A potluck lunch was elevated to a sublime level with eggs.

Summer is well and truly upon us; hardly the time to trudge around from shop to shop, buying not jewels and saris, which would make it all worthwhile, but washbasins and WCs. Yesterday Anita and I were forced to do just that, and then, finding no place to have lunch, went to her place to sit in her cool home and order in pizza. But her mother would have none of that, we protested, she insisted we eat leftovers from lunch and we agreed. “Oh, some daal-roti — don’t fuss, just eat whatever we have in the fridge”, she said, when we asked what there was.

So while we waited, crunching ice cubes, Anita told me a scary story. She and her mother taught at a women’s college and one day a colleague who lived on campus asked them to come for lunch. A day when all would finish lectures before lunchtime was decided and the Banerji women put on especially nice saris, taught sundry undergraduates, and arrived at the colleague’s. She looked happy to see them and sherbets and tea were offered, followed by more sherbets and tea. Eventually, a couple of hours later, she said “Will you… er… have lunch?” Whereupon she opened her fridge and started foraging. A plastic box of this and a steel katori of that, then, from deep inside the fridge, she delved and retrieved a small plastic bowl of something, held it to her nose and sniffed. She looked as if she was about to bin it, but ran an eye over the assembled katoris — all two of them — and put it back on the table. So that was lunch.

But I must have Edesia keeping watch on me, and Demeter, Hestia and Annapurna, because that day, lunch at the Banerjis’ was a feast. The leftovers were rice, lauki and yellow moong dal, flavoured with hing, asafoetida, and crisply fried whole zeera. My other Bengali friend Maitrayee says their moong dal is different, it doesn’t smell of dusty sacks, and she’s right — this dal was delicate, saved from blandness by the tempering, but mild enough to be a background for the rest. The lauki was pale green — no turmeric — cut very small and cooked with a pinch of kalonji, nigella, a couple of slit green chillies that gave it a bark but no bite, a pinch of almost undetectable sugar to heighten the flavours and, on top, crisp crumbled masoor dal bori in all its spicy flavour. It was soft enough to squish with the rice.

Lauki Kalonji

Serves 4

1 kg tender green lauki (bottle gourd)

2 tbsp vegetable oil

10 masoor dal boris

1/4 tsp kalonji (nigella)

1 tsp ginger paste

2-4 green chillies

Salt

1/4 tsp sugar

Peel lauki and chop into small 1/2 inch cubes. Heat oil in a heavy bottomed pan and fry boris until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and, when cool enough to handle, crush with a rolling pin (or in an electric grinder) and keep aside. In the same oil, sauté kalonji for half a minute. Then add ginger paste and green chillies and after a minute, the chopped lauki. After a couple of minutes stir in salt and cook, covered, on low heat, until tender. Stir in sugar, sprinkle crushed boris and serve.

And there was another dish, made just then, which arrived at the table in the pan in which was cooked and looked, when the lid was removed, like an opened chest of jewels. Eggs, the ingredient that I truly believe is A Girl’s Best Friend. I, stuck with sudden guests, would have scrambled some but this was something else, a version of the Hyderabadi khagina. It had a deep red masala base, of chopped onions and tomatoes that had been spiced with nice desi flavours. The paste was cooked long enough to thicken and the flavours to intensify, just while waiting for the rice etc. to be reheated, and then Didi had made shallow depressions in the masala and broken half a dozen eggs into the ‘troughs’, put the lid back on, and cooked over very low heat for a few minutes. She knows, as sure as eggs is eggs, that I like my yolks runny, not cooked hard to within an inch of their lives, so she’d taken the pan off the heat while the yolks were still shiny and the whites just about set, ground some pepper over the lot, and here it was, my pot luck.

Poached Egg Curry

Serves 3-4

4 tbsp vegetable oil

2 large onions, chopped fine

4 large tomatoes, chopped fine

1/4 tsp turmeric

1 tsp ginger paste

1 tsp garlic paste

1 tsp cumin powder

1 tsp coriander powder

1/2 tsp red chilli powder

Salt

8 eggs

Pepper

1 tsp green coriander, chopped

In a large flat pan heat oil and sauté onions till they turn translucent. Stir in tomatoes and cook on medium heat until most of the juice evaporates. Add turmeric, ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander, chillies and salt. Cook, uncovered, on low heat until sauce thickens. Press the back of a ladle into the cooking masala paste to create small depressions. Break an egg into each depression and cover pan with lid. When eggs are almost cooked, remove from heat. This should take about five minutes, depending on how firm you want the eggs. Grind pepper over eggs and sprinkle with chopped coriander. Serve hot.

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