We had corn on the cob today, even though it was not raining! For some strange reason, corn on the cob and rains seem to belong together.
When we were growing up, homemade corn was always boiled, either in a pressure cooker or in a closed vessel, and seasoned with salt. This was seasonal, and was available only once or twice a year. When it was the corn season, it was always quite a family affair – cleaning the corn and preparing it to be boiled, waiting around the dining table for it to be done, getting it out and cutting it up into manageable pieces before finally polishing it off.
The only place you would get corn on the cob roasted on live coals was when you visited hill stations, where it was sold initially on the lakeshores and eventually everywhere. The seller would fire up the coals using a rotating bellows and roast the corn on the glowing coals. Once it was done, they would season it by rubbing it with a piece of lemon dipped in a mixture of salt and chilli powder. This gave it a flavour all its own.
The cold of the hill station, the fine mist of hill rain, ducking under the plastic sheets that covered the corn stall and waiting while your corn was being roasted – eating corn on the cob was definitely an unforgettable experience.
And then, suddenly, the seasonality died. Corn was available everywhere, all the time. You got American corn, which was sweeter and more succulent. You could get boiled or roasted corn everywhere – even on the beaches of Madras – any time of the year. And suddenly, corn on the cob lost its magic.
Coming to Hyderabad, we are somehow once again in the grip of seasons. Outside the department stores, the seasonality plays out as usual. The mango season, the watermelon season, the corn season – each of this is heralded by vendors on pushcarts selling them for a fraction of the prices you’d pay for them at a supermarket.
Today’s corn on the cob was from a chap with a pushcart. He did not have fancy bellows to fan his coals – he used an old-fashioned hand-fan woven from palm leaves. In the middle of his card was an iron dish supported by stones. On this was heaped a pile of live coals. After stripping away the outer cvering of the corn, he placed it on the coals and fanned them furiously, causing the coals to glow and the corns to sputter. He took his time with the corns, making sure they were thoroughly roasted before doing the seasoning with the lemon, salt and chilli powder.
Unfortunately we had to bring it home before we could eat it – so a bit of the heat was lost. But the taste definitely brought back memories – of childhood, of tastes and smells and feelings from long ago, and of a past as precious as it is lost.