Chapter 2|8 mins read
T he early morning sky was half asleep, still clinging to its stars. Below the dark blue dome lay Behrouz, still asleep. A single point of light, glowing yellow and red, flickered at its very centre: The Royal Palace.
The crackle of hot oil woke Xander up. The aroma of sliced onions and black peppercorns roasting in oil wafted through an open door and reached the boy, awakening his senses. He sprang up from his wooden cot and followed the smell, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
The crackle grew louder as the boy stepped through a wide passage supported by tall, thick pillars. A small opening near the ceiling revealed the sky waking up to a softer blue. It would be dawn soon, and a new year, a new beginning would grace the land – The celebration of Nowruz.
The aroma now took hold of Xander. His footsteps quickened as he approached the end of the passage. The boy turned to his right and paused. A short, portly man stood in a large rectangular room. His visage basked in the glow of a bright, seductive fire; his heavy hands stirred a big brass pot.
“You are up before dawn, Xander,” The words echoed in the silence.
“How…how did you know, baba?” The boy asked.
“I always know, my son,” The father’s smile widened as he looked at Xander, “Now don’t just stand there…come over and help your old man out.”
“Yes, baba,” The boy walked carefully past brass containers filled with diced vegetables, basmati rice, cured meat chunks, and chopped herbs. “Where are the others. Shouldn’t they be around?”
“You ask too many questions, boy. But that can’t be helped. I too asked my father many a question. It runs in the family, I think,” The father thumbed off the small sweat beads forming on his forehead.
Xander imagined his father to be a lone warrior, surrounded by smoke and a blazing fire. His weapon: a thick wooden ladle. His armour: a stained white apron. His kingdom: the Royal Kitchen of Behrouz.
The young apprentice approached the brass pot and took the ladle.
“Gentle with the ladle. You do not want the peppercorns, cardamom, or cinnamon to break into the oil just yet. Stir gently, as if you are lulling a baby to sleep,” The father whispered softly, afraid that the walls of the kitchen may steal the secret.
Xander softened his grip on the ladle and let it caress the contents.
“That’s good,” The father patted the boy’s head, “Are the onions ready?”
“They are turning from pink from brown,” Xander replied, “They look crisp.”
“Looks can be a bit deceiving, my dear boy. What does the aroma tell you?”
Xander leaned towards the pot and closed his eyes. He heard the faintest of crackles that escaped from the roasting peppercorns. He could smell the raw, pungent onion soften to the will of the boiling oil. Xander felt he had entered a hidden, almost invisible realm.
“Boy, I hope you are not asleep,” The father chuckled.
Xander opened his eyes, “You are right, baba. The aroma reveals secrets that the eyes cannot see.”
“You are learning fast. Good. Now give me a hand,” The father turned and squatted near a heavy, earthen pot filled with water.
The son and father lifted the pot and emptied it into the cooking vessel. The union of the cold water and hot oil sizzled into steam that shot straight out of the vessel.
When Xander looked into the pot again, he saw the condiments float freely, released from the oil’s captivity.
The father then carried over a brass container filled with long, white basmati rice. He tilted its mouth slightly. The grains fell in a wave-like pattern, ordered and neat, as if he were somehow pulling the invisible strings attached to the individual grains. This was Xander’s favourite part.
After the last rice grain had flowed out of the vessel, the father placed it carefully near his feet. He then gripped the top of the wooden ladle.
“Baba…,” Xander said with a hint of caution,
When will I be able to make the Royal Biriyani?
“Soon, my son,” The ladle stirred without pause.
“And when will you tell me the secret of your recipe?” Xander’s words pleaded.
“Don’t start with your questions again,” The father’s voice did not have a hint of irritation, “Go now, clean yourself and wear the new clothes that I bought for you. My Xander must look the best in whole of Behrouz for the feast tonight.”
“If I leave, who will help you?”
“Look at you,” The father beamed with pride, “All of 15 years and ready to help your old man out…But these hands still have life in them. Besides, my help will arrive soon. Go now…,” He ruffled Xander’s hair.
The first rays of the new dawn filtered in through the rectangular openings below the ceiling. Xander did not wish to leave his father, but his heart was glad that had the permission. The boy had a secret mission, something even his father did not know about: To witness the most beautiful sight in the whole of Behrouz on the new year.
To be continued...