Words By Talim Arab, Art By Hailey Renee
Caramellic bitterness explodes the kitchen. I’ve turned my back on a saucepan of sugar for a second, and now it’s more tarpit than syrup. Dumping my disappointment down the sink, I re-gather ingredients: shredded coconut, raw sugar, a cup of water, four cardamom pods, resting in the cracks on my countertop, and a teaspoon of ghee. I’m about to mix the sugar into the coconut but freeze. Something’s missing.
I wrap my knuckles on the counter with culinary frustration. This recipe is a letter with no address. How do I move forward?
Nariyal Methai is a simple complexity. Previous attempts were catastrophic. First attempt, forgot the ghee and it fell apart. Second attempt, too much ghee made soup. No more mistakes. I phone a higher power.
– You’re finally getting married!
– Mum, how did you get marriage from Nariyal Methai?
– There’s two reasons people in Fiji make those sweets. Weddings or excess coconuts. And I don’t think coconuts are in season in Shoreditch right now.
– Have you got Dadi’s recipe?
– She never wrote anything down. No schooling. She couldn’t write her name. Why do you need a recipe? You were there when she made it. You were seven. Never left her side as she cooked. … So are you getting married?
– I’ll call tomorrow.
I hang up. Memories trespass my mind. I’m leaning on the kitchen counter, but I could be anywhere. Anywhere on the planet. Anywhere in time. And the river of time takes me back to the tropics.
Sultry is a Suva afternoon. The air is sticky as guava pulp. Cicadas sing incessantly. On a veranda, I sit on the floor and gaze at my grandmother. Dadi’s round as an orange. Her skin shines like molasses. Her sari is a sail, white, and dream-like. Seated on a board with a serrated edge, she scrapes the flesh from coconuts. She can’t speak English. I know no Hindi. We watch each other like chess players. The cruel blade cuts her. I wince. She wraps her hand in cotton and continues as if pain is endured, not healed. A tear escapes her eye. The liquid evacuee falls into the mixture as she stirs and shapes it into balls. She gives me one. Lightness. Coolness. Like snowfall in my mouth.
The mixture grows impatient with my reminiscing. I add a pinch of salt and taste. It does the trick. My tongue remembers Fiji. I shape the mixture into spheres ready for chilling and consider Dadi. She was denied paper and pen, yet her recipes are letters traveling through time. And this dessert, a letter lost now found, brings sweet melancholy. My grandmother fed her family happiness every day of her life. But what of hers? Did she dream of stars, flakes of coconut strewn across the universe? Who would she have been if she could just write her name? I reach for a sweet but hesitate and refrigerate them. I walk away. I feel full.