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I Think of My Grandfather Every Time I Make Kofta

“You were always his favorite,” my grandmother says, when I bring him up now, and I hate how good it feels to hear that, because he was my favorite, too.

When he got sick, really sick, I went to Nairobi and sat by his bedside in the hospital. He’d say my name cheerfully when I came in, making the T soft, as it’s meant to be, following with a string of nicknames he had for me like some kind of royal title. But then he’d get quiet. He was tired, and sometimes confused. I brought him his brown resin comb and combed his silver hair in a deep side part, the way he combed it his entire life. I fed him a gelatinous goat-trotter broth, sent over by my auntie, one spoon at a time, sometimes waiting a minute between bites for him to signal that he was ready for more. He called me by my mother’s name. He fell asleep.

He died six years ago, but in my earliest memories of my grandfather, he’s drinking whiskey out of a beautiful glass. He’s pulling a clean handkerchief from his pocket and pressing it to my watering eye. He’s laughing from his belly like an evil cartoon character. But mostly he’s cooking — browning English sausages for us in the morning before a road trip, taking his time so every single link is evenly browned all over, with no lines. He’s frying lamb kofta in a wide, scratched saucepan — the meatballs spherical, each one the same size, then carefully transporting them to a pot of tomato sauce.

He was known, within a wide circle of family and friends, for this dish, and for making it on request. He emailed me the recipe when I was in my early 20s — that was when we emailed each other a lot. I followed the directions as closely I could, but the dish wasn’t as good as his. Not because of the veneer of nostalgia. Not because he was the kind of cook guided by instinct, or the kind who withheld his technique — he did, in fact, measure things, and when he was asked for a recipe, he gladly shared those measurements. I think his kofta was better because he was really good, better than most other people, and definitely better than me, at every step of the dish. He paid attention. He cared. And that’s that.

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