, congee for me was a childhood staple breakfast food, as far back as memory can go. Only, mother then had a different nishten or side dish, each day, to help swallow that heap of boiled congee rice still wet in its own soup -- the congee water. Accompanying dish would one day be steamed khube or oysters in their shells that automatically opened with the heat if cooking, to expose the tiny flesh mass sucked on to your tongue with just that much of a slurpy sound that most westernised table manners would not permit. The memory of the oyster soup concentrate in the simple thel-piao preparation still brings water to my mouth.

Even though far removed from home town, many like me are still fond of congee made of hand pounded red bran husk still in place, and would hate to see the envigorating congee water being wasted. In villages in our parts, the congee water is still the broth that the poor farmers carry with them to the field to sustain them through the toils of a whole day. A fact, that most of us in urban lands with of adulterated stuff to fill our bellies, have easily forgotten.

Eating the red boiled rice congee meant savouring one of those fantastic appetisers from a variety of 'chutneys'. May be one day the mint in the kitchen garden, or another day the chutney of ground coconut with ginger and green chili. And of course my favorite, the galmbi chutney made if dried tiny shrimps fried crisp on a dry thava and mixed with freshly grated coconut and a pinch of meet-mirsang - - the ever-ready emergency masala of red chili and salt ground to a paste in vinegar, that every house wife swore by.

If you had a banana bush in the backyard, each time it yielded a bunch there would be a bonanza. When the bunch is cut, the flowering comb at the end of its elephantine trunk that each day opened a single brown boat-shaped leaf to expose the nectar filled flower to tiny fluttering bats at dusk, would now be used for another side-dish. The banana tree itself was not discarded. Layers and shiny layers of its main trunk would be carefully slit open to remove the kaandi or inner core, to grind another chutney, rendered tastier when seasoned with spluttering mustard in hot oil.

Another congee side-dish one cannot easily forget is the attailly kadi which the Goans aptly call kalchi kadi being the previous day's left over fish curry cooked again to a semi dry paste in a black tempered earthern-ware cooking vessel and scraped off its bottom with a coconut shell ladel. Since no modern day elite elegant vessel can give you the taste that comes off the bottom of a mud cooking pot, an old aunt of mine in Bangalore is still prompted to find place in her fridge for her favourite black mud pots and pans.

A nagging memory that lingers on, is that of our greedy mouths finishing off at times all the nishten at table, leaving nothing for the servants in the kitchen; who then had to make to with something less exotic to help down their own bowls of congee. The appetiser they came up with was a concoction made of a pinch of salt in a little tamarind water (or juice from a pressed lemon) on a saucer, with a green chili squeezed into it. Believe me, the irony if it all was that very often we children couldn't resist the temptation to smuggle a little of our exotic nisthen to the servants, in exchange for their concoction in the saucer, that laid a sharp taste on our tongues. Congee time for us, always had these strange memorable moments.

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