by Morna Sullivan
“What does paprika do, love?”
She studied the labels searching for star anise and cloves. She was intent on replenishing her supplies after cooking her Christmas aromatic ham. A well-stocked spice rack was a necessity. Wouldn’t you think the herbs and spices would be arranged alphabetically to make it easier for customers to find what they’re looking for?
She was aware of a pungent smell to her right. She wasn’t convinced it was coming from the jars and boxes in front of her. It certainly didn’t smell aromatic or appetising and didn’t belong in this food aisle. A splash of Old Spice might have helped disguise it.
He was standing looking at her, expecting an answer. She looked back at him, taking everything in as she replied.
“It’s pepper – just like white or black pepper except with more flavour.”
“Pepper? Are you sure, love? Then why don’t they just call it pepper? Is it not more exotic?” he asked.
“Well, it’s a kind of pepper. There are lots of different sorts. Look, there’s hot paprika and smoked paprika,” she said, pointing out the jars.
“Oh, I like it hot,” he said, smirking.
She pretended she hadn’t heard his retort and returned to scrutinising the shelves. She lifted a refill box of cloves and popped it in her trolley. Surely this supermarket had star anise. It was usually well stocked. She’d already been in three supermarkets this week looking it and they’d all been sold out.
“Would you use it for Indian?” he asked.
Ignoring him clearly wasn’t going to work.
“You could, but you would need to use other spices too. Like turmeric and fennel seeds or cardamom and coriander seeds. Paprika would give the dish you’re making a good colour but you need the flavour too.”
Under his pulled down beanie hat he looked puzzled. Tall, a bit older than her, tired and relatively attractive, but puzzled.
“It depends on what flavour you want,” she said.
“I want Indian. Is paprika Indian?”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s European originally - from Hungary possibly.”
“Are you sure it’s not Indian? I’m sure she said it was. Are all spices not from India?” he asked.
“A lot are Indian - but spices come from all over the world.”
The smell didn’t seem as bad now or maybe she was getting used to it, or it was being masked by the spices beside her. He looked as if he’d been wearing the grey work trousers with pockets all the way down the legs and the faded navy blue hoodie for the last few days. They were stained with oil streaks and mud.
“How would I know which ones are Indian?”
He still looked puzzled, bewildered and overwhelmed by the colourful choices in front of him.
“The jar labels will tell you. You know, the spices can be quite expensive. You might be better buying one of those mixed jars like curry powder or tandoori mix or tikka masala because you need quite a lot of different spices to get the right flavour. If you don’t use them often they can lose their flavour in time. Which Indian dish do you like?”
“I like paprika, love,” he replied. “She said she wanted paprika in it.”
He shuffled over in his muddy work boots to look at the ready mixed spice jars. She took advantage when he moved out of the way to find the star anise refill box and popped it into her brimming trolley. She also took the chance to take a better look at him. His eyes looked tired and his body was slightly hunched as if this was all too much of an effort for him. He probably wasn’t as old as he first appeared.
“They’ve a lot of Indian dishes in the ready meals section and the freezers. You can heat them up in minutes in the microwave. They’re quite tasty. You can also buy jars of the sauce already made up. It’s not bad if you’re in a hurry,” she suggested, trying to be helpful.
“Thanks – I know you can buy them.”
“It would save you time.”
“I have to cook this myself. I promised her. I promised myself. What’s that you’re buying? Is it for a curry?” he asked.
“It’s star anise. I use it to flavour my spiced ham. Its quite sweet. It’s used in biryani dishes. It won’t bring much colour to the dish. I don’t think it would help your curry.”
“I want paprika. She’ll know if I don’t use it.”
“You could get away without using it. Paprika will add to the colour but there are other ingredients that give colour too. You could add more tomatoes, or buy a jar of curry sauce and add paprika. Paprika won’t give the strength and depth of flavour you’re looking for.”
“What about this? What about turmeric?” he asked.
“It’s used in Indian cookery. Lovely colour, but you’d need to use other spices to get the authentic flavour. What curry are you making? Do you have a recipe?” she asked.
“I really like paprika, love,” he said.
“That’s a good start. What do you like about it? Is it the colour, the smell or the flavour?” she asked.
“Everything. And I like its name. Paprika! Most of all I like how it sounds – exotic, warm, spicy, mysterious, magical, tantalising. Just like her. I like her name. She’s called Paprika Moldova. We’re meeting for the first time tomorrow night. I’m cooking dinner for her. She said I had to use paprika and she’d know if I had. She’s lovely isn’t she?”
He thrust a photo on his phone in front of her.
“She seems very attractive.”
“She’s a consultant surgeon.”
“Really - she looks quite young - to be a consultant. I know it’s none of my business, but how long have you known her?”
“A few days. We’ve been chatting online. She’s very friendly.”
“I’m sure she is. What if you don’t like her when you meet?”
“I’m sure I will.”
“Why don’t you just go for a drink with her - maybe see how you get on. You could maybe cook dinner the next time. She might not appreciate the effort you’re making.”
“I’m sure she will.”
“Sometimes people you meet online aren’t quite the same when you meet them in person.”
