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from the May 2017 issue

Kari Disan

1 kilo goat kid’s blood, goat kid liver, lungs, and fat, goat kid ribs and bones
a full glass of oil
minced shallots
1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
chopped mint leaves
chopped cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon aniseed
chopped green chili
3 tablespoons garam masala
1 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
salt, pepper

In a large cast-iron pot, heat the oil. Brown shallots, ginger-garlic paste, mint, and cilantro, aniseed, cumin, and turmeric. Add bones and cubed lungs, fat, and liver. Brown over high heat. Add two glasses of water. Lower the heat and simmer for an hour. Once the sauce has thickened, add coagulated kid’s blood, diced, and the green chili to the sauce. Simmer for one more hour. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the garam masala. After turning off the heat, garnish with fresh cilantro leaves. Serve hot with steamed rice, passion fruit chutney, and rhum agricole.

The sauce was so thick that, rather than flowing from the ladle, it stuck enough that it took a proper shake to be dislodged. The blood had hardened into gleaming black clots with the consistency of rubber. The bits of lung, liver, and fat gave the dish its particular texture and color. Soft, thick, hard, slippery, sour, fresh, raw, cooked: it was a journey into the shadows of flavor.

The dockworkers adored this blood curry.

They ate it up by the bowlful, sucking air through their teeth to offset the chilies’ burn and hurriedly took great gulps of rum for another kind of burn. The insides of their mouths darkened under these salvos of flavor. They sweated—I was about to say, tongue in cheek—blood and water.

When they were finished, it was like they’d run a marathon. It hadn’t been a gastronomic experience so much as an obstacle course.

This meal seeped into their blood. It instilled in them a legendary courage. By the time they’d finished eating, they’d become superheroes.

How odd that a meal assembled out of trimmings should be a dish of the gods.

I was ten years old. Up to that point, I had only the faintest idea of the dishes my father prepared. At home, he and my mother didn’t say the words “tavern” or “joint” or “hole in the wall”; they only said “the restaurant.” So I told my classmates that my father ran a restaurant. That gave some respectability to our lives, which let through water like a slotted spoon while picking up smelly dregs that perfumed our house, our clothes, even our bodies. I never went into the back room where my mother gutted and cleaned the meat and fish my father had brought back from the market. This part of the courtyard seemed like an open-air cesspit. My mother did her best to rinse it all thoroughly, but sticky residue clung stubbornly to the floor and walls. They took on the color of a stagnant pond. The smell that lingered above everything else was guts.

As long as I could escape the house to go to school or walk with friends during school vacations, I didn’t feel any urge to figure out what my mother dealt with in her kitchen, or my father in his restaurant. I washed myself off several times a day with harsh soap, sprayed on some cologne, and changed my clothes as soon as they took on the faintest smell from the kitchen.

But my shame at my father’s work was born the day a teacher, leaning over me to check my homework, sniffed loudly and declared: “Hmmph, you smell just like tripe!”

The bursts of laughter from all the kids in class still echo in my ears today. For as long as I was in school, I was known by the nickname of kari trip. And so I understood that my family was an object of contempt and a target of mockery for all the well-bred children because my father ran a tavern in one of the Port-Louis ghettos and his customers were the poorest of the poor. But that wasn’t all.

I have to explain what my father cooked: in the past, his family had been forced by near-complete destitution to eat the unwanted parts of animals, the cheapest cuts that butchers would sell them for a few sous or those their neighbors would give them instead of throwing out: feet, heads, intestines, tripe, kidneys, blood, and brains. My grandmother had to use all her culinary know-how to make something out of the unappetizing flavor and scent of this offal; she redoubled her efforts. She made her own masalas, sun-drying cilantro, cumin, anise, and mustard seeds on wicker trays before crushing them with mortar and pestle to make a paste. These spices, along with asafetida, fenugreek, turmeric, cardamom, star anise, and dozens of other aromatics, allowed her to concoct an infinite combination of sauces so she could marinate giblets for hours on end. These spices impregnated the animal matter, winning out over the harshest odors and ultimately transforming the odds and ends into tiny miracles of sweetmeats. The parents and friends who visited her delighted in savoring her blood and tripe curries.

