This Indian life by Shoba Narayan:

It’s the only way to truly feel the spirit of the season

BRUNCH Updated: Dec 21, 2019 21:50 IST

Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

“There is a difference between taste and flavour,” Uncle Chandy said grandly. “One has to do with consistency, the other with individuality.” Stoked on rum-soaked sultanas, I couldn’t tell if he was drunk or philosophical.

We were loading 10 kilos of raisins, nuts, and dried fruit into the back of my Toyota minivan. After a minor stop for two dozen more bottles of Old Monk (somehow we had run out of that particular ingredient), Uncle Chandy and I would drive to church where a dozen of his salivating relatives were listening to the (seemingly never-ending) sing-song sermon of Father Thomas with the fortitude that came from the knowledge that Uncle Chandy’s cake-mixing would be in full swing by the time they got home.

Uncle Chandy was in his late 60s and had baked more Christmas cakes than I had seen sunrises. I was his self designated sidekick.

We emptied the bottles of rum into a giant vat and soaked the dried fruit in it. Every now and then, I took a little of the rum-soaked fruit. Uncle Chandy carefully poured some vanilla extract into the flour that he was mixing in a separate vat.

“Taste is mass production,” he said. “Like making 500 appams or idlis. All it takes is consistency. Flavour is as unique as a handprint or signature. It is like an announcement. People should eat my Christmas cake and gasp at the flavours. Or weep. Preferably both.”

“I thought we were just following a recipe,” I said.

Uncle Chandy looked like he had swallowed vinegar. “That is why I am the Uncle and you are the sidekick,” he said witheringly. “Because you don’t know anything. How you were born is beyond me.”

I lifted the knife with which I was slivering almonds. Uncle Chandy calmed down.

“Each family has very particular flavours of Christmas cake that they are used to. How much lemon zest to add? Do you feed the cake with brandy, rum and whisky to build up the flavour or do you go the stupid vegetarian route with no real alcohol? What is your tolerance for cinnamon, cloves and spices? These are all things that are unique and specific. No mass production.”

All great cooks have three qualities: stubbornness, irritability and an instinct for proportion

Uncle Chandy had all three in spades. He was firmly convinced that he was always right and the world only needed to catch up with his matchless genius.

Christmas traditions are both universal and individualistic. On the one hand, the joy of the moment, the coming together of families, evokes broadly the same emotions. Cake on the other hand varies according to family, state and community. The defining trait in the Chandy family cake was the number of people involved in each decision: Uncle Chandy and me. Planning the cake-making though, was an exercise in patience and diplomacy. Patience with Uncle and diplomacy with Thangam Aunty, who hated the cake-making season.

“Your Uncle has no idea about proportion,” she said. “This cake business of his – which isn’t really a business, that’s the worst part, there is no money coming in for all this effort – has become such a production, like a moon landing. He does daily tastings of the batter and shows up drunk at church. Who needs all this nonsense?”

“Don’t worry Aunty, I have handled thousands of crazy cooks,” I said comfortingly. “You have to use the carrot and stick approach with them, otherwise they will eat you alive with their tantrums.”

Thangam Aunty nodded approvingly. “Such a bright little thing, you are,” she said.

Egged on by her compliment, (and the four dozen eggs we were beating), I changed tack. I praised Uncle Chandy fulsomely for the flavours of his cake. We discussed the merits of using whole cinnamon bark versus ground cinnamon. We analysed freshly-churned butter versus packaged. We made a detour into mixing coconut milk with cake as an experiment. It bombed.

“How can this be?” Uncle Chandy moaned. “Kerala people love coconut milk.”

But not in cake, said his wife tartly.

As the cake-making season progressed, Uncle Chandy and I were having sleepless nights wondering if the cake would rise and be spongy enough. Plus we were thoroughly hungover, given that we were drinking the leftover booze at every chance.

A week before Christmas, we baked our first batch of cake. Fragrant and flavourful, the cakes rose perfectly in the oven and came out looking pickled, pock-marked, and brown-skinned. The taste of dried fruit mixed with the almonds and vanilla. The whole house smelled like vanilla rum. The cake was moist, dense and supremely delicious.

As for Chandy Uncle and I: we were merely drunk.

Merry Christmas!

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, December 22, 2019