“Sounds like you’ve had your fingers burned.”
“I have. And I’ve heard all sorts of weird and wonderful online dating tales. You have to kiss a few frogs before you meet your prince. And, believe me, there are a lot of frogs – very few resemble their online photos. But I could be wrong. Paprika Moldova could very well be the beautiful, intelligent, rich, young woman you expect her to be.”
“I know what you’re thinking – what could she possibly see in me?”
“No – not exactly. I just don’t like seeing people get hurt. Sometimes when something seems too good to be true, it is. You can’t be too careful. Do you really want this stranger in your house? Sorry, I’ve said too much. Its none of my business. Don’t let me put you off cooking your Indian meal. You could always practice making it for yourself so when you meet her the next time you could cook it for her – or for someone else.”
He looked straight into her eyes. She shifted from one foot to the other and glanced at her shopping list.
“I should have just lifted the paprika without speaking to you.”
“You should just buy it if it’s what you want. But you should maybe also get one of those ready mixes. You can’t go wrong with them. You could always experiment by adding paprika to one of them – maybe the tikka masala one?”
“I like trying something new,” he said, again looking straight into her eyes.
She was beginning to feel very warm under her puffed feather down coat. She loosened the hand knitted stripy scarf wrapped tightly around her neck. Why had she bothered coming out shopping tonight? And why had she even bothered to look for cloves and star anise? It wasn’t as if she needed the spices tonight or tomorrow or even next week. Then she recalled one of her New Year’s resolutions - to get out of the house every evening – even if it was only for a walk or to the supermarket. One of her other resolutions was to make an effort to speak to strangers. Well she was definitely ticking all the boxes tonight!
“Are you going to cook chicken or lamb? Maybe you’re vegetarian?” she asked.
“Me a veggie? Do I look like a veggie?”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Does it matter what I cook it with? It’ll probably be chicken.”
“No. It shouldn’t. Chicken will be lovely. That’s what I usually cook,” she said.
“How do you know all this? Are you a chef, love?”
“No, but I like cooking. I did an Indian cookery course last year so I know a little about it,” she said.
“You seem to know a lot about it. I like it hot.”
“You can add more spices to make the dish as mild or spicy as you like,” she said.
“Definitely not mild. I like a spicy dish,” he said.
“Most men seem to have a palate that tolerates spicier food than women.”
“That course was great fun. It was at the local tech. You should look it up on the internet. They might still be running it. They usually start a new course after Christmas. I learned so much about cooking Indian food. Everyone was really nice. We cooked a different dish each week. Do you know ‘Tandoor’ on the Bristol Road?”
“Yes, I’ve been there loads of times.”
“Well, it was the guy who is the head chef there who took the course, Sanjeev Rashid, lovely guy. So it really was authentic. He used to tell me off each week for chopping my onions the wrong way. Who’d ever have thought there were so many ways to chop onions? And so many types – red ones, white ones, Spanish ones and shallots. The large Spanish ones were the worst. My tears were tripping me when I chopped them. According to him you have to chop them different sizes depending on the dish you’re making. He certainly knows his onions – and all his spices. I used to chop them as big as possible as chopping onions always makes my eyes water and I wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.”
“You seem to know your onions, and your spices too love. I’m sure you could teach me a thing or two.”
She smiled as she remembered it had been more than onions making her cry this time last year, but the onions had been a good excuse to blame for her tears, dropping into the meal she was making in the class, adding a bit more saltiness with each tear drop. Sanjeev hadn’t told her off, even though she knew it broke every food hygiene rule in the book. He’d just smiled kindly, clearly knowing the difference between onion induced tears and those brought on by a broken heart. As each week passed her tears had lessened. She put it down to perfecting her onion chopping skills, rather than her broken heart starting to heal.
He selected a jar of tikka masala mix and a jar of turmeric and put them into his basket.
“I love Indian food. It’s so much healthier when you cook it all from scratch. Don’t forget your onions,” she said.
“Which sort should I use?”
“I’d recommend starting with the large Spanish ones. I’ve found they’re best for disguising heartache.”
“Sounds just what I need, love,” he said.
“You should try that cookery course. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I made new friends – real people. I love calling into see Sanjeev in the restaurant now to swap recipes.”
“Ok. Thanks for the advice. Maybe I will.”
“Don’t listen to everything I’ve said. Good luck with the cooking and your date with Paprika tomorrow night. Maybe I’ll see you back here in a few weeks buying more spices to cook for her again. Maybe you’ll have signed up for that course.”
“I hope so, love. I might, but then, maybe I could cook dinner for you?” he asked.
“When you’ve got the flavour right, I might like that,” she said, smiling back at him.
“Maybe you could help me with it.”
“Maybe I could. But what about Paprika? What will she think?”
“I think I’ll give paprika and Paprika a miss. I’ll go for something with a more distinct flavour that can bring out the best in the dish. I’ll focus on cooking what I like.”
“That’s important. You’ll enjoy it more then.”
“I’ll have fun experimenting in the kitchen. See you back here then.”
January wasn’t looking so bleak after all she thought, as she stood in the checkout queue and set her onions and spices on the conveyor belt.