And so, when my father decided to open his tavern, he bestowed upon it, with no small measure of irony, the rather unpalatable name Kari Disan. He knew that his clientele, mainly dockworkers or construction workers, needed heavy, rich meals to sustain them through long days of work and fortify their bellies against the swigs of rum they took without stopping. So he followed his mother’s tradition, serving the same curried meats and brain fritters and goat-foot soups. It was all served with mazavarou, that red-chili paste that burned palates and throats like a delicious acid.

I tried to distance myself from everything connected to my father’s restaurant. I washed myself and perfumed myself and left the house at dawn and only came back late at night. I made a life for myself elsewhere, a seemingly bearable life where I could actually smell extraordinary summer flowers; spend time in the rivers teeming with the mullets my father would later pan-fry, but which I let swim freely here, free to play and twist around me without any fear, sleek and free to be and live without having to please any man’s belly; dream of another existence far from the house on the Rue du Pouce and even farther from this crummy “restaurant” that barely disguised its real role as charnel house.

Alas, this freedom came to an end the year I turned ten. At the start of summer vacation, my father abruptly told me I was coming with him to help in the restaurant. I tried to protest and tell him that I had plans with my friends, that we were going to climb Pieter Both, but there was no swaying him, there never had been. Then I turned to my mother, but despite her sympathetic gaze, she didn’t take my side. “It’s time for you to help your father,” she said quietly. I was furious she couldn’t muster the courage to say no to him. It would be many years before I realized that her illness had already taken hold and that she had known it was just a matter of time until I was the only one who could help my father.

The tavern, not far from the central market, was tiny: just a narrow hallway with the kitchen at the end, separated by a plywood partition from the seating area. Some Formica-topped tables, some plastic chairs, and a bar lined with rum bottles, Phoenix beer, and that Eureka wine bottle filled with a wine that bore no connection to what was described on its label—that was the sum total of the furniture. As for the kitchen, it was a furnace where massive cauldrons sat all day atop lit burners, where the air grew thick with the miasmas of the particular cuisine my father was preparing. Plastic tubs hanging by hooks from the ceiling held scraps of meat and fish. Bundles of rice, onions, garlic, and ginger were piled up under the work surface, and other plastic bags hanging from the ceiling contained chilies and the various spices about to be drowned in bubbling oil.

Everything was carefully organized. I watched, immobile, as my father moved from one thing to the next, here taking a pinch of pepper, there a few cloves, elsewhere a handful of sliced onions, sprinkling them all in the cast-iron pot, almost without even looking. He collected the other condiments while half-listening to the rhythms around him. As the sizzling subsided into a murmur, he added the other ingredients and stirred the mixture with a large metal spoon. He was like an orchestra conductor somehow also playing all the instruments. In his soaking gray sleeveless T-shirt and jogging shorts, with his bald scalp and his heavy, hairy paunch, he wasn’t a pretty sight. But I have to admit that there was some elegance in his movements. I didn’t see it when I was ten, of course. I was too busy hating him. But later on, when I’d taken the reins, I realized that this economy of gestures, this innate grace, had allowed him to save some strength and achieve a state where everything became instinctual without any need for second-guessing, his body a perfect partner to his mind. In this mouse hole that served as kitchen, he never bumped into anything and he never burned himself. I would burn myself so many times with oil spluttering in the pans and bump against the corners of the countertops that I eventually realized he’d made his work a form of art.

I had to serve dishes. I brought out the plates to drunk dockworkers; their hulking shapes and braying laughs scared me so much that I made myself as small as I could, I set down the food and darted away immediately, unless they caught me by the collar to ask for mazavarou or another carafe of rum. I hid and watched them, dumbfounded by the sheer amount of food they crammed down their throats. They also filled five-kilo jam jars with steamed rice for their lunch. When I asked my father how they could eat so much rice, he told me their work was the kind moral men could never do. They had to carry fifty or eighty kilos on their backs, he said. All day, under the Port-Louis sun, they unloaded trucks, carried sacks to the granaries, and loaded up barges. This wasn’t work normal men could accomplish. Their bodies were their motors, they had to feed it, and rice was their fuel. I couldn’t hide my horror as I watched their muscular arms, their massive chests, their long, strong legs. I couldn’t imagine doing the work they did (I was small for my age, and sickly). They managed to laugh and have fun, but the surface of that extraordinarily smooth skin barely contained fury and revolt. My father, in his solitary dance, oiled the machine, but at the end of the night, the men leaving his hole in the wall, swaying like sailors on dry land, were ticking bombs.

