The Perfect Metaphor

Biryani is a rice dish that is made with lots of delicious spices and with chicken, mutton, fish, or vegetables.

This past weekend, I decided to treat myself to biryani. It has been a great while since I cooked it, and while I usually make it with mutton, this time I decided to make it with chicken. In the last few years I have realized that the simple actions of cooking are very therapeutic for me. Knowing exactly where I keep my coriander seeds and reaching into the spice cabinet without looking, retrieving the bottle, and pouring out the seeds is oddly satisfying. I know where each jar is, what it holds, what the spices smell like. 

(Visitors who are cookery novices often ask me how I am able to differentiate the spices when they are similar in color. That's easy - smell. Another question I get is what quantity of a particular spice do I add to the dish. That's harder. I used to get frustrated when my mother told me a recipe over the phone and said, "And just enough cumin seeds." How much is enough? But that, in fact, is the perfect amount. I never measure my spices. I just eyeball them - now I know what my mother meant.)

As I was preparing this mouth-watering concoction on Saturday, I was also thinking about relationships. Parents, loved ones, siblings, old friends, acquaintances - all connections wax and wane like phases of the moon. There are highs and lows, dips and peaks, crests and troughs. And sometimes relationships just vanish - flatline. Time eats them up. Or circumstances do. I have some of those in one compartment of my heart. They may have ended up there because of my rather unforgiving nature, or a change in the tides of time, or because the other person had it coming. 

Biryani with cucumber salad and yogurt sauce
As I was stirring in the freshly ground spices, I thought, and isn't biryani the perfect metaphor for relationships. Good biryani is supposed to have rice, meat, and all other ingredients in a perfect marriage. The rice, almost always Basmati, is tender but not overly so. Each grain must remain intact during the precarious task of mixing in the seasoned meat. If you overcook the rice, much like beating up a relationship too much, it ends up breaking during the "mixing" phase of the dish, which begins to look like a casserole rather than biryani. 

Biryani is meant to be spicy, not I-just-burned-my-tongue spicy, but mmm-what-great-flavor-and-what-a-nice-kick spicy. You skew the balance and bang! clang! crash! goes your biryani. You know you've ruined it if it ends up being too bland or too spicy. If you really think about it, you want it very much like Goldilocks wanted everything - just right. It took me months to perfect this recipe with the exact combination of spices that would make it full of flavor with an overarching undertone of caliente. Who can tell me what this reminds you of when you juxtapose it with relationships? I think it is a very apt metaphor for finding that much-sought-after fine balance of absolute understanding. Hold back too much, and the bond fizzles out. Give in too much, and it's too burdensome to handle.

My final point is about what I call "the extras." The extras are exactly that - your biryani will still turn out alright without them, but I add them to my recipe for the added burst of aroma and flavor they promise. They bring the wow factor, the magic touch, the final flourish. Right before my biryani is ready to be mixed, I add saffron cream, butter, halved green chilies, and one ingredient that shall go unnamed. These final touches transform my biryani into Gourmet Biryani, jazz it up, make it unique - a dish that my family craves and requests for their birthday meals. In my extended metaphor, these extras represent the special things you do for the people who matter to you. You inconvenience yourself for them. You proofread your sister's paper in the middle of the night with no hope or desire for any kind of return. You surprise your wife with a clean kitchen when she wakes up in the morning because she was complaining of a sore back. You send your mom a first-edition of her favorite book after months of loitering about in second-hand bookstores. You give your best friend the confidence to call you at any time of day or night if she is going through a crisis. These are the "extras," the finer things, the ones that make all the difference. They are what make everyone remember you - just like the perfect plate of biryani.