Sitting on the front porch, mango juice dripping down my arms, cicadas shrilling in the background. The dog chases flies, snapping at them as they buzz. Older cars that pass have their windows wound down, all the way, and snatches of their music filter into my garden. Party music, all thumping bass and angry words, alternates with the chatter of afternoon radio, a voice or two almost recognizable. Almost.
School is nearly over for the year. The dragging days, countdown to six whole weeks of freedom were, as a child, excruciating. A week, often longer, would pass before Christmas arrived. I'd play cricket in the street with my brother, calling as cars approached, slower than they do now. The forbidden thrill of roller skating on the Bennett's driveway, the most satisfying of surfaces to roll across, was noisy and wonderful, but only if they were out. We'd skate past nonchalantly just to make sure. Riding bikes full pelt down the steepest of roads, no hands, definitely no helmet. You fell, picked the gravel out of your knees and started again, winded, but laughing.
The difference between the cozy northern Christmas and the sunny southern one is vast. Despite this we share the same snowy imagery, an irony not lost on Australian children. So, our Santa is often depicted in shorts, fur-lined thongs (the shoes, thankfully, not the underpants) and sports a jolly beer belly. Kangaroos pull his sled, a cringe-worthy but amusing thought. He sometimes wears a hat strung with corks that dangle from the brim to keep the flies off. Sitting in the front yard, flies everywhere, I could do with one of those hats. Luckily the dog does what she can.
Holidays again. Off to Sydney, to blue carpets of Jacaranda petals and the squealing of parrots as they settle colourfully in my parent’s leafy suburban yard. Glimpses of the harbour, sun-sparkled, caught between blocks of flats; congested streets but knowing all the short cuts, all the back ways. Seeing mum, dad and my brother (my brother!) who has, I think, fallen in love. Cooking with mum, who shares her daughter’s obsessive interest in food and literature. Talking, properly, with my dad. Friends. Jo especially. She’s had a tough year, but it’s been good. This is what Christmas holds for me.
Until then, though, we still have a week or so up our sleeves. Just like that break between the last day of school and Christmas itself, it stretches ahead of me. But it’s passing way too quickly. Something tonight, then, for just the two of us. A quiet night in before the silly season gets into full swing.
Coconut and date chutney
Adapted from Claudia Roden’s unbelievably useful Book of Jewish Food. This addictive fresh chutney, easy to make and easier still to eat (said as she pauses to dip in yet another cracker) is from the Bene Israel community of India. You’ll need to be an unabashed coriander-lover (cilantro) to enjoy this and while a combination of mint and parsley might work, I love coriander. Adore it. Great with fish, especially the fragrant banana leaf-wrapped parcels below, but wonderful too with slices of fried eggplant. Try serving it as a dip with crisp papadams, rice crackers or those mini toasts that the French make. Hard to stop eating, I tell ya…
1 tablespoon of tamarind paste
1 ¾ cups (about 125g) of shredded coconut
2/3 cup (about 150ml) of warm water
1 large bunch of coriander (cilantro), well washed
12 dried, pitted dates
Juice of 2 limes (or one juicy lemon)
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon of sea salt
¼ teaspoon of hot chilli powder
Dissolve the tamarind paste in 2 tablespoons of boiling water. Tip the coconut into a large bowl and pour over the warm water. Leave both tamarind and coconut for 20 minutes.
Discard the roots of the coriander and roughly chop the rest. Push the dissolved tamarind paste through a sieve, pressing to extract as much liquid as possible, making sure to scrape anything that accumulates on the underside of the sieve too. Place all the ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and whiz until well chopped. Add a tablespoon or two of water down the chute to make the chutney smoother. Keeps for a few days, tightly lidded, in the fridge.
Banana leaf snapper parcels – for 2
We had these with tiny, pebbly new potatoes, boiled in their skins until tender (10 minutes), drained well and then sauteed, whole, in 2 teaspoons of ghee. 1 tablespoon of garam masala was added moments before serving.
Preheat the oven to 200 C (400 F). Take 2 banana leaves and lay them out flat on the bench, dull-side up. Place a fillet of snapper (or any firm-fleshed, white fish) in the centre of each leaf. Top each fillet with a sprinkling of freshly ground cumin, a few slices of lime, 1 long green chilli, sliced on the diagonal and some thin slices of ginger. Season, then wrap securely, tying the parcels with kitchen string or using bamboo skewers. Bake, on a tray, for 15 minutes. Unwrap at the table. Serve with the coconut and date chutney.
So, over to you. How will you be spending the festive season?