Until fate plucked her from India and dropped her in Zambia, in the middle of Africa, when she was barely 30 years old, my mother had never cooked a meal in her life. She had spent most of her childhood in boarding school and at college; and when she went home, she buried her nose in books while her mother, my grandmother, told the cook what to make for lunch.
But although she struggled at first in Zambia-guests wept at our first dinner party because she put too many chilies in the chicken curry-my mother was determined to learn how to cook the foods of her home. She was a teacher at our school, and every day my father picked us all up to go home for lunch, an unwavering South Indian one of rice, a dry vegetable, a vegetable curry, yogurt and pickle. Like many Indians (and indeed, many of the other ethnic groups living in Lusaka, Zambia-Greeks, Lebanese, Croatians), we unpacked our culture with our suitcases wherever we went. My mother wore a sari to work every day, my sister and I studied classical Indian dance after school, and we socialized with a large and gregarious group of other expatriates from the same region in India.
I can see my parents clearly in the kitchen of our house in Lusaka at night, my dad with a Scotch-and-water in his hand, my mother with her hair in a messy bun, making dinner as the sounds of traffic and children playing outside quieted to a thick African stillness. Sometimes they’d pore over handwritten recipes to re-create complicated delicacies like elayada, rice flour pancakes wrapped around a sweet jaggery (coarse brown sugar), coconut and plantain mixture and steamed in a banana leaf. My sister and I, who would rather have eaten bakery sausage rolls or pepper steak from Lusaka Club anyway, couldn’t have cared less. We’d tear reluctant eyes from Zambia’s one TV channel or a book and taste their offerings without much interest.
I didn’t realize then what I have come to learn now: They weren’t cooking just to feed us; they were cooking to give us a link, however tenuous, to family and a life left far behind. And I certainly never dreamed in those days that history would repeat itself, and that someday I would be a stranger in a new land doing exactly what my mother did: standing in front of a stove, trying to wrestle meaning-and Indian meals-out of cookbooks.
The farther away I travel from the food of my childhood, the more it’s come to mean to me, and the closer it’s become bound
with memories of home and that sprawling network of family I once took for granted. Every other year, my parents, sister and I would fly from Zambia to spend two months in Kerala. The southernmost state in India, wedged between sea and mountains, Kerala is a medley of blue from the backwaters and distant hilltops and green from the forests and rice fields. For the past several centuries, my family has spread out in the lush, spice-rich Malabar District here, scattered from the bustling 14th- century port city of Calicut to the sleepy inland town of Nilambur. From the airport, we drove through noisy roads until we turned into the quiet, walled lane where my paternal grandparents lived, in an old-fashioned two-story house surrounded by coconut trees.
They’d all be waiting for us there-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, longtime servants, their numbers diminishing as the years pass-with smiles and cries of how tall my sister and I had grown. After we shyly accepted our relatives’ riotous affection, the eating would begin. Our cook, Gangadharan, presided over wood fires in the kitchen, producing breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner every day for three generations of our family. We started each morning with stacks of crispy doshas and idlis, plump feathery-soft rice dumplings. We’d sit at the table, groaning, stuffed but unable to keep ourselves from following the admonitions to "eat, eat, eat!" There were other things my sister and I loved-a slice of coconut wheedled from Gangadharan between meals; tart tamarind left to dry in the sun; mangoes, which we’d eat leaning over the verandah, juice dripping onto the ground below; lumps of hard sugar candy we’d steal with our cousins from my grandmother’s cupboard.
My Hindu grandparents were strictly vegetarian (no eggs, even), but my parents weren’t, and during forays to town we’d savor the benefits of living in a state with large Muslim and Christian populations. Our uncles and aunts, delighted to have us for two months, lavished us with illicit food. My oldest uncle took us to eat breaded and spiced mutton cutlets in tea rooms, where you could sit with the rabble in the "non a/c" area, or retire with the gentility, as we did, in the glass-walled air-conditioned section. One aunt’s cook made us butter chicken; another aunt’s sister-in-laws produced fiery beef ularthiyathu, simmered with onions, ginger, garlic, peppercorns and cloves and so tender it dissolved in our mouth. My youngest uncle, sheathed in a raincoat because of the monsoon downpours, drove on his motorcycle to a seedy restaurant downtown and brought home delectable pathiris and fish molee: flaky, layered bread and fish simmered in a rich coconut sauce. Another stopped on the way home from work to bring us parcels of Cadbury’s chocolate éclairs with gooey centers from a roadside stall, wrapped in newspaper bound with twine.
