GREGORY'S BEST CURRY
Having a Christian cook in Islamic East Pakistan was a great blessing. We discovered the obvious advantages while temporarily staying with our friend from Ghana days, Otto Sonntag, while we searched throughout Dacca for a suitable house or apartment for our family. Not only would a Moslem cook refuse to prepare or serve pork in any manner, he would not even stay in the house if any part of a pig was brought in. We loved pork chops, ham, bacon, ribs and sundry other parts of hogs.
Fresh beef was almost non-existent in East Pakistan. Some foreign wives would take the short flight to Calcutta to shop for fresh and prepared meats and cheeses – especially if they had large freezers in their go-downs (food storage pantry). Sonntag seemed to eat well on the vast varieties of sea and freshwater fish, shrimp and shellfish available in the local markets, supplemented with tinned meats and the all-important fresh pork and poultry. We were determined to find one of the rare Christian cooks and turned to Otto’s kitchen servant for assistance.
“Peter.” I said, “don’t you know someone who is Christian like yourself and knows how to cook?” Instantly his face lighted and he grinned widely as he replied.
“Yes, master, my brother has just returned to Dacca from working as a cook for the British Embassy in Lahore. I’m sure he will want to work for you. He will come with me tomorrow to meet you.”
Gregory came for his interview with a fist full of references written by former employers and he was hired instantly. He was a fine looking young man. He and Peter has originally come to Dacca from the Bihar state in India at the time of the division of India and Pakistan. This improbable separation left Pakistan divided into two sections – East and West – with all of India in between. The only transport between the two “wings” were by air, which could over fly India, or slow ocean steamers and coastal paddle-wheel boats. Gregory had just arrived by steamer and had come to Dacca by bus from Chittagong. It was a lucky break for us and seemed to be a good omen assuring us our two-year assignment as Project Manager on a large flood control and irrigation project feasibility study would go smoothly.
A few days later, another prospective servant knocked on Sonntag’s front door. He was a man in his mid-thirties and his references were impressive. He had worked his way up to the top of the servant ladder from being No.2 houseboy to his current title as Bearer. In old colonial British India, one’s “bearer” carried his master’s guns and never left his immediate side. He protected the master against wild animals and wilder criminals, or thugees. He was the senior servant and gave everyone their instructions after receiving them from the master. A well run and impeccably clean household meant an excellent Bearer was on the job.
Moti’s references listed the current USAID Director as his latest employer. I asked him, “Well, Moti, why do you leave Mr. Brown.”
“He fired me, sir,” Moti immediately admitted.
“Why did he fire you?” I sounded like a prosecutor but at least, I knew I could check whatever Moti said with Brown.
“Sir, I returned late from my monthly leave and was not there for an important reception. Mr. Brown was very angry with me and told me to leave immediately. But he still gave me a good letter of reference and a salary bonus. I came here, sir, for I heard Mr. Brown talking about the new contractor who had arrived and was staying with Master Sonntag. Can you give me a chance, sir.?”
“Yes, Moti. But I want to talk with Mr. Brown first.”
“I understand, sir. I will return tomorrow.”
The following morning, I went to Brown’s office before going to my own and was fortunately able to see him immediately. After a brief exchange of formalities, he said, “ Bill, I understand you have hired Moti as your Bearer.”
“Not quite correct, Jim. I wanted to ask you about him before offering him a job. He is a good looking young man and seems very competent and educated. But it is important to me to find out why you fired him.”
“Its simple. I made a mistake. My wife has never forgiven me. He knew we had this important reception laid on – all the big shots in this Wing were there – and Moti didn’t get back from his home leave in time to manage this affair. I fired him when I was angry with him and have regretted it ever since. I would love to hire him back, but I would lose face if I did unless you fire him, then I could take him back.”
During these days, my wife and I looked at many homes and apartments which were for rent. Our client, The East Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority, or EPWAPDA, paid our rents and were pushing us to accept houses owned by EPWAPDA senior staff. The house we finally decided upon, was owned by the Chief Justice of the East Pakistan Supreme Court and it was immediately rented for us. Our ocean shipment of personal effects and furniture had arrived from Barcelona and was waiting in front of the house for uncrating. There followed two days of hectic work getting six large lift vans opened, furniture unpacked and assembled, setting up the kitchen and go-down , getting bed and bath rooms ready for at least temporary use.
In addition to Moti and Gregory, I had hired a day and a night watchman, a houseboy and two gardeners. I had told both Moti and Gregory that I would employ helpers for them as soon as they found people they wanted to work with. I also hired an Amah to watch the children and two drivers for my, and my wife;s automobiles. We made the final move from Sonntag’s with our suitcases and were ready to spend our first day in this lovely home.
