I witnessed the aftermath of her cooking only a moments before I met her. Lina's kitchen was in a tumultuous state. Pots and pans filled the sink and overflowed on the counters. Almost every cabinet door was thrown wide open as if an unseen force, perhaps a small tornado, had blown through. Whoever her sister was, she was one exciting and furious cook. And if the smell of her food was any indication, then her recklessness in the kitchen made me sorry I couldn't stay to savor the results. That is when I knew: whatever she was, whether a crazy woman or an artist (or both), this girl was going to be my friend.
That was how I was introduced to Carla—not a mean crazy woman at all, but certainly an artist at heart, especially when she created her untraditional but always dios mío de mi vida delicious food! She had a childlike (though never childish) simplicity about her, a way of looking at the world, and food, with a kind of playfulness (and sometimes, abandonment), a necessary thing if one is ever to be a good cook or a good artist or even a good person. And she was that. No, she was, like all of us, far from perfect. But she was gentle, spiritual, hospitable to a fault—even when life was too much for her. Even as she lay on the bed from which she was never to arise.
I came to stay with her one August. Her thick lovely hair was gone. And for those of you who have ever lost a friend or a family member to cancer, I don't need to elaborate on the terrible things it can do to a person. There were secrets Carla wanted to keep, so I won't reveal them here. I will say the sadness at our impending goodbye was heartbreaking, the love in that room, intense. It filled every corner of the house with a cinnamon and chocolate aroma that stuck to our clothing and lingered long after Carla was gone.
When I see her again, we will cook and cook and cook until there's a pure explosión de pasión y sobrosura—a deliciousness that will blow the doors off their hinges--for the biggest la vida es un carnaval fiesta, ever.
Descansa por ahora, amiga mía. Un día nos miraremos a los ojos.
Perhaps you are wondering where agua de tamarindo—tamarind punch—fits into this story. Well, it doesn't. There are times when I just can't write about food just for food's sake. I can most times . . . but not today. Inserting agua de tamarindo in this memoir of my friend would have been too forced. And yet, food is the reason why you are here, and I would be a terrible host if I didn't at least offer you something to drink, especially on this hot August day. Carla wouldn't have had it any other way.
(I dedicate my painting of this mighty hibiscus, above, and story to my brave friend, Lina. Never has there been a more loyal and fierce defender or loving friend to a little sister.)
Agua de tamarindoIn an act of culinary cross pollination that came via the sea, first from tropical Africa then to India and the rest of Asia, and onward to the shores of Mexico and the Caribbean by Spanish sailors in the 16th Century, tamarind is just an other small link in a chain that binds together all the cuisines of the world in one way or another. And after you taste its unique sweet and sour taste, I dare you to drink another Coke or Pepsi with carnitas tacos.
This agua fresca is a little strong, but with plenty of ice and giving it a few minutes for it to dilute just a bit, it will taste just perfect when you are ready to serve.
6 ounces of tamarind pods (approximately 10 pods)
6 to 8 tablespoons granulated sugar, or to taste
6 cups boiling water
plenty of ice
a large pitcher
Peel away the outer shell and the woody membranes from each of the tamarind pods. Rinse them and place them all in a large bowl Pour the boiling water over them, add the sugar, stir, and let them sit for about two hours or so.Then, use your fingers to squeeze the pods until the water turns amber colored. Make sure that no large pieces of tamarind pulps remain. Strain the water and discard the seeds. Pour the water into a large pitcher and add plenty of ice. Drink when the punch is ice cold and perfectly diluted. Stir just before serving.
Serves about 8 persons.