We loved to retreat to the Malabar Hotel for lunch, after hectic mornings spent weaving through pedestrians, auto-rickshaws and cars to shop along busy S.M. Street-it stands for Sweet Meat Street, named for the many shops that sell the town’s famous halwa. We’d spend hours in the sari shops where my mother-and years later, I, a bride-to-be-deliberated as assistants spread out yards of vivid silks, cottons and georgettes in a rainbow of fabric. With bags full of things we couldn’t buy in Africa-books, pencil cases and hair ribbons, and, as we grew older: pots of kohl, Nivea cream and costume jewelry-we’d sink into the hotel’s plush chairs and dig into mounds of spice-rubbed crispy fish fry and prawn masala. Feasting on biriyani, slow cooked layers of buttery rice and tender spiced chicken, my sister and I would drink in the gossip between my mother and aunt about far-flung family members from the Middle East to the Midwest.
Even today, warm, drowsy afternoons inevitably turn my mind to Nilambur, my mother’s ancestral home amidst teak forests. Near where a flight of crumbling stone steps descends to the river was our house, a large block of mellow stone set behind a circular driveway and overgrown garden. There, after lunches heavy with rice, we slipped into darkened bedrooms, and for two hot hours every afternoon, the whole house slept, dulled by the heat. We’d wake up with bangles imprinted on cheeks where a face was pressed on an outstretched arm, to the sound of the bell announcing tea from the kitchen. Descending on the trestle table in the dining table-often joined by relatives who drop by and stay for a meal, a night, a couple of days-we’d drink tea and munch on sweet golden ball-shaped ladoos, caramelized bananas, syrupy orange jalebis, fried banana and jackfruit chips or puff pastries stuffed with a spicy potato mixture that the bakery boy brought by on his bicycle.
Our aunts and grandmothers pressed homemade mango and lime pickle, packets of hard sugar candy and slabs of homemade peanut brittle on us. We took them all, not wanting to refuse any of the gifts so painstakingly made and lovingly given, taking hours to wrap and seal everything tightly for the hours-long plane ride back. We knew that once we were far away, the parcels would evoke memories that keep us going until the next visit: of my grandmother pruning roses in the steamy heat; of walking to the temple at dusk as the sound of a conch horn filled the purple air; of damp bathrooms that smelled of sandalwood soap and smoky water heated on a wood fire; of cuddly babies who would be walking and talking the next time we see them; of loud banter and laughter as we played rummy on the verandah until past midnight, rain pouring into the darkness beyond the oblong of light we cast into the garden.
By the time I left Africa for college in the United States, I was eager to move in a larger world and savor new experiences-and tastes. The day I left, my father gave me packages of Indian snacks to take with me; I thanked him, but I was much more excited about the American food-including the famous McDonald’s hamburgers!-I would soon be eating. As an undergraduate in Texas, I happily learned to devour brownies at midnight, doughnuts for breakfast and Tex-Mex food when I wanted something spicier. Still, every now and then, I’d notice the neglected stack of white plastic boxes of snacks in a corner of my dorm room, and the image of my dad sitting on my bedroom floor in Zambia, wrapping the food in layers of plastic and tape, would force a lump of homesickness into my throat.
I met Nik, my husband, at grad school in Iowa and we moved to Chicago after graduation to be near his family, who had immigrated here from Gujarat, a state in western India with a completely different language, cuisine and customs from mine. In those first awkward months, food served in lieu of language with my mother-in-law. She recited ingredients as she cooked and I quickly learned the Gujarati words for hot, cold, salt, sugar, garlic, sour, sweet. One of the first Gujarati phrases I learned was, "Have you eaten?"
After three icy Midwestern winters, Nik found a new job and we moved to Florida. I found a job and we made friends, but it wasn’t until recently, after we bought our first house, that I’ve begun to see my life here as more than a temporary adventure. Despite having lived here for 10 years, like many foreigners, I referred constantly to an idealized, frozen-in-time "back home."
But now, as we paint the half-empty rooms of our new house, I slowly begin to realize that while I was busy getting degrees, finding jobs and making friends, this country has quietly become home. It’s not an easy realization: It brings a rootless feeling of being adrift, at first liberating, then terrifying. Somehow, by ourselves, we’ll have to create all the roots and connections and memories that made our childhood homes such rich and multi-layered sources of solace and security. And to do that, I find myself turning, ironically, to the place where I am least capable: my kitchen.
Our first night in our new house, I follow a Kerala tradition of inaugurating a new home by boiling a small pot of milk. I begin to browse shelves in Indian grocery shops to look at spices and vegetables, some of which I had never seen in their raw form before. It’s like playing house, in a way, and like all beginner cooks, I’m amazed at the alchemy that transforms a handful of wizened spices, knobby roots and limp, cellophane-covered chicken breasts into something fragrant and edible and so wonderfully familiar.
I pester my mother and my aunt in Toronto to e-mail me recipes. They laugh at my dependence on precise measurements and step-by-step recipes, and I howl with frustration when my mother e-mails things like, "oh, add some salt," or "fry till it smells nice." How much salt? I type back furiously as we chat online. How many minutes before I should anticipate the nice smell? I despair when an attempt to cook one of the archetypal meals of my childhood-crispy rice-and-lentil crepes called dosas, drizzled in ghee and served with coconut chutney and a savory lentil and vegetable stew-ends in disaster.