When the State decided to mechanize these processes of loading and transporting sugar, all this bonhomie vanished, but that was still to come:

Fifteen and I dreamed of going far away.

Sixteen and those dreams all came crashing down.

Seventeen and we dreamed of murder.

Eighteen and we became a dormant volcano with lava boiling deep within.

My father had beat the game. My mother died after a long illness—but I know it’s because she spent all her days stewing in fear. I became his sous chef, his fellow sufferer, a symbol of all his life’s failures. We spent long hours side by side, hardly talking to one another, him giving me terse orders and me carrying them out while gritting my teeth so I wouldn’t bite his head off. This sticky proximity only increased my certainty that he’d sentenced me for life. Imagine a place that assaults all your senses, where your skin burns, your ears ring, your nostrils twitch, your lips tremble, and your eyes dart everywhere. No gentleness, no freshness, no beauty. You’re drained empty, you want to go numb, you want your senses to disconnect, your nerves to melt, your sensory organs to fall apart simultaneously.

But, day after day, your body resists; you survive so that, the next day, the torture goes on. All your spirit’s fortifications are breached by these deleterious odors. I spent these long hours of work traveling. To what dark countries, through what terrifying chasms, I couldn’t have said. What filled my thoughts was a teeming universe of violence. My body sticky with sweat, my cheeks aflame, I imagined myself climbing battered landscapes full of strange trees, my only weapon a saber. I wanted to slay every creature that crossed my path—animal and human alike. I gave no quarter to anybody. I was a hunter, a marauder borne by white-hot rage. As I chopped, minced, sliced, and stirred, I made my way through this ruined land in search of victims. I came across young stags hidden in the underbrush, their skinny bodies shivering in exhaustion and fear. My eyes fixated on theirs, I attacked their gilded flanks with pure hatred. I buried my knife in their soft flesh, their bony knees, their bared, tender necks. I massacred them. There had to be nothing left that could thicken an unspeakable curry or fill a man’s belly. Their deaths were as pure as my hatred. To die so as not to suffer the ignominy of being chewed, swallowed, digested, and excreted in foul heaps—all that we do to these magnificent beasts.

I was not vegetarian. I kept on eating normally, not my father’s curries but more typical dishes. Rolls with Plume Rouge butter and Kraft cheese were my favorite meal. I didn't know why my father’s cuisine was such an unbearable debasement of animals. Heads, feet, tongues, tripe, hearts, brains? Did we need to use every part of them? Couldn’t we let them undergo the normal process of decomposition, rather than turning them into shit?

I know there’s no use trying to make sense of it. I was just living in the same terror my father had. A horrible fear that I might, in turn, become a pitiful pawn.

So I massacred these animals I’d have saved otherwise.

So I trod through my landscape of shifting sands and midnight-dark shadows. A hunter with a saber running on long, slender legs like those of the animals he was hunting. This dangerous evasion allowed me to believe that some nobility remained in my body, even as my busy hands sliced, carved, minced, trimmed, and divided.

I held a kid goat’s head over open flames to burn away the hairs, and, as I inhaled the charnel smell of burned hair, I leaned away so I wouldn’t remember and especially recognize that that thing I had been handling had once been a living creature and imagine that these eyes had once, wholly new to life, opened between its mother’s hooves. The hairs crackled momentarily over the blazing fire before burning away. I turned the entire head in my hands, efficiently, to expose each side to the flame. When the narrow snout was pointed at me, I looked away to avoid its gaze. The bones were so small, but so solid, so hard. And I would shatter them in just a minute with a cleaver. I’d open it like an egg and carefully extricate the brain so as not to damage it. I’d hold it as a hard-won offering to my father, who would cook it with scrambled eggs; it would be fried into a fritter with tomatoes, onions, and chilies before being coated in beaten egg yolk and some flour.

