Born in the hands of a fruit cake maestro

My dad has 9 brothers and sisters, designed and cast in the city of Hyderabad, India. On average, they each have had 2.89 of the individuals that claim to be my first cousins. 57.70% of this generation has manufactured grandchildren, precisely 1.87 per reproducing cousin…and still productively counting. When we have a guest over for big family dinners, we relish torturing the poor soul to regurgitate every name mentioned during the round of introductions that evening. On the rare occasion of a family event, say a wedding, servers in restaurants tremble in fear at the sheer size and complexity of our orders. And wedding photographers are still working on a new technology that will zap our entire crew into place – stay still, don’t blink, say cheese!…yes, all sixty-whatever of you! – for a simple family photograph. We take immense pride in how we run our highly efficient and fertile family factory.

The chief architect behind this whole operation was my late grandmother. She was the factory chief-in-charge. And in our hearts, we know she still is. Probably nothing I can write or say or photograph will ever be enough to capture the essence of a lady that has been as admired and respected and loved in our family as she has. Until that elusive day when I can find the right words, I’ll stay respectfully silent.

(Left) Sister Theresa, (right) my gorgeous mom

Another lady, a close friend and confidante of my grandmother, was the nun who took many of my first cousins, including myself, off the production line and smacked us into the real world: Sister Theresa. The lady who has been there for many a birth in the family. Who has extended her healing hand for sick adults and children alike, across three generations of our family. Who resolutely scaled an entire staircase this fall despite failing knees, just so she could hug my cousin before her wedding vows. Who, till this day, no matter if her legs cooperate or not, will painstakingly make her legendary fruit cakes and send us two for our suitcases back to Dubai.  That’s motherly love for you, in all its baked goodness.When I asked mom how the family got introduced to Sister Theresa, all she had for me was, “Sister got transferred into a post at the local hospital. We met her there. And then she just became part of our lives. I don’t know, but she just did.” And that’s just how it is – Sister is family for us as far as we can remember.

When I met Sister this fall at my cousin’s wedding in Hyderabad, I mentioned to her just how crazy I was about her cakes. The shocking discovery was that she didn’t steep them in rum – I was almost positive that the bittersweet undertones that ran deep through the moist fruity cake were rum-induced.  ‘No, no rum. I keep the grapes in a room for a long time…Then you have to pull the stem out of the grapes carefully after a few days. And then I add the masalas that my sister specially sends for me.’ I was hungry for the details, but I could only badger with so many questions on the two minute forty-five second walk between the entryway and the car that was ready to take her back home. So the rest of the recipe was left up to my imagination…and thankfully, I am gifted with a very vivid one when it comes to food. A roomful of warm fruit cakes fresh out the oven, all stacked across in a row, studded with plump fermented grapes and crunchy cashews, and with me ploughing through them like the cookie monster in a Mrs. Field’s factory. Bliss.

On the happy note of a thick slab of Sister Theresa’s cake [I just had a king-sized lunch. But writing about the cake made me want some despite a bloated belly.] – infused with motherly love, fermented grapes, cashews…but mostly, oodles of motherly love, I bid goodbye to 2010, and greedily open my arms up to the awesome eats that await me in 2011.

But most importantly, to all those of you who’ve suffered through my infant posts this year – the family factory, my foodie soulmates and all the new friends I’ve made through this blog, thank you for your support and positive words. Wishing you all a fabulous 2011!

Author: InaFryingPan

With a family legacy of ingenious cooks, a nutritionist and chef-extraordinaire mother, and a father who introduced me to steak and caviar when I could barely reach the table, I had no choice but to acquire a keen awareness of food during my childhood years in Dubai. But it was only after I found myself on a college campus in Philadelphia – far away from home, too cheap as a student to spend on anything other than pizza, and with dorm rooms that had little rat-holes of kitchens if they even had them at all – when I developed a heightened appreciation of food. An appreciation of food that I once ate every night at the dinner table in Dubai, but that was now an entire ocean away. I lusted for the culinary treasures that lay outside the stale walls of my college dining hall, hijacked friends’ kitchens to try my hand at something, anything , remotely edible, and greedily raided different websites in search of highly-rated restaurants. With my move to New York to work for a consulting firm that secretly harbored self-professed foodies, my appreciation transformed into a passion, an addicition. I felt like everyone around me in New York was talking about food: where to get the best cupcakes, pizza slices, banh mi, kati rolls, pho, fried chicken, and every other food item out there that is just a plain old dish in some part of the world, but that’s become hyped to unforeseen proportions in New York. What fuelled my addiction over time was travel to different cities, both for work and play, which gave me unfettered access to the culinary havens of not only New York, but also of DC, Virginia, Chicago, Houston, Vegas, Austin, Seattle and even a little city called Bentonville (Arkansas!). After 9 years away from home, I’ve finally taken the leap to come back to Dubai – with not just an awareness, but genuine appreciation and passionate addiction for what I’d taken for granted as a child. Mom, I’m back to reclaim my seat at your dinner table, and to rediscover this city with its ever-expanding menu of international flavors.

