Rani Veerassamy – Principal Agent
The smell of mangoes and spices brings be back to my childhood in Mauritius, a small island in the Indian ocean, about 2000 km from the coast of southeast Africa. I remember the aromas of cardamom and cinnamon drifting through the summer air and the yellow colour of the masalas being ground on the stone in the yard.
My childhood revolved around a large old colonial house that had belonged to my grandparents. It was a white wooden house, built during the mid-nineteenth century with beautiful volcanic stone steps leading up to the front veranda where most daily interactions took place.
The house had a huge garden with many different fruit trees, including mangoes, lychees, longans, jackfruit, and coconuts. During the summer months, the air would be heavy with the strong smell of lychees and mangoes.
In the same enclosure, there were a couple of other houses, where my father’s siblings and their families lived, a setup that was very common in Mauritius at that time, often with three or more generations living under one roof. Much of the food preparation was done manually and outside with women from all the the houses in the enclosure participating.
I would often awaken to aromas and sounds relating to food preparation, such as the grinding of spices or grating of coconut. The essence of the freshly roasted and ground spices would have me instantly awake, and I could often guess what would be for dinner that evening.
There were no supermarkets or ready-made foods, so everything needed to be done from scratch and with seasonal ingredients. I would anxiously await the moment when the mangoes from the garden were dried in the sun to my aunt’s satisfaction and she would add the tamarind, fenugreek, and other spices to turn them into the most delicious pickles I had ever tasted.
To this day, when I open the container of fenugreek seeds in my kitchen and inhale, the smell takes me back to the early 1980s in Mauritius.
The time leading up to religious festivals was often eagerly anticipated, as people would gather at our place to help prepare food, whether it was to make sweets for Diwali or to feed people at the temple on other religious occasions. Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights and one of the traditions is that families would prepare traditional sweets to share with others. All the children would participate in the pounding of rice in a huge wooden mortar and pestle to turn it into a powder to be used in the making of sweets.
It was also important to prepare more than enough food for dinner, especially during festivals, since most homes at the time did not have telephones and people would often drop in and stay for dinner. Since food plays such a large role in Mauritian social life it is not surprising that hospitality is very important, and the sharing of food is still very common. This culture is also very prevalent in India, where my family originates from.
Elderly ladies from my grandparents’ generation would direct the cooking for special events such as weddings, indicating the quantity of spices to be used with gestures. I can remember hearing them talk about whether the spices were ready during preparations for a wedding when I was about 8:
“You know that the garam masala is not ready yet because you can’t smell the pepper” said one of my aunts.
The food was being prepared in the garden under the mango trees and a lady who was a friend of my grandparents was in control of the cooking. She was bustling around, hitching up her sari, showing how much of each ingredient needed to be added to each pot and ensuring that the food was being prepared correctly. She was so skilled that she could usually discern immediately whether the food was to her satisfaction.
Most of the time, several dishes would be served using large slices of washed banana leaves as plates. This traditional manner of serving food was not only easy and environmentally friendly but the banana leaves imparted a distinct and unmistakable aroma to the meals. Some of the pots used for these occasions are still in my family today. I was looking at one of them a few years ago and thinking about the skills of the people who used them. They were so large that my 8-year-old could easily fit into them. Watching her play with the pots and climb into one of them brought back a flood of memories.
The foods I prepare for Rani’s Cuisine and the foods that our tour guests have are special to me as they bring back memories of well-being and of people coming together as well as people caring for others. When I lived in North America and I would return to Mauritius on holidays, neighbours, friends, and relatives would put a lot of effort into making my favourite foods and it was always very healing, both physically and mentally. I would always take the spice mixtures and pickles back with me and the tastes and aromas would always remind me of the care and attention given to me by others. My friends always commented on how nice everything tasted and I very much enjoyed sharing it with them.
My global food adventure didn’t just remain in Mauritius and North America. Moving to Australia in 2007 was exciting but it also meant that due to customs regulations, I was no longer able to bring my pickles and spices from Mauritius. If I wanted the same pickles and masalas, I had to learn to make them.
Fortunately for me, the necessary ingredients are easily available here. Later that year, when I was in Mauritius, my aunt taught me to make them. Until I made friends in Australia, the new life was a bit difficult, but the time I spent cooking and experimenting paid off. New friends, many from India and Malaysia began telling me how much they liked my food. I felt so happy hearing them exclaim with delight when they would try my pickles and curries, then leave my house with the pickles and spice masalas.
I firmly believe that my ability to cook and my unconscious effort to try and recreate a social situation like the one I had in Mauritius helped me make friends and adapt better to living here and be happy.
I recently saw the healing power of these foods, when I went to visit a friend who was unwell. I decided to prepare some food to take to her. As I was grinding the spices, I hoped that she would feel better soon and thought of her as I cooked. When I took the dish to her house, I saw her eyes light up as she realised that I had come with food for her. As she started eating, I could see that she was starting to feel better.
As she talked, I suddenly realised how I was reliving something that had happened many years prior. My relatives had prepared the same dishes for me, grinding spices with love and care when I was unwell, and I would feel better even at the thought of having those foods. In a way, a circle had been completed and I became aware of how naturally I was reflecting my own path.
The foods and actions that had brought so much to my life in the past are still here in my life, except that I am now able to prepare those foods and be the one to give them to others. It has become a part of who I am. I may have moved to a new country, but sharing the healing properties of food and spices is still a large part of my life and I feel special every time I prepare food for others or take them to my ancestral homeland, in southern India.