The shattered head would lend its flavor to the red broth gleaming with moulouktani spices.

At night, I’d dream of that kid goat’s eyes gazing sternly at me. Its hoof raised up to crack my skull. What does a human’s brain smell like, it asked, with all the cruelty it holds?

My father did it on purpose. He’d found a way to torture me through food. He’d ruined any love and even desire I might have had for anything beyond the blandest kind of food. I’d come to actually like those horrible poutous made with ration rice and rancid coconuts that the old women at the market made; it filled me with a sort of moldiness infinitely tastier than my father’s heavily spiced earthquakes. The tavern was the nexus of my devastation. A place where physical and mental wounds no longer carried any weight. My hands took on a cartography of scars. My arms and legs, a constellation of burns. My skin didn’t scar over easily, so these marks stayed visible, paler than my untouched skin, with odd shapes that were sometimes circular, sometimes oblong, sometimes jagged as if I had been bitten, mangled, and murdered by a wild beast. Which I had; the wild beast was my father.

When we came back home after sundown, nothing human was left of us. We were ghosts climbing the empty streets of Port-Louis, dead souls the infrequent passersby shielded themselves against by crossing themselves or clutching their tabeez, savage-looking wolves that remained undaunted, because we’d spent the whole day kneading the raw matter of nightmares.

In the house, we each went our own way: me to the shower with my bar of caustic-soda soap, scrubbing and scouring my body to erase my father’s smells; he to his bed with a bottle of rum he’d nearly finish before falling asleep.

Under the hot water, I only heard one sentence: “You smell like tripe.” I’d never forgotten it. Like an echo, when I got out of the shower, I heard my father saying: “Tomorrow we’ll make tripe curry.” I went into his room.

“Did you hear me?” he asked.

I nodded. Washing intestines is one of the jobs I hate the most. I’ll have to get going at sunup and spend more than an hour scraping every hint of shit off these crappy tripe. I’ll have to . . .

My father was asleep already. In his heavy belly, meters on meters of intestines twist and gurgle with all the food he’s gulped down that day. When he eats tripe tomorrow, he’ll feed his guts with guts. And he’ll force me to reek, once again, of tripe.

Food is how I’ll get my revenge. One day, I suggest that he let me prepare some dishes. He irritatedly gives his OK, convinced our customers won’t eat my grub and will just clamor for his. There’s no end to his one-upmanship.

I start by making the same dishes he does, but with a few subtle changes. It’s as good a way as any to destroy him. To make myself visible. To claim the place he’s staked out with his belly and his bulk.

A pinch of sugar or fenugreek, some sprigs of wild thyme, some bits of turmeric for a burst of yellow, one vanilla bean in a salty dish or bits of chili in the stronger, more savory ones: any of those can alter a plate and set guests down an unexpected path. It occurs to me to add rum to the base of a sauce, and even if guests don’t notice it, it’s a perverse, addictive addition that leads them to beg for more. Little by little, I perfect my concoctions and ensnare my clientele: the orders increase. I marinate whole chickens’ feet overnight in Rodrigues honey, molasses, coarse salt, vinegar, and chilies, and I fry them until they’re perfectly crunchy, sugary, bitter, and tart all at once. I slice up kid-goat kidneys and sear them lightly as I can, so their raw flavor and supple texture comes through with every bite. Each dish has a fragrance redolent of meat, so rich and tempting that my guests’ mouths start watering immediately.

I start to take on those dancer’s motions my father always had. I notice how the spices call to me, how they’re the ones to dictate the sequence, the amount, the proportions, so I don’t have to reflect, it’s already been decided even before my hand reaches to them.

My father eats my meals with a grudging appetite: he never compliments me, but he no longer criticizes me. I notice how he starts eating more and more, double and then three times what he did before. And he gets heavier. Heavier and heavier, he can’t stop eating and he can’t stop getting heavier. Soon he’s so fat that he can’t even get into the kitchen. He stays put in the other room, yelling out orders I ignore, acting like he’s still the chef. He hasn’t been for ages. It’s my food the dockworkers are now coming to eat. I’m the one who’s become their hero and not the fat sack sitting beside them and acting just like any other customer, eating, no, devouring whatever I set before him.