This may have been a home designed for a minor rajah in old India. The grounds were about five acres in size and one entered a semi-circular drive way through heavy iron gates. The house was a low, one-story affair with a large screened verandah across the front. We practically lived on this lovely marble-floored porch. The four bedrooms were on one wing with two baths – all connected to the verandah by wide hallways. Beyond the verandah was an equally large great room with areas for formal living room suites, formal dining and additional space for dancing or shooting pool. The other wing was occupied by a large kitchen and a locked go-down. On one side of the house was an open garage for three cars and behind that was a three bedroom servants quarters with kitchen, dining room and bath. Every type of blooming tropical shrub and flower imaginable could be found in the gardens. There were spacious finely manicured lawns surrounding the house and in the rear, we kept a fully producing vegetable and fruit garden.
On that first day, we had lunched on sandwiches supplied by Sonntag’s cook. In the early afternoon, a smiling Moti and Gregory appeared before us on the front verandah. It was Gregory who spoke.
“Madam, what would you like for me to prepare for dinner? I must take a rickshaw to the market and purchase a lot of things that we will need for the kitchen and Moti needs to buy cleaning supplies.”
We hadn’t yet given a thought to the evening meal but without hesitation, my wife asked, “Do you fix curry, Gregory?”
“Madam, I am famous throughout India and Pakistan for making the best curry. I can buy jumbo prawns and rice in the market and make you a very fine curry. I’ll have a least twenty side dishes.”
We didn’t understand about the number of side dishes but were anxious to try a good curry – after all, this was the area where curry originated.
“We love curry, Gregory, so while you are at the market, buy a lot of curry powder so we always have a good supply in the house.”
The broad grin on Gregory’s face was slowly transformed into a quizzical, unbelieving and disturbing look as we watched. Finally, he dared to ask. “What is curry powder, Madam?”
He was now beginning to shake as if with great fear of being thought of as stupid.
“You call yourself a great curry cook and you don’t even know what curry powder is?” My wife began to raise her voice in anger and disbelief.
“It is true Madam, I beg of you, I am best curry cook.”
“Then buy a lot of curry powder and stop arguing with me.”
Gregory feared he was about to be fired before he had even boiled water for tea. “ I don’t know what is curry powder.”
“I can’t stand it,” Sandra exploded. “All I want is some simple shrimp curry. Bill, please help me settle this horrible problem.”
I had been trying hard to muffle my laughter at this tragic-comedy scene being acted out by Sandra and Gregory, but now it was obvious that it was time for my intervention. Normally, Sandra didn’t want me meddling with the house servants. “I don’t try to run your office people or engineers,” she would say, “so you stay out of my kitchen.”
Putting on a solemn face, I spoke calmly to Moti, who had stayed quiet and out of trouble. If Gregory was going to get sacked because of curry powder, Moti didn’t want to be brought down with him.
“Moti”, I began, “take this fifty rupees and buy your cleaning supplies and give Gregory money to get what he needs. You will keep receipts on everything and will settle the account as soon as you return.
“Now Gregory, buy what you need to make Madam a very good shrimp or prawn curry. Also buy rice and vegetables and if there is enough money left, buy a chicken.”
Without a word, they filed out towards the kitchen door and soon passed through the gate and hailed a passing rickshaw. We busied ourselves with arranging closets and dresser drawers but kept one eye on the front gate for Moti’s and Gregory’s return. Eventually they came and the rickshaw was so loaded down with brooms, mops, scrub brushes, dusters, floor wax and sacks of vegetables, shrimp, fish, chicken and other smaller items, that the driver was allowed to enter and unload at the kitchen door. I was tempted to go into the kitchen to see what Gregory had purchased but I held back. “Let it be a surprise.” I told my wife.
A surprise it was. The finest curry we had ever eaten. Large, succulent river shrimp – almost the size of a small lobsters – delicately cooked in a curry sauce fit for a monarch. Not quite twenty side dishes for Gregory had not time to buy so many condiments. Yet I recall that we had shredded fresh coconut, baked peanuts, fresh mangos, mango chutney, diced tomatoes, raisins, peanut flour, sliced bananas, fried bananas, crushed garlic, diced onions and several other things I can’t remember. After this fine meal, I went to the kitchen to talk to Gregory and explain about curry powder. Also, I wanted to find out how he had prepared such a fine curry without using Madras Curry Powder such as we bought in Los Angeles . Gregory approached me with traces of fear remaining.
“Madam like my curry, sir?”
“Yes, Gregory, it was the best curry we have ever eaten. Tell me how do you make it.”
With pride and confidence returning, he showed me his working table. There were various piles of spices and herbs neatly arranged in a semi-circle around a crude mortar and pestle. Most of them I could not identify but I did recognize coriander, turmeric, ginger, cumin and several types of dry chilis. “I mix and grind them in this small bowl until the powder looks and tastes good to me, them I make the sauce for the prawns.”
“Well, Gregory, what you make here is what we called curry powder. In the future, if Madam tells you a strange thing, just tell her “yes maam” then call me at the office to ask me about it. Gregory was to make us many fine meals during our two years in Dacca – he even made fresh sphagetti and noodles and excellent Italian sauces. Cooking for various foreign embassies in Lahore, he had learned to prepare delicious Chinese, French. Italian, English and American cuisine. He was the finest cook I have ever employed.