15 thoughts on “Born in the hands of a fruit cake maestro

  1. Saleem Ahmed says:

    Wow ma – well said and what a tribute to Sister Theresa, wonderful lady – I guess it is in the name. We have been having the same cake for more than 20 years now and the taste is the same as it was with the first one she had sent – with love and love and love! Thanks for writing about her.

  2. Mom says:

    Arva, after seeing all the lovely pics you clicked and the mouth watering article you wrote, I will now run to the fridge and grab a bite of Sister Theresa’s cake.
    Happy New Year to You!

  3. Sophia A. says:

    So beautiful and well written. Thanks for posting this.

  4. Aquil Ali says:

    Hey Arva
    WOW (all in caps), didn’t know your letter/article writing talents. Very well composed and the content slips from one issue to the other effortlessly. Keep them coming my way.

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      @Dad – thank you for carrying the cakes back for us from Hyderabad so diligently every time! :)

      @Mom – ;) now it’s my turn to do a fruit cake fridge run…this is bordering ADDICTION for us!

      @Sophia apa – thanks for stopping by to read this! Btw, I think of the cake as a healthy alternative to dessert…anything that has fruit is, isn’t it?

      @Aquil mamu – thank you for the positive words, means a LOT coming from a food connoisseur and creative type like yourself! Happy 2011!

  5. Pramod Astavans says:

    As usual Arva you have been precise with your words to express your sentiments. Hats off to Sister for such consistency in her baking .I bet a fairly high percentage of the appreciation must come from the LOVE THAT IT RECREATES over the years for all of you.
    Keep up the good work. May sister live for ever and have a wonderful year ahead starting with 2011. May you all continue to relish her baking.
    Pramod Uncle , Delhi

  6. Rajani says:

    Hi Arva… thanks for this great post. paints a beautiful picture of your lovely family… i am sure sister theresa’s fruitcake is worth every bite, bloated or not. wishing you and your family the best for 2011.

  7. fouad says:

    Hi Arva

    Isn’t it amazing that some of the deepest impressions people leave on us is through their food? Lovely to read your story.
    Have a happy new year and hope to keep reading the wonderful blog.

  8. Sally says:

    Happy New Year Arva. My children would be so jealous to read this post – we have a lovely extended family but they only have one first cousin! Food does bring families together and connects the generations in so many ways. I remember making perogi with my Aunt in Poland and the shared experience was brilliant even though we couldn’t speak the same language.

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      @Promod uncle – Happy new year! Thank you for the thoughtful message…indeed, love is nourished by food (at least in my case!), and vice versa. Hope you have an opportunity to try a slice if you visit us in Hyd or Dubai. My regards to aunty as well, and wishing you both a wonderful 2011!

      @Rajani – thank you Rajani, and same to you – Wishing you a lovely 2011, and look forward to tons of fabulous posts on your blog ( in the months to come!

      @Fouad – That is so true. There’s something so elemental in the way food can affect us, not just satisfying hunger, but transporting us
      back through time because a flavor, a smell, evokes an experience or a person from the past. Sort of like the scroogey chef in Ratatouille (to end on a not-so-profound note!).
      Can’t wait to catch up on all the posts you’ve come out with in the past week – perfect way to start the new year. Happy new year Fouad, and look forward to exchanging more foodie reactions in 2011!

      @Sally – Hahaha…maybe we can donate a few to you? (I’m going to get hacked to pieces for even suggesting this, save me from the Factory Mafia!) tell them that while it is really awesome to have a huge family, it can get SUPER embarrassing when you lose track of names and how many kids each person has – a situation that’s more common than not for me these days ;)
      Food is an unbelievably easy way to get people to connect – I mean, look at our group of foodies in FiA, we’re so diverse in so many ways, yet totally at ease when in a kitchen together. I can’t wait to connect with everyone and have more of those scrumptious experiences throughout the new year!

  9. Farida says:

    Sister will be so happy little beetle! Loved what you wrote..this cake is truly genius :)

  10. Radz says:

    Aww Arva ! What a perfect message for the end of the year … makes my heart all gooey.
    Have really loved reading your blog , its such a perfect balance of food, honesty and all your experiences !
    Inspiring :)

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      @Farida – Thanks appi! It is genius. Or it was. Ate the last crumb yesterday, so we’re all out. :(

      @Radz – Hehehe…your comment evoked a funny image of a little squiggly heart melting into a watery pink blob ;) Thanks for the encouraging words, honestly, it really rocks my (egotistical) world when someone appreciates the blog. Thank you babe, and for featuring silently in so many posts, and even bigger THANK YOU.

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      Thanks Kulsum! Hoping to plan a trip to KUW in the near future, so maybe I can hit you up for restaurant recommendations? Btw, pretty awesome to see bohra recipes online!!

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