I don’t have friendships which have lasted thirty-some odd years.
I don’t have friends from kindergarten that I grew up and stayed up late at night with around the bonfire during summer camp, singeing marshmallows till they were gooey enough to be sandwiched between graham crackers with some chocolate tucked in. I don’t have a collection of yearbooks on my bookshelf which I can share with friends and laugh over that nerdy Grade Two portrait, the one in which my hair is parted in the middle and swept up on both sides with a candy-pink barrette, (thanks, Ami).
But none of this matters, for the strong friendships I formed as a child of a wandering development economist cannot be valued by time.
Most of my friends were gypsies, like me, pottering about the world with their parents, from Lagos to DC to Islamabad to Nairobi to Manila to Yerevan, carting their Enid Blyton and Judy Blume collections and stuffed animals along with them (mind you, when we left Lagos, my parents gave away my beloved ‘Famous Five‘ collection to the SOS, which I’ve never forgiven them for). As I grew older, all the moving around just meant that amongst friends, we had to make more of an effort with that phone call, letter or postcard. My poor father, it turns out I mostly favoured costly phone calls over letters. And over the years we continued to meet in not-so-exotic-lands like DC, NY and London for our reunions.
Then one day I landed in Rome, where I thought I was finally going to hang my hat (only to leave, years later- but that’s another blog post). It was through work that I met Maria, a liquorice-haired, Bohemian Costa Rican beauty and Brandy, a jade green-eyed, soft-spoken, pretty girl from Vancouver.
Along with the rest of our gang, the three of us would start our weekends with a newspaper-thin crust pizza at Monte Carlo where the server never brings a bill but scribbles down the total on your makeshift paper tablecloth. Invariably, I’d argue with the server about this and invariably, Brandina, Maria and the rest of the gang would laugh and roll their eyes, “Ah, Shayma, there she goes again…” Then we’d take a walk through the Piazza Navona towards the raucous Campo de’ Fiori, as tourists in our own adopted city. We would go to Vineria Reggio to sip on some really bad sangria. In the land of €8 for a glass of Amarone, you ask, why the bad sangria? Can’t really say why, it’s just one of those quirky things that three close friends do.
I remember sitting at L’Insalata Ricca handing Brandina a silver bracelet, a farewell gift for her from our branch at work. While our boss did a cin cin, Maria and I wept quietly into our artichoke and rocket salad. Maria was a foreign service brat, and had lived all over the world, just like me. But we always cried when it was time to say goodbye.
Just before Brandina left, I prepared my mother’s rice pilaf for her and Maria at my home, made with sweet caramelised onions as a base, and intense, earthy spices like black peppercorns, cloves, black cardamom and a whole cinnamon stick. We ate this alongside cumin-spiced potatoes and a spicy chicken curry.
And then we took the camera and placed it on the kitchen counter, taking silly photos of the three of us with the self-timer.
Maria, Brandina and I haven’t been friends for thirty-some odd years, we cant reminisce about that Second Grade yearbook photo. But we haven’t forgotten the bad sangria, the walks through Campo de’ Fiori and the coffees and the lifelong relationship we formed on the rooftop cafeteria at the UN overlooking the pine trees lining the Terme di Caracalla.
The cloves are for fragrance and should normally not be consumed. Please note that there is no health risk associated with consuming them, but the taste is rather strong. The same goes for the peppercorns.
400g / 2 cups Basmati rice, soaked in a large bowl filled with cold water for a minimum of 2 hours and a maximum of 24 hours
3 tbsp neutral oil such as corn or sunflower
75 g / ½ cup onion (this is about ½ of a medium onion), sliced vertically and as thinly as possible.
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tsp whole cloves
1 whole black cardamom (optional, as it may be difficult to find unless you go to a Pakistani / Indian grocery store)
1 large cinnamon stick
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional- or you can add ½ tsp if you want it less spicy)
750ml / 3cups boiling water
*Place a medium-sized heavy-bottomed pot on medium heat and add oil.
*Add sliced onions to this and sauté for 15-20 minutes till the white of the onion is no longer visible and the onions have turned a dark golden-brown colour. Be careful not to let the onions turn black-if they begin to do so, just remove the pot from the burner and lower the flame.
*Start boiling your water in a separate vessel at this point.
*Add peppercorns, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon stick to onions. Drain rice and add to the pot.
*Turn the heat to high and pour in boiling water. As soon as it starts to bubble, cover with a tea cloth and lid and turn the heat to low.
*Allow rice to cook for 15 minutes, do not open the lid before the total time has elapsed.
*Remove rice from the burner and allow it to rest for another 15 minutes without opening the lid.
*Serve with a meat-based curry or with borani kachalu/kudu.