Keerai Puttu: From Thin Air
Written By Meenusha Satkunanathan
Growing up in Montreal, my two sisters and I always thought that we had three parents. This is because we grew up with my grandmother who we call Amma. Amma means mother in Tamil and this was not the correct way of addressing a grandmother. However, the correct term appamma (grandmother) is simply inadequate to reflect the role that she plays in our life.
My mother immigrated to Canada at the age of 16 with the rest of her family due to the war in Sri Lanka. Getting here had been a struggle for her because the predominantly Sinhalese government of Sri Lanka destroyed many Tamil individuals’ passports and documentation. As a result, my mother’s brother forged her a passport, which she used to come to Canada as a refugee.
Similarly, my father immigrated to Canada at the age of 17. My father had gotten involved in the Sri Lankan Tamil Army at a young age because of the outrageous treatment of Tamil peoples by the Sinhalese government. As a result, one evening, the Sinhalese army came looking for my father to capture him. My grandmother, who was a widow and a mother of three boys, immediately gave him some of her gold jewellery along with some money and sent him out the back door to flee. My father then fled to India and travelled across Asia, Europe, and finally sought refuge in Canada.
Amma was sponsored to Canada exactly one week before I was born and has been a part of our lives from that day back in 1996. Tonight, since my parents were out of town, this meant that amma was in charge of the house.
Saturday evening came along and my sisters and I were starving. It was exactly six o’clock when we came running into the house after spending hours out in the sun. As a religious woman who spent her days going to temples every evening in Sri Lanka, when the clock struck six, my grandmother would be sitting in the prayer room doing her daily puja (prayers). Thus, as we stepped into the house, we heard the sound of a bell ringing from our prayer room.
We then rushed to the bathroom, washed our face, feet, and hands, and sat next to my grandmother for five minutes. Although we tried to stay until the end as we normally would, our stomachs kept rumbling in loud roars so we left the prayer room and headed for the kitchen.When we opened our fridge, we saw that it was nearly empty. There was some milk, oranges, grapes, strawberries, and a tub of plain yogurt. I knew that none of these things would be enough for us to suffice the growing hunger in our stomachs.
Knowing that we couldn’t do much to put out the flames burning inside our stomachs, we sat by the table and waited for the clock to strike six-thirty so that my grandmother could come out of the prayer room. Every minute we waited in hunger, felt like an endless hour of agony. We would constantly walk back to the fridge and check for food as if it would magically appear even though we knew that there was nothing in there.
At last, my grandmother walked down the stairs and asked, “who wants dinner?” with a growing smile on her beautiful face. We yelled “amma we might die if we wait any second longer!” She then laughed and headed to the backyard. A few minutes later, my grandmother walked in from the backyard with a bowl filled with spinach.
Being the owner of an abundance of farmland in Sri Lanka, my grandmother loved to farm. Although the winter in Montreal didn’t allow her to grow crops all year round, nothing could stop her from growing her crops in the hot summer months. My sisters and I always thought that growing crops was nothing more than just a hobby for my grandmother and that it served no particular use. However, this changed on that day.
Upon entering the kitchen, she quickly broke a coconut she brought from the puja room and shaved the insides into shreds. She then grabbed rice flower and mixed it with hot water. Immediately after, she kneaded the dough using a silver cup so that it would be chopped into little clutters. Next, she cut the spinach into fine little threads almost, as fine as a strand of hair, and chopped up a few red onions. She then took a basket like cone and filled it up, layering each of the ingredients on top of one another.
As the water collected in our mouths from watching the preparation of the food, we waited patiently in excitement and felt some relief. It was now time for the final step. She took the cone, placed it over a pot of boiling water on the stove and covered it with a cloth. A few minutes later, like magic, she placed three plates on the table and served us this warm soft mixture of white flower, coconut, spinach, and onions, which she called keerai (spinach) puttu. It didn’t end just there, she swung open the fridge and took out the tub of yogurt and placed a scoop on each of the plates and exclaimed, “Eat my little darlings!” In that moment, our grandmother was god-like and we realized how blessed we were to be her grandchildren.
We immediately dived into our plates of keerai puttu and ate every last bite of deliciousness prepared by the hands of our dearest amma. The dough was as soft as a pillow and looked like little clouds sitting on our plates. The taste of the coconut and spinach was incomparable to anything we had tasted before. It was as if we could taste our culture in a plate of food. As we sat together eating, I felt like there was no one else in the world that I would have loved to share the pleasant meal with other than my sisters. This was the day we learned that what is special about my grandmother is not just that she is so kind, but that she has the knowledge and skills to scramble up a meal from what we thought was nothing. We never saw true magic until that day.
Meenusha Satkunanathan was born and raised in Montreal, QC. She is a third year student at the University of Toronto Mississauga completing a double major in Criminology and Sociology.