Lost in translation
It took a village to make those homemade treats my grandmother made for us daily. My journey to discover this, through her own words, and why I will never be able to recreate it the exact same way
Words by Monisha Cardoso; Art by Shweta Lia Matthew
My grand-aunt Emilia was a wonderful cook. Like all true cooks, she was enthusiastic not just about the process of cooking, but about feeding people, and, then, having fed them, about narrating her recipes to them, in rigorous detail, so they could go forth and reproduce it in their own kitchens if they were so inclined. You’d think this would mean that as her grand-niece, I’d have a treasure trove of recipes to see me through life, but as often happens, writing down her recipes, always an item on my holiday to-do list, remained just there, in my head, uncrossed, until it was too late.
This is probably why I jumped at the prospect of the project that my father had in mind. While visiting my grandmother, he had come across a handwritten notebook titled somewhat grandiosely, “Recipes from the House of Pereira”. He was quick to suggest that we embark upon a father-daughter project of translating these recipes, which were originally scribbled in Portuguese, to English.
The idea had a nice ring to it. The notebook was dated back to sometime in the ’40s, which meant that my grandmother probably wrote them down as a young bride to be, presumably as a part of her training to be a good homemaker.
The recipes ranged from the exotic Portuguese sweets that had names like suspiros, pingos da tocha to the familiar-yet-increasingly-rare empadinhas (pork pies), apa de camarao (prawn pie), beef tongue in various forms, dedos de dama (marzipan shaped into fingers and enrobed in dark caramel) to the comfortingly familiar. There were recipes for orchata — the milky drink made of almonds that greeted us as we arrived at Goa for our annual summer trip; bolinhas — part-cookie, part-cake; and dishes made of various types of tongue, which, as a child, I’d thought was fairly common until a friend asked in horror one day, “What do you mean, tongue?!! Of what?!”
As a baking enthusiast, I decide to start with the cakes and cookies. We started with a recipe for bolinhas da palacio. I hadn’t heard of this before, but its hyperbolic name sounded promising. The recipe, translated from Portuguese, reads as follows:
“Take one measure of maida, one pound of sugar, 20 eggs, 2 tablespoons of butter and one pound of almonds. In a handi (deep bowl), put sugar and egg yolks. Beat well, then add butter and ground almonds into fingers. Add a few raisins and bake till ready.”
Hmmm! This was deflating. As a baker of the 21st century, I was used to my recipes being written with meticulous modern precision. Ingredients must be weighed to the gram, baking temperatures need to be specified, and I needed a timeline more specific than “till ready”.
“What is “a measure”?’ I demanded to know. My father didn’t know either, so the page was dog-eared for clarification. Bake at what temperature? This is not specified either, in this or any other recipe that followed and it didn’t take me too long to realise that these questions would remain unanswered throughout the book.
I tried to make myself understand that these recipes were written in a time when ovens were not the carefully calibrated OTGs or cooking ranges that I’d grown up with, but coal or wood-powered brick ovens. ‘Ready’ was something the cook determined on the basis of memory, sight, touch, and smell.
We moved on to suspiros. This required us to take a pound of stone sugar, which we must wash well (yes, wash) and allow to dry, before grinding it. Another dog-ear was added to our book.
By now every recipe translation was punctuated with halts for Google searches. I received a crash course in historical units of measurement. A recipe for coffee pudding required a “quarta” of coffee, which the website www.convert-me.com told me is a historical Portuguese unit of measurement for dry ingredients. Milk was measured in “seers”, which Wikipedia told me was 1.25kg as per the Standards of Weights and Measures Act, before adding unhelpfully that there were, however, many local variants of the unit.
Some measurements were better translated by referring to family friends, who laughed nostalgically when I told them that some of our measurements were expressed in cigarette tins.
Everyone’s mother, it seems, measured her rice and flour in old cigarette tins. “That’s not so bad,” said a family friend, when I told her about my woes with quartas, seers and cigarette tins. Her mother’s recipes were measured in annas (a ancient unit of currency) — one anna worth of coriander powder, two annas worth of garlic and so forth.
Some elements, thus, remain untranslatable. Sugar syrups were to be made to ‘ponta da folha’ consistency, which Google translates as ‘leaf points’. Others are surprising — a recipe for orchata (sweetened almond milk) requires orange flower water, which I’d only recently heard of in middle-eastern recipes. Some are quaint in their singularity. A recipe for dedos de damas instructed me that to prevent the dedos from sticking to one another, I must take a cane chair and stick the wooden skewers on which I’d placed the dough into the holes between the cane. A recipe for duck roulade told me to “start by plucking out the feathers of the bird”, which conjures up memories of the time when at the age of five, to my mother’s fury, I was invited by my grandparents’ cook to watch her slaughter a duck for dinner. It ran about headless for several seconds and was the highlight of my holiday.
Some recipes use an astonishingly extravagant number of egg yolks. These are the ‘convent sweets’ — sweets made by nuns as a means to use up leftover yolks after they’d used the whites to starch their habits. They also had wild names like toucinho de ceu! (bacon from heaven!), pingos da torcha (torch drops), which I snidely assumed were designed to deviate attention from the fact that they all were made of the same ingredients — yolks, almonds and copious amounts of sugar.
We fared better in terms of understanding when we moved out of pastry and confectionery and into the more familiar territory of pork, tongue and chicken, though here, too, I realised that some amount of rigorous modernisation would have to be made to keep with our current food-as-guilt approach to eating. Pork fat and ghee featured generously throughout the recipes. Prawn patties were fried in pork fat, so was pie pastry. Portuguese ingredients made their appearance in the form of bacalhau (salted cod), olive oil and vinagre de reino, which Google translates, literally and grandly, to ‘vinegar of the king’.
Two years later, now, the translated recipes remain sadly aspirational and did not bring about the culinary renaissance I hoped for.
I now live in Delhi, India, where access to toddy for sannas (fluffy rice cakes) is unlikely, obtaining pork that isn’t dicey involves a trek to Jor Bagh, my request for chicken with the skin on is met with surprise and getting hold of tongue is just unthinkable. Internet recipes and imported rhubarbs and zucchinis that grace the aisles of the nearest Foodhall (a supermarket chain) compete for attention in my weekend cooking schedule. Mostly though, the reason I’m not churning out bebincas and apa de camaraos is because these recipes involve hard work or patience or both.
Unlike modern cooking, which is mostly about finding the best ingredients and doing as little to them as possible to ‘respect’ them, the cooking of our grandmother’s times meant using what was locally available and being patient and inventive in making the most of it. They belonged to an era where household labour was abundant and cheap, and time was plenty. I might, in the early retirement that I aspire to, open a bed and breakfast which sells Indo-Portuguese food cheerfully slathered in pork fat as its USP, but tonight I will be making do with the healthy, sensible and thoroughly depressing choice of a soup and salad.