NS Kumar

India

Message to Readers

I've made some changes to the first version, hopefully for the better. Thank you @purplepanache and @luluwrites111 for those wonderful comments to my first draft. It really motivated me, knowing that you liked it. I'd love any and all reviews and comments that all of you might have for this piece. Do tell me what you think about it!

The Kanji Prejudice

June 10, 2020

"Not that again," I groan.

It is not that I hate kanji, but among the colorful palate that forms the Malayali cuisine, the flaky white porridge is an unwelcome sight. In fact, its name is a generalized slang in my language for a miser,a whiner- anybody who ruins the mood for the other people in the room .

Yet, kanji has photobombed almost all the important moments of my life. It was the first solid food that I was given- dried ragi sprouts powdered in my grandmother's old stone grinder and boiled in milk until all that remained was a shiny brown, painfully sweet mixture. On festivals, when my entire extended family gathered together, my mother and aunts tried to enliven its insipidness by adding coconut scrapings to the rice mixture. They hid it under a sheet of gorgeous mashed tubers, whose comforting aroma made you forget what lay beneath. 

She dangled her legs out of the verandah of her ancestral home and watched the rain lash out its anger at the earth. It had flooded out all the crops in her mother's fields, and their store of grain was running out. She rolled each soft rice kernel of her karkkidaka kanji around in her mouth before she swallowed it, preparing herself for the famine that probably lay ahead of them. She is my grandmother.

After I moved out of my grandparents' house,kanji only appeared to me as an apparition when I was sick. My blocked nose couldn't differentiate it from all the other food I ate, so I don't remember much of it. I actually got a chance to taste kanji again at my babysitter's house one Ramadan. Though the strong scents of turmeric, dry ginger, pepper, onion, and fenugreek seeds made my eyes water as I spooned it into my mouth, I could see why she chose it as the main course to break her fast. Kanji was plain and unassuming, but its garnishes weren't so. 

My mother has not yet grown into the strong, stout woman whose sharp eyes would melt my willpower even before I had built up the courage to rebel. Her eyes are only half-open from waking up early in the morning to complete her homework before the commencement of the day's chores. She eyed the leftovers from the previous day's dinner that her mother had boiled for her school lunch. Somewhere in the background, her classmate was telling her that only poor people ate kanji made using leftovers. She slurped the tangy water ravenously. "We can't all have it with milk every day, can we?"

That was how I began to reconnect with what I call the "kanji culture." Turns out that what I had thought as a peculiarity of my cuisine was a common food almost all over the world. Besides being ganji, pez, and congee for the rest of India, it is cháo to the Vietnamese, jok to the Thai people, bubur to the Filipinos, and kayu for the Japanese. The same easily available grain and water base is stylized by each culture to create something unique to their taste and aesthetics. Each porridge looks so different from each other though, so you can never tell.

My father's roommate tried to wash his hands off the sticky yellow stuff that they'd gotten all over his hands as he tried to crack an egg for making omelette. Growing up with the privilege of being boys, they'd never felt the necessity to learn cooking like their sisters. After spending their first few days away from home eating out at the restaurant downtown, they'd worn down their stomachs and their college stipends. Their foray into the kitchen was also turning out to be a disaster. "Well," he muttered under his breath, "we can at least try to make some kanji."

Obsessed with folk remedies forwarded to him from the internet, my father now prepares his own version of medicinal kanji to "boost our immunity." I watch him sieve the rice from the water he initially soaked it in, and carefully transfer it to the aluminium pressure cooker. After he is done, he motions for me to pass him the mung beans. There is a resounding splatter as they rain into the water inside. I glance at my reflection in the uncooked mixture before he puts the lid on the cooker. 

"What?" he asks me.

I shake my head. Nothing. For a fleeting moment, I saw someone else down there.
 

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