I’ve studied animal entrails so thoroughly that I know exactly what’s happening at this specific moment in my father’s body: the thick layer of yellowish fat has been growing little by little around his organs like a starving parasite. His artery walls are thickening and slowing his blood’s circulation. There’s a gradual increase in arterial tension. He’s losing the ability to metabolize sugars. His liver is hardening. All his vital functions are diminishing, progressively, so insidiously that he doesn’t even realize it; he goes on eating and drinking like before, even more than before, while I’m slowly killing him.

I dream one night of him falling down and exploding, like a stranded seal, revealing his organs swollen with fat.

My solitude is perfect. I don’t have any friends. My mother is dead. There’s just that beast watching me, so certain of his power over me, who doesn’t even realize that I’ve become the hunter and he the hunted.

One morning, I know I’m ready. Without saying a word, I head straight to the kitchen and wake it up with the clanging of pans and timbale molds. My knife works relentlessly: I’m preparing a dish against my father. I want to give a face, a texture to my disgust. A thick, practically solid soup, where hooves and lungs, halved kidneys and hearts, bone marrow, tongues, sweetbreads, and fat all float, accompanied with fingers of fried bitter margoze, sprinkled with asafetida and a vinegary tamarind satini. The gelatin made from the hooves will give this mixture a gluey appearance. The halved kidneys will be dead butterflies swimming on the surface. It’ll feel like glue and gristle in the mouth, sharp and cartilaginous. Will it even be possible to eat it? Yes, that’s the trick. No matter how revolting it might be, each mouthful will arouse a hunger for another. Much later, I’ll learn the laws of organoleptics. I’ll discover umami, that mysterious fifth taste known to the Japanese and found in glutamic acid, within the most unexpected ingredients. But that day, in the tavern, I’m only following my instinct: death and survival, rebellion and submission. I haven’t yet figured out how cuisine can be a mirror to our emotions. Not just the best ones, but all of them, the worst included. By distilling the bile of rancor, it’s possible to transform nourishment into poison.

The whole day, my soup burbles under low heat. The trimmings simmer slowly, their fibers loosening one by one, their muscles falling apart so they practically melt in the mouth. No need for knife or fork with this soup. Just a spoon to absorb this miracle of flavorful cholesterol.

I don’t worry about the customers, because their manual labor turns all food into sheer energy. It’s clear that only one eater will be unable to survive such a dish.

That night, the diners scowl at the anti-father soup. As they behold this dense, gelatinous, grayish soup, with such an acrid smell, they get furious, shout at my father, hurl insults and curses at me. It doesn’t affect me. I tell them to try it. They do. After a few spoonfuls, they stop whining. A somewhat religious silence falls over the space. I hear them coming to terms with this novelty. They chew on the cartilage, they suck out the marrow, they slurp up the thick broth, they listen as it dribbles down to their stomach and, between their eyes insisting the soup is inedible and their tongues declaring its deliciousness, they struggle with those contradictions. And so they digest in silence.

Standing at the kitchen door, I watch them with a smile. They eat. They’re wary, but something in this horrid meal satisfied a deep-seated desire. Not of these bombastic rages that blaze forth when they’re drunk, but something more insidious, steeping and suppurating in their bellies as they go on eating. They ask for more. They’re insatiable. More hoof soup, they beg, with a bit of shame, as if they knew it’s much more than that, as if they understood that my concoction so unlike anything they’d ever had was dangerous and would take them places they had never been before.

The next day Port-Louis was beset by a strike that paralyzed the entire country. Was it because of my soup? I can’t say. I had other aims.

The whole night, I kept on watching and feeding the soup. The hearts, still bloody, sank straight to the bottom; the kidneys released their ammoniacal flavors, the fat gave the entire kettle a gleaming coating.

The dockyard workers had gone.

Only one diner remained.

“More,” he called out. “More.”

 

From L’ambassadeur triste (Paris: Gallimard, 2015). © 2015 Gallimard. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Jeffrey Zuckerman. All rights reserved.

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