But I persevere, and slowly, successes begin to outpace failures. I e-mail my parents details; they write back with advice or praise, or joke about it during our weekly phone calls. I describe my attempts in a now more proficient Gujarati to my delighted mother-in-law over the phone. I even find myself taking bites of food and saying things like, "hmm, a bit too much cumin in here." I’m driven to recreate the aromas, the textures, the flavors-driven to taste home.
That urge woke me up early on a recent Sunday when my sister was visiting from Des Moines, to cook one of our favorite dishes: beef slow-cooked with garlic, ginger, onions, cloves, cinnamon and lots of black pepper. We had attempted this years before in Iowa, trying to make it for lunch before getting ready to see Rent that night. Morning turned into afternoon, and we despairingly realized that we’d be lucky if it was done in time for dinner. We ended up grabbing a sandwich before sidling into our seats at the theater, reeking embarrassingly of spices that wouldn’t be washed away.
This time, however, everything works.
As sunlight skims the surface of the pond behind our lanai, I blend ginger-garlic paste and slice onions, then sauté them in oil flavored with cinnamon and cloves. I add chopped tomatoes and handfuls of mint and coriander leaves. Throw in the cubed beef, add the salt, and turn on the pressure cooker that a friend’s mother, admonishing me for my husband’s underfed appearance, had brought back for me from India. My sister wanders downstairs, happy to see sunshine in December, and turns on MTV. Nik makes tea and spreads out the Sunday papers. We make plans to go shopping later and visit a friend’s new baby. The pressure cooker whistles, sending a heady aroma through the house. The rice cooker turns off.
My sister and husband migrate over to the kitchen table. I sauté sliced onions, finely chopped garlic and green chilies, pour in the stew and turn up the heat. I sprinkle crushed black pepper and toss in coriander leaves, and heat up the frozen parathas we bought from the Indian shop.
Still in our pajamas, we sit at the dining table, the fan on full blast and the window open to let out the strong smell of cooking. For a few minutes, there’s no talking as we dig in. I look around, and the scene is so familiar-half-empty dishes cluttering the table, fingers inelegantly covered with food, cold water in steel glasses beaded with moisture-all wrapped in lazy swirls of conversation that loop around without a care for time or urgency. I think about other times eating this meal at other tables, overlooking other views: the Toronto skyline at my aunt and uncle’s apartment, the courtyards at my grandparents’ houses in Kerala, our sun-drenched lawn in Zambia, a quiet suburban street in Chicago.
With our penchant for change, I know that this new house Nik and I are so passionately decorating won’t be home forever. But the essence of home-family, sustenance and the unfading affection of those here and far away-surrounds us. It’s something no change of address can obscure, ready to be brought to life by a single meal.
2-inch stick of cinnamon, broken into little pieces
Three onions, sliced
3-inch stick of ginger
About 14 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon meat masala (available at Indian groceries)
1 large tomato, chopped.
1 bunch mint leaves, chopped
2 bunches cilantro/coriander leaves, chopped
1 1/2 pounds cubed beef stew meat
salt to taste
1-2 fresh green chilies, chopped finely
A quarter cup of water
Quarter cup of oil
1. Peel and coarsely chop 12 cloves of garlic and all the ginger, and blend with about a spoonful of water into a thick paste.
2. On medium heat, heat half the oil in the bottom of a pressure cooker. Sauté cloves and cinnamon.
3. Add half the sliced onions. Fry until the ends turn brown.
4. Add the ginger-garlic paste, and sauté everything for about a minute. Don’t turn the heat up too high because the paste sucks up most of the moisture and makes everything stick to the bottom of the cooker.
5. Mix in the chili, turmeric, cumin and coriander powders. Add the fresh black pepper and meat masala, stirring constantly.
6. Add the chopped tomatoes and mix well. Put in the mint leaves and one bunch of chopped coriander leaves. Cook until it gets all mushy, probably a minute or two.
7. Put in the beef, about a spoonful of salt, and a tiny amount of water. A quarter cup will do.
8. Shut the lid of the pressure cooker, and leave it on medium heat for about four whistles. Make sure you wait for the cooker to stop hissing before opening it. Everything should be cooked into a thick stew and the beef should be tender enough to fall apart when poked with a wooden spoon.
9. Finely chop the remaining two cloves of garlic. In a separate wok or large, deep pan, sauté garlic, chopped green chilies and remaining half of sliced onions.When the onions start turning brown, pour in the stew from the pressure cooker. Mix everything well.
10. Add the other bunch of chopped coriander and stir. Grind fresh black pepper (and salt if you need more) over the stew, and turn up the heat to boil away extra liquid.
11. An excellent accompaniment is parathas, a flaky, layered bread that is available at most Asian grocery shops.