Shayma Saadat, a Pakistani-Afghan with Persian ancestry, is the author of the food-memoir style blog, The Spice Spoon: Cooking Without Borders. She is a Senior Policy Advisor for the Minister of Energy and Infrastructure. Shayma lives in Toronto with her husband.
I watched Ami, my mother, as she stirred the pot in a circular motion. Round and round her arm circled, the gold bangles glistening on her wrist. Clink, clink, they went as she stirred and stirred. The same gold bangles given to her by her Ami, when she married my father in her China-red and gold brocade gharara.
All twelve of them, 22kt gold, passed on to me as part of my trousseau. I don’t wear mine when I cook. They lay wrapped in muslin and velvet, in a safety deposit box.
I stand in my kitchen alone, making Ami’s Pakistani Ginger Chicken, and I think of her milky arms and hands, as I stir the pot.
And I hear her.
“A small pour of oil, just enough to make the bottom of the pot glossy,” she says as she tilts the bottle into the pot.
She chops an onion through its crisp layers. Not like a chef, but like a mother.
As my eyes start to water, she says, “Sauté them till reddish-brown. Then add some ginger for khushboo (fragrance).”
“But for how long, Ami?” I ask her.
She does not know.
“Just keep watching as the colour changes,” she casually says.
She’s chopped some blanched tomatoes. In they go.
“But how many?” I ask her again.
She still does not know.
“Enough for more people than we’ve invited,” she laughs, and adds the mound of chopped tomatoes into the pot, the fresh red juice dripping down the sides of her hands.
I tilt my head and try to imagine the number of tomatoes she’s used.
Ami stirs the pot till the tomatoes become jammy and candy-like. She adds some salt, and a heaped spoon of brick-red chilli pepper. Then a smidgeon of turmeric, staining her fingertips yellow; the colour of the robes of Buddhist monks. Without ever tasting the contents of the dish, she continues to stir with brisk movements.
The steam from the pan turns the window above her stove opaque. The window which looks out into the lawn with the trees, the same kind of trees whose leaves used to turn a garnet-red by the time it was my birthday every Fall.
Now the chicken goes in. She slathers it with the tomato sauce reduction, and continues to stir. “You’ll see. The oil will start to separate from the sauce. It means it’s almost done,” she tells me. “Maybe a little bit more chilli powder,” as she reaches for the jar. She adds a pinch of red dust. She then turns to the sink, cups water in her hands and lets it seep onto the chicken.
“It’s almost done,” she says, decidedly.
“But how long has it been, Ami? How will I know?”
“You’ll just know, the way I know, the way my Ami knew. By andaaza, it’s all estimation.”
She covers the pan, places the wooden spatula in the sink and asks, “Tea with milk and cardamom?”
I nod and reach for the cumin-spiced wafers to go with the tea.
When I am in my kitchen with my husband, chopping fresh coriander for ginger chicken, I remember the clinking of Ami’s bangles, and her arms as she stirs and stirs.
Ami’s Pakistani Ginger Chicken Recipe:
Since many friends have asked me how to make Ami’s ginger chicken, I have put pencil to paper and noted down the measurements while watching her prepare this dish. Happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful mummies around the world. I cannot be with my Ami this year on this occasion, but she will be celebrating with my youngest sister and I know they will be thinking of me the same way I am thinking of them while they have their blueberry pancakes on the riverfront.
Serves 4 with a side of chapati (a flat wholewheat Pakistani bread) or naan.
- 3 tbsp corn oil (or any other neutral oil)
- 1 very small onion, chopped fine
- 2+2 inch knob of ginger; 2 inches cut into small cubes + 2 inches julienned
- 4 vine-ripened tomatoes, blanched, skins removed and finely chopped
- pinch turmeric (haldi)
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp red chilli pepper
- 2lb boneless chicken, cut into 2 inch long strips, (or you may cube them if you so like). I use chicken breast, but you can use thigh meat, too.
- handful fresh coriander / cilantro leaves and stalks, chopped like confetti. The stalks of coriander are as fragrant and sweet as the leaves; use both.
- Place large pan on stove on medium-high heat. Add oil.
- Add onions and sauté till a golden-nutty brown, this will take 5-7 minutes. Don’t worry if the onions become a golden-dark brown, this will only add to the flavour of the sauce.
- Add the cubed ginger and continue to sauté for 1 minute till fragrant, (the ginger should not caramelise).
- Add chopped tomatoes and keep stirring till the tomato sauce reduces and becomes thick. This will take approximately 10 minutes.
- Add the chicken and stir-fry for 10-15 minutes with a handful of water- (approximately ¼ cup). You should begin to see some of the oil leak onto the surface of the tomato sauce.
- Add the rest of the julienned ginger and remove from heat immediately. (Keep some of the ginger for garnishing.)
- Garnish with lots of fragrant, fresh coriander/cilantro sprinkled on top like confetti and some fresh julienned ginger.
- Serve alongside chapati or naan. You could also have this with Pakistani Basmati rice, though we tend to have rice with sauce-based dishes like lentils or curries. Chapati and naan is for the more ‘drier’ dishes such as this one.