Three hours ago, my dad brought a woman to my carefully planned Alternative Mother’s Day lunch, and told me she was my real mother.
I was making kokum pork for the first time since my alleged Mum died, the woman who brought me up anyway, so it wasn’t the best timing. I’d been stood in the kitchen for a while, wondering if I’d marinated the pork for long enough. I’d ask (supposed) Mum, but she’d only say, ‘some things you just know.’ And she’s dead.
It’s a Family Recipe, this one. It’s two lines of biro on a piece of paper torn out of someone’s ink-stained unlined notebook.
Prepare pork, chilies, onions, kokum. Leave to simmer until fragrant.
What kind of onions? How do you prepare the pork? The rest you have to work out for yourself. Or make up for yourself. The ingredients have to be excellent, the proportions have to be right, or you get porky onion soup or tough meat. Which would be fine if I hadn’t promised to make it for five Mangaloreans in varying states of motherlessness, all desperate for a taste of home, and my dad hadn’t turned up with some boondi ladoos, a bottle of ginger wine and a bombshell.
It definitely needs the right chillies. I know that much. The big fat red dried ones, crimson as dried blood, papery and silky. Spicy but not overpowering, rich and brooding like Amitabh Bachchan. She’d giggle when she said that, (supposed) Mum, a proper tinkly giggle. Most of the time her face was as calm and smooth as a duck pond. Now I know it had sharks in it.
I was already trying to make do without the big heavy pan, my sister got that. She’s the one who did most of the cooking with (apparent) Mum, I did more of the eating. They’d bend over the cooker, whispering with their identical tilted ears and centre partings. She didn’t look anything like me, this new mum. But then I don’t look like anyone in the family. My nose is too pointy, my ears are too round. I asked if Dad was really my dad, and he swore he was. He wanted to do pinky swear. But I’d been touching chillies and didn’t really want to spread that pain around. Not yet.
I bought the pork shoulder specially. I usually get tenderloin for me. Don’t need to eat the fat, Mum (alleged) always said, it kept the meat tender when cooking but then she’d pile it on the side of her plate. I’d sneak a fatty piece, it was so sweet and slippery, melting on my tongue. She always knew, it seemed like magic. I worked out later I’d have grease all over my face, a tell-tale sign. I was never as good as her at keeping things to myself.
So, I asked if what he was telling me was that he’d had an affair. New mum looked like I’d rubbed the chillies in her face, Dad spluttered like he always did when he realised things weren’t going the way he’d planned. Maybe he felt safer telling me in the kitchen, it’s the lightest, brightest room in the house. Sunshine-yellow walls, mango-lassi coloured tiles, it’s a place where the cooks have always been welcoming, always been warm. I’m supposed to carry on that tradition, another Family Recipe.
The onions can’t be sliced too thin, they’re going to give you the liquid. The pork shouldn’t dry out, that’s an obvious sign the proportions are wrong, that the person making it hasn’t got this recipe beating in their heart. It’s a surprisingly delicate balance, the thinness of the onions, the amount of moisture the dish needs. Onions are something that’s always there, but usually overlooked.
Apparently, so-called Mum thought she couldn’t have children, cysts somewhere awkward, not unusual in her family. Dad had donated his sperm to a friend of a cousin of a cousin, a widow who wanted comfort then didn’t know what to do with an actual squalling baby girl. Not the legacy she’d expected after all for her much-missed husband. Dad’s telling me all this while the test batch of pork is stewing, and the nutty sour smell of kokum is filling the air.
The kokum is what really makes it, that rounded acid sweetness that can’t be found everywhere. A taste of faraway home we can use to spice up our boring Hounslow lives. Some people cheat, put a little bit of vinegar in the pork in case the kokum isn’t strong enough, didn’t add the sought-after depth of flavour. Apparently, most people don’t notice. The Coutinho’s never do that, we’d know even if no-one else guessed. We trust in the strength of our ingredients.
The test batch of pork was too dry. I didn’t slice the onions thin enough or the pieces of pork were too big. Or they were the wrong kind of onions, I never thought to ask if that made a difference. I thought there would be time.
Then my sister came along anyway, like I’d relieved the pressure. She did the expected things, Mum smiled at her graduation, danced at her wedding, cooed at her son’s christening.
The bombshell and my Dad stood in my kitchen where my (supposed) Mum had made this dish for me hundreds of times. For birthdays, exam result commiserations, first job at the travel agency celebrations. This kitchen where I had to cook for five people I knew virtually through a Facebook group. Something the woman I looked up to all my life would have done.
Or I never asked because I’m not sure she would have told me anyway. I always suspected that the open-hearted open-handed Mum was a surface gloss, a face for other people. That she’d always kept a piece of herself away from me, someone who always watched, who never whispered with her over the pot.
The bonus about virtual strangers is they can’t tell if you’re lying to them, if you’re crossing your fingers to say the kokum has gone mouldy, and there will be no dinner. Dad tried to stay after I told them to go, planting his flat feet until actual mum pulled him by the elbow. She didn’t look surprised. I made myself a big steaming bowl of khichdi, no-one taught me, I learnt the recipe off the internet. The garnish made it. The kokum puckered up my mouth, but rolled like silk all the way down.