A traditional rass malai. Photo: Edwina Pickles
'"You'll see, she'll never tell you," says my mother raising her eyebrow. We're at my aunt and uncle's house in Islamabad, Pakistan. We have just finished a particularly scrumptious dinner followed by a perfect dessert of rass malai and I'm desperate for my aunt's recipe.
"What's to tell? They're really easy. You don't have to do a thing – just put them on the stove. They practically cook themselves," says my aunt.
"You see, she'll never tell you!" laughs my mother, "she'll just keep telling you how easy they are, but she won't tell you how to make them." My mother and my aunt have had a semi-friendly rivalry going for as long as I can remember. More like colleagues than sisters-in-law, both were recruited young to work in the same organisation (my grandfather's house) under the same CEO (my grandmother) when they married their husbands (my father and his elder brother). I've known them to collaborate and work together really well to pull off large events, like weddings and funerals, or to hatch schemes, like arranging marriages, but I've also known them to compete for the limelight and I know that recipes are a touchy topic, especially since one particular incident three years ago.
Jumble Vol 1: Taste.
"I'd never keep a recipe from anyone," my mother declares bitterly, stirring sugar into her tea. "If you know how to do something, what's the harm in others learning it also? You know a candle loses nothing from lighting another candle."
Three years ago, my mother had shared a secret with my aunt. The secret was her mother's (my maternal grandmother's) tip for keeping koftas from falling apart: a tablespoon of corn flour. The week following this exchange of information saw my aunt's koftas take centre stage in a meal my paternal grandmother put on for the extended family. My mother's contribution to this meal was paltry in comparison, as was the attention she received that day.
As my mother sips her tea (how is it that she can find a way to convey sarcasm just from the way she sips her tea?), my aunt slams her saucer down noisily on a side table next to the sofa and stomps out of the room. Her stomping makes the floor lamp next to me rattle. I try to make eye contact with my mother but she's avoiding my gaze. I don't know if I should be worried – I hadn't anticipated upsetting anyone when I asked for the recipe. On the other side of the room, my father, brother and uncle are talking about maths or physics. I can't tell which, but I want to be part of their conversation more than I want to be part of an upsetting conversation about recipes. Down on the floor in the middle of the room, my younger cousins are watching cricket on TV.
My aunt stomps back into the room and carefully stepping over her youngest son, she hands me a notepad and a blue ballpoint pen. "OK, start writing," her voice is grim.
Over the coming years, my reputation as a rass malai maker sets me apart from my cousins. Rass malai is requested at dinners that my mother organises. In an unprecedented act of generosity she lets me have all the attention. Hell, she encourages it. "Have you tried my daughter's rass malai?" she asks aunts, uncles, cousins, anyone from the clan who visits. "They're every bit as good as your Bunny Auntie's rass malai."
"Yes well, I'm using her recipe – I learnt from her," I hasten to add, crediting my master as every good disciple must.
Ten years later, my reputation no longer hinges on rass malai. I'm grateful for this fact because my abilities as a rass malai maker are faltering. Australian eggs are bigger ("But not as rich," says my mother), the milk is pasteurized ("And not diluted with tap water" I say to my mother). Pistachios are harder to find and much more expensive than they were in Pakistan. The first few batches I make at home for my parents and siblings are all disasters. They either fall apart and turn into a sodden milky mush or they don't steam through to the middle and end up with ''guthlian'' (hard uncooked seed-like centres). Gone are the days of effortless exact boiling milk and perfectly shaped, perfectly cooked, perfectly soft malai floating in luxurious steamed rass. I try a few more times before giving up and moving the recipe to the back of my recipe folder. Until one day when my recipe folder is brought out for a rather important meal that I'm to prepare. My partner asks me if I'd be willing to cook for his family the next time we visit them.
The man in my life is someone my friends describe as a ''foodie''. Someone who has worked in a restaurant in France and knows how bechamel sauce is made and what goes into a nicoise salad. His family is equally worldly and the karahi gosht and parathas I put together don't feel sophisticated enough. My partner's brother's girlfriend doesn’t like chilli and I hold back on the birds’ eye in the aaloo mattar I make for her. I wonder if she and I will ever feel like colleagues. I turn to my partner's mother and can't imagine a less bossy chief executive. Still, it's early days and I don't know how much longer I'll get to participate in this family.
Dessert is the toughest part of the meal. True to the Australian milk and eggs that I use, the malai falls apart. I am anxious as I spoon out the cardamom-flavoured slop. "You guys, something went wrong. This really isn’t how these were supposed to turn out."
"What are they supposed to be like?" someone asks. The question is barely out before my partner's mother interrupts with "Oh this is just delicious! Isn't this lovely? Milk and cardamom is just such a good combination." I smile into my dessert as I hear mumbles of agreement around the table.
I'm helping with the washing up later when she brings up the rass malai again. "You know," she says with a wink, "if you didn't say anything, no one could guess that there was anything wrong with your dessert. To someone who's never had it before, it was just perfect."
I feel my heart swell with love and with a desire to be recruited into this woman's family.
This is an extract from Jumble Vol 1: Taste, edited by Zoya Patel, Farz Edraki and Yasmin Masri, a Canberra anthology of migrant memoirs and recipes. Rip Publishing. $30. Jumble is launched tonight at the ANU Co-op on Kingsley Street, Civic. 5.30pm. Entry $10-$30.
3 cups fresh milk
½ cup white sugar
5-6 cardamom pods
1½ cups powdered milk
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp baking powder
Pistachios to garnish
1. In a large flat-bottomed pan, boil the fresh milk with the sugar, 1/2 cup of powdered milk (or Nido, if you're in Pakistan) and five or six cardamoms (check that no one is looking before using your teeth to crack them. If someone is looking, use your nails instead and try not to wince when you get cardamom shell under your nails).
2. While the milk is boiling, mix together the remaining cup of powdered milk with one teaspoon of baking powder, the egg and the vegetable oil. The batter should be the consistency of play dough.
3.This is typically where the milk boils over – so keep an eye on it. Form the batter into a dozen flattened ovals and drop them gently into the boiling milk.
4. Boil at medium heat for five minutes, put lid on pan and turn stove off. Let steam for five minutes.
5. While you wait, peel and carve the pistachios into flakes. Your worth as a Pakistani woman depends on the fineness of the flakes.
6. Serve chilled and garnished with pistachio flakes.