Birthdays are a funny thing for me. With each passing year, I increasingly find myself in a ‘to celebrate or not to celebrate’ conundrum. To celebrate seems a self-indulgent, tricky bringing together of busy people whose weekends are precious to them (I understand this!). To not celebrate is to see another day pass, perhaps peacefully, or if I’m truthful, perhaps with me rolled up on the couch in a teary mess stupidly wondering where the year has gone and why I didn’t achieve more, and then wondering why I didn’t bloody organise something to avoid such emotional wreckage. This year I chose the former, and I was rewarded with a truly lovely day filled with love and hugs and food and rummy – my most favourite game.
The day was bookended by calls from my nephew Benjamin, now three and expecting a baby sister any day now. His evening rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ did bring on the tears I’d managed to thus far avoid. As he gorgeously took huge breaths between words, and jumbled and then over skipped others, I felt incredibly lucky and loved.
While Benjamin had me in happy tears, Yiayia – that infamous grandmother of mine – incited tears of laughter with her morning phone call. With her signature dramatic pause after I answered the phone, she launched into her annual Greek-accented, Marilyn Monroe-inspired version of ‘happy birthday’. Trying hard not to laugh and disturb her flow, I sat on the other end and patiently listened to every breathy word. Just when I thought I may spend my whole birthday listening to this carefully delivered rendition, my grandmother hit the last ‘you’ with a hint of vibrato, impressively holding the note. I cheered and went to offer my thank yous, when she stopped me and said in a deep and most serious voice, ‘Have I got a story for you’. It was a slow start to the story … my next birthday flashed before my eyes. I heard about calls made to my cousin, my auntie, my mother, Greece (unlikely, but I kinda tuned out here), to verify my home phone number. And then I heard that my private audience with my grandmother, the lounge singer, had been enjoyed by another lucky lady half an hour earlier. In short, my grandmother called some random lady at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning, sang her breathy ‘Happy Birthday’ (and I might argue, with more sass this first time around), only to be told that she unfortunately had the wrong number.
My horrified grandmother apologised to said lady profusely, until the lady revealed it was actually her birthday also. ‘Can you believe it?’, Yiayia exclaimed to me with the same disbelief and bewilderment I was sure she conveyed to my cousin, my auntie and my mother in the round of phone calls to retell the story before she reached me. I really did hope it was this lady’s birthday, for Yiayia’s sake. If there were any part of this story I wish I could back up with a sound bite from my grandmother herself, it would be the part where she wishes this ‘birthday’ lady a happy birthday, and then goes on to give all of her very best wishes for this lady’s future, with a profound ‘God bless you’ at the end. Apparently the lady was very touched (perhaps until Yiayia called her again a few minutes later with what she thought was the right number).
And so I took this gem of a story to my birthday picnic to share with others, and now I share it with you. What to take from this story? Always check the number you are dialing before you commence a heartfelt serenade, and like Yiayia, eat your vegetables – they’ll keep you sharp enough to recover gracefully when you have imparted your luscious tones on an unknown innocent.
1 tablespoon butter
extra virgin olive oil
1 medium eggplant, roughly diced into 2 x 2 cm chunks
1 small sweet potato, peeled and cut into large chunks
2 carrots, peeled and cut into rough chunks
half bunch kale or spinach
2/3 cup frozen peas
1 onion, roughly diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
small knob ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 teaspoons coriander, ground
2 teaspoons cumin, ground
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon fenugreek (ground or seeds)
2 curry leaves or a teaspoon of curry powder
chilli flakes or powder, to taste
400 ml can coconut milk
basmati rice, to serve
Place the eggplant in a bowl and season with about 2 teaspoons of salt. Cover and set aside while you wash and prepare the other vegetables. Leave the eggplant for at least 15 minutes, and rinse before using.
In a heavy-based pot, gently fry the onion in the oil and butter until translucent and soft. Add the garlic, ginger and all of the spices, cooking and stirring until the mixture is fragrant. This should take about 3–4 minutes. Add the vegetables, except the peas and kale and including the rinsed eggplant, and stir until they are well coated in the spice mixture. Add the curry powder or leaves and coconut milk, and season well. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to low and allow the curry to simmer. In the meantime, prepare your rice or whatever accompaniment it is that you fancy. Add the peas and kale about 15 minutes into simmering the curry. Cook the curry until the vegetables are tender, which should take about 25–30 minutes all up. Serve with the steamed rice and even a little coriander and natural yoghurt on top, remembering to remove any offending curry leaves before serving.
To the lucky birthday lady who received the gift of song from Yiayia before moi, I also wish you a wonderful year ahead, wherever and whoever you may be.