Pyaar mein zara Sambal-na
by Ranjita Bhat
It was close to midnight – the Pai family lay in a state of deep slumber. This was the time of the day when the Kitchen Community came awake and went about their business. There was gossip to be shared, world news to be discussed, kitty parties to be planned and new members to be welcomed.
Mr. Potato and Mr. Corn were whispering about Ms. Avocado, and how her arrival had endangered their presence in the Pais’ diet.
Ms. Ladyfingers and Mr. Brinjal were worried about their dwindling popularity. Ever since the youngest Pai member – five-year-old, Shivali – had declared that she would not eat anything that contained either of them.
Ms. Cinnamon, Ms. Peppercorn and Mr. Clove, on the other hand, were sitting smug, thanks to their role in the ‘kaadha’ prepared daily, to combat the dreaded virus.
But the breaking news was that a new member was going to be added to their community soon. It started as a hushed-up gossip which Ms Tamarind had overheard. She told her cousin Mr Kokum about it who, in turn, told Mr Coconut when they met at work, while making the Pai household’s staple – the most-loved Kokum Curry.
It so happened that Mr Pai’s younger son, Sanjeev, who was a guide with an eminent travel company had just returned from a tour of Indonesia. Owing to the lockdown, the tourism industry had taken a major hit and most of the taskforce had been forced into a territory alien to them – home.
For someone who was not used to being confined to a city, it took Sanjeev a great deal of patience and fortitude to be able to maintain his sanity. But these efforts led to creative culinary expeditions, never before seen in this kitchen.
Sanjeev would spend hours watching videos of exotic dishes and then try to replicate them. Inspired by the tastes from his last trip, he decided to try his hand at Indonesian fried rice – Nasi Goreng.
The news spread like wildfire and everyone waited with bated breath for a glimpse of the exotic new entrant: Sambal Oelek. A traditional Indonesian sauce made by grinding a variety of chillies, garlic, ginger, shallots and shrimp paste.
She had just arrived that morning via the online gourmet food store and stood smug on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet. Most of the spices felt a bit apprehensive to approach the new entrant, especially since she had an air of superiority about her.
‘Hot and Spicy – Can you handle it?’ read a small tag on her label and it wasn’t just the tag, but her entire demeanour which intrigued all the other spices. No one dared approach her on the first night as she stood sullenly in her corner.
There were murmurs that she had come from a foreign land and wasn’t accustomed to the humble life led by Indian masalas. Some even stated that she was probably a really spicy version of the docile Mrs. Garlic Chutney who would never venture on any plate without her husband, Mr Dosa.
It was the third night since Sambal Oelek had entered the Pai Kitchen and no one had tried approaching her, when sweet old Uncle Laddoo decided to break the ice with her. Known for his smooth talk and ultra-sweet smile, he also had a weakness for young females.
He bounded up the shelf and landed right next to Sambal. Putting on his most impressive baritone voice, he drawled, “So m’ lady! How have you been finding it here?”
“Oh! I am so hot!”, she said in her slightly foreign accent.
“Oh that you are!” uttered Uncle Laddoo, ogling at her.
But Sambal had already turned her face the other way, clearly indicating her disgust. Sad and dejected, Uncle Laddoo returned to his home in the steel dabba which Mrs. Pai kept hidden away from her diabetic husband.
Another time, Miss Spring Onion felt bad for the newcomer and waved her long green hand, but nothing changed. Sambal seemed to be in her own sulky world with no interest in her new neighbours and community.
Moping around and feeling homesick for a few days, Sambal, who was now pretty bored, decided to break the monotony. She noticed her neighbour, the cool and handsome Curd Jar who had, so far, not uttered a word to her.
Although they sat next to each other every night.
He would disappear as soon as the curd-loving Pai family sat for their meals, only to return at night, looking enigmatic and peaceful as a new batch of curd set inside, giving him a heavenly aura by morning.
Feeling a bit awkward, she shot him a formal half-smile which he returned with a nod. Every night they would sit in silence next to each other, each in their own worlds, yet aware of the presence of the other.
One fine day, Sambal gathered courage and decided to open up to her neighbour, for whom she had developed a silent fondness.
“Hi!”, she muttered shyly.
“Oh! Hello! So you do talk as well? How have you been?”, the boyish voice felt like a cool breeze across her warm face.
“Oh! I am so hot!”, she replied. He looked at her quizzically and went back to his half-meditative state.
“You don’t understand”, she continued, “travelling this long and being jostled in transit, I feel flushed all the time. All the chillies, garlic, ginger pastes have collided together to produce a heat that seems to be tearing my insides.”, she cried.
“Then all you need, is a little bit of soothing white curd.”, he winked.
“But how is it possible?”, she wept as she looked at herself.
But wait a minute! Sambal realised that almost three quarters of her paste was finished. Sanjeev’s Nasi Goreng had been a big hit in the Pai household. Mrs Pai as well as her daughter-in-law had tried their own versions of the Indonesian dish, using copious quantities of Sambal Oelek.
No wonder she felt lighter, compared to the day she had arrived. Maybe what Curd Jar said was right, she should open up her heart.
“I feel so drawn towards him, the peace which emanates from his being!” she thought to herself.
For too long she had bottled up all those corrosive emotions. Finally, there was someone who was ready to give her everything…
She slowly turned towards him and came closer. He was initially surprised, but the attraction was undeniable. He had been thinking about the cute foreign neighbour, ever since she had shot across that curt little smile.
His half meditative state was now completely broken, as she melted into his cool embrace.
The next morning when Mrs Pai entered the kitchen, she let out a loud, angry roar. Her little Shivali had been upto some mischief, pouring curds into the Sambal bottle.
This story was written as part of the Writer’s Gym program. It was edited by Rashmi Bansal.