Butterworth
WINE&DINE|July - August 2020
Butterworth
Writer Patrick Sagaram reminisces about a bygone time to wax lyrical about home-cooked Indian food and family road trips to Georgetown in Penang. Memory lane is now open.
Patrick Sagaram

Ever so often that rich buttery smell dreams me up again.

It’s almost thirty years later. I’m walking along Race Course Road, the sounds of the street crashing beside me—horns, insults and Ilayaraja’s hits from the eighties pound from the speakers in the music shops, but that smell is what awakens me.

I’m young again. My breath is sweet, my arms and legs skinny. I’m running barefoot, dribbling a football at the void deck below our flat, wiggling my way past older boys like an eel before placing a shot. Last couple of times, I missed. Only this time, the ball heads straight and true.

Sweat gums to my T-shirt when I get home. Ma calls for me to wash up but I can’t resist a mouthful of that thick payasam—a gooey combination of rice, milk and sugar— she slowly stirs in a pot over a slow fire. It’s light yellow, mixed in with raisins and cashews. But what gives payasam that rich, buttery flavor is ghee.

It’s that same stuff that Ma finishes over the dosais we have for breakfast almost every Sunday. The day before, she would ground rice into a fine white batter, sprinkle a dash of salt into the mixture and leave it overnight. The next morning, she would heat a cast iron pan and pour the mixture over, spreading it evenly using a spatula. A minute or two later, she would flip it over and cook the other side before spooning over ghee at the end.

I have no idea what kind of voodoo Ma invoked to dish out incarnations of dosais to satisfy each of our cravings. For Pa, it was an egg on top, served with leftover fish curry. My brother enjoyed his with lots of onions with a serving of sambar, a soupy combination of lentils, tamarind and spices. For me, I always liked it wafer-thin, delicate like Holy Communion and eaten with a dollop of butter and sugar.

For a change, Ma sometimes prepared idlis, which are steamed cakes, creamy white and shaped like flying saucers. Or surprise us with Bombay Toast. Eggs, milk and sugar are beaten in a bowl before a dash of salt and ground cinnamon is added. Bread slices—and Ma always insisted on using stale bread for some reason or another—are dunked into the mixture before being shallow fried, its colour turning caramel brown.

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July - August 2020