Two Poems of Wizardry and Cookery by Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad

In the wizard’s lair 

Mariammachi rose with the sun –
my Nana’s trusted right hand woman
she cooked for a grateful household
an enchantress with a culinary wand
she could turn anything –
the humble tapioca, the nondescript okra
into Michelin star feasts.

She would seat six year old me
on the black volcanic rock
of Nana’s hundred year old kitchen
and I would study with wonder
the paste of ash and water
she scrubbed the clay pots with
gutting and cleaning the pearl-spot fish
peeling away their tulle thin scales
their lower jaws scooped and carved
into smiles with perfect arcs.

Mariammachi’s obsidian arms
would tense and flex
crushing turmeric on granite
slivers of grated coconut
turning titanium white in the mortar
cinnamon, cloves, and caraway seeds
pulverized to dust
her index finger transforming
into a No.10 brush
stroking the silver canvas of fish
with bird’s eye chili and tamarind paste.

Immersing the marinated chunks
into the vat of foaming oil
she would stoke the firewood
looking at me with knowing smiles
as the heady fragrance of spices diffused
turning the kitchen into a haze
of magician’s cobalt smoke.

Steamed red rice and vegetable dishes
would follow in quick succession
and my family would gather to eat
as Mariammachi proudly spooned
her varied masterpieces
onto mounds of piping rice
the glow of their vivid colors
mirrored in stainless steel plates

After lunch when the pots were done
and her wizard’s lair went briefly quiet
before the rituals for dinner began
we would sit near the paddy fields
I would watch the afternoon sun flit
on Mariammachi’s ebony cheeks
etched with a thousand lines
over seventy odd years
and she would pass me a betel nut and leaf
with a smudge of slaked lime
a pinch of jaggery to soften the edge
chewing and giggling
our mouths turning crimson
she would whisper
“Little bird,
this one don’t tell Nana!”

 

Laksa with chopsticks

In the heart of Toa Payoh
the food court emerges
a pocket of seductive aromas
as we zigzag through the crowd
to my favorite stall
where a pot of laksa simmers
its lava spluttering and swirling.

Fish cakes, shrimp, and beancurd puffs –
I choose my favorite bits
watching the flat white noodles bob
in the well of scarlet sauce
caramelized notes accentuated
by the dash of coconut milk
that the genial vendor pours.

My children tuck into wantons
their little hands appearing
so poised and dexterous
and I marvel at their precision
their masterful way with chopsticks –
cocoons of meat in pincer grips
moist skins spewing steam.

Not to be outdone
I give the chopsticks a go
twirling my rice noodles
with a new found confidence
but halfway to my eager mouth
they unspool without warning
and plummet in a heap
a tangy wave of ochre red
breaking over my chin.

That’s a fail, Mummy! my children guffaw
as I cede the chopsticks
and grab the soup spoon instead
ignoring the motley mess
savoring the lemongrass
the tingle of ginger on my tongue
telling my children through half-closed eyes
that my bowl of elysium
is totally worth my faux pas.

—About Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad—

Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad is a Sydney artist, poet, and improv pianist of Indian heritage. She holds a Masters in English and is a member of Sydney’s North Shore Poetry Project, and Authora Australis. She has been widely published in both print and online literary journals and anthologies. Her recent works have been featured in Active Muse, Uppagus, and Sandpiper, and are forthcoming in Leopardskin and Limes, 3 a.m Magazine, The Pangolin Review, and elsewhere. Oormila regularly performs her poetry and exhibits her art at shows in Sydney.