Hajra Mohammed opens her eyes every morning to her one-year-old great-grandson’s videos on her newly acquired iPad. Mohammed, who turned 88 this year, started picking up computer skills recently with her daughter Nighat’s help. She now has a Facebook account in her name where she responds to all recipe requests from friends and relatives all over the world. For a woman of her age who is recovering from an injured back and spending a lot of her time in bed, it is no easy feat.
The Bangalore-based grandma hasn’t allowed age to become a hurdle. She published her first book at 85 and became one of the oldest first-time Indian writers.
“It was my determination and my granddaughter’s persistence that helped me publish the recipes I learnt and practised to perfection over the years,” Mohammed says. Her Dubai-based daughters Tasneem and Nighat Mohammed consider themselves lucky to have grown up on “the world’s best food”. “Mum is a remarkable woman with an amazing zest for learning. She has the courage to motivate herself with her aches and pains and do what she loves,” they say.
Mohammed’s first book, Hajra’s Recipes of Life for Life: Delectable Muslim Cooking, is for those who want a taste of Kutchi Memon cuisine, closely guarded by this Muslim community. A joke that goes about the Kutchi Memons is that even if they are generous enough to share their recipes, they purposely leave out one or two ingredients. Is that why it took Mohammed so long to decide that she could write a book on a cuisine she has mastered?
“I had the idea of a book 15 years before it got published,” she says. It didn’t happen until 2010 because a publisher was hard to find. Some feathers were definitely ruffled on the book’s release. “Several people from my community were shocked that I revealed so many of our secret cooking rituals and masalas,” laughs Mohammed.
But surprisingly, a lot of Kutchi Memons bought her book. Some use it themselves because it is methodically written; others sent it to their children studying abroad because the recipes are easy to follow.
“Our food is not only scrumptious but also healthy. Our biryani, for example, is cooked in minimal oil and spices as opposed to a lot of other Indian biryanis,” says Mohammed.
As a teenager, cooking was not on Mohammed’s mind. When most Indian girls were expected to hone their culinary skills, she enjoyed reading and music. “LPG [liquefied petroleum gas] wasn’t available then and my father didn’t let me cook with firewood.”
Unfortunately for Mohammed, both her parents died when she was still in her teens and she had to move in with her brothers. Her sister-in-law was instrumental in helping her become the expert cook she is today. She got married at 22; when her husband died 10 years later, she was left to bring up three young children all by herself. To eke out a living, she held cooking and baking classes at home and sold handmade dolls to a handicrafts emporium.
Today, she says it is her passion for cooking and learning that has given her the edge.
“The first thing I do is hit a bookshop when I visit a new place, to look at recipe books. An exciting recipe on a TV show finds a way into my diary and is soon tried out in the kitchen,” she says. “Love your cooking – put your heart and soul into it to get the best results.”
She’s excited about publishing her next recipe book, which she plans to call Hajra’s Favourite Recipes.
“This time, I’ll type all the recipes myself,” she says with a smile.
(Dry spiced prawns)
500g prawns, sliced and deveined
½ cup oil
2 tsp garlic paste
2 tsp cumin powder
3 tsp red chilli powder
8 green chillies, finely chopped
4 tbsp finely chopped coriander leaves
Juice of one lemon
Salt to taste
4 tbsp oil
¼ tsp cumin seeds
10 curry leaves
1 Wash the prawns and dry them with a clean kitchen towel.
2 Combine the marinade ingredients and rub them into the prawns. Refrigerate for two hours.
3 Heat ½ cup of oil in a pan and fry the marinated prawns for about 3-5 minutes, until they lose their translucency, but remain crunchy.
4 Heat the oil for seasoning in another pan. Add the cumin seeds and curry leaves. Once the cumin seeds crackle, remove from heat and pour the seasoning onto the fried prawns. Serve hot.