Top | Kitchen Limbo

Passage to India

(article, Carrie Floyd)

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Since my first samosa, I have loved Indian food. Growing up in small towns in the Pacific Northwest, I had limited exposure to ethnic cuisine: sweet-and-sour pork (emphasis on the sweet) at Chinese restaurants, and, uh, pizza. Though trips to the Portland Saturday Market revealed knishes and pad Thai, it wasn’t until I went away to college that I got my first taste of India.  

My first year in the dorms, I befriended a woman whose parents were from India. Ruchi would often go home on weekends and return with food cooked by her mother, food to stave off the hunger induced by the dismal offerings at the campus cafeteria. On one of those Sunday evenings, she was kind enough to share the wealth with me. Later that year I went home with her one weekend, and ate some of the best food I had ever tasted. 

When I moved to Portland, I was thrilled to find the restaurant Kashmir within blocks of my apartment. Here I tried pappadums and vindaloo, sipped mango lassis and fell in love with spiced tea. At another Portland restaurant, Indigine, the owner reserved Saturday nights for her variations on East Indian food, pairing paneer (hers a homemade goat cheese) with winter squash, and tandoori chicken with apricot chutney. In time, both of these restaurants closed, and though I sampled the wares of other places, I was often disappointed with food that sat too long in steam tables and dishes that tasted too similar. 

[%image spices float=left width=400 caption="Moni organized her spices in small bowls like these, which of course appealed to me, collector of small bowls that I am."] 

During this time, a piece of paper came into my hands; my friend Catherine knew how much I liked Indian food, and passed on a recipe from her friend Shivi. The recipe included ginger, tomatoes, coconut milk, cardamom, cumin, fresh mint and cilantro — an intriguing blend of both familiar and less familiar ingredients.  A trip to the downtown International Market, a store I had entered (lured by the intoxicating smells from the street) but not patronized, produced the necessary spices. 

Shivi’s chicken was the gateway to a new kind of cooking: Spicy but not hot, complex-tasting but not difficult to make, satisfying in the way that tasty, healthy food always is. 

This was just the beginning. I bought Madhur Jaffrey’s World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking and made Very Spicy Delicious Chickpeas and they were very, very good. I tried my hand at raitas — yogurt salads — and chutneys and was blown away by how a few ingredients put together in a new-to-me combination could produce something so beguiling: Green beans with mustard seeds, beets smothered in beet greens, dal with coconut milk, pineapple chutney, peaches with sugar and black pepper. 

The summer I made lime pickles — devoting a month to tending a jar of limes filled with salt, cumin, and black pepper, shaking the jar before setting it on a sunny ledge to spend the day — I knew I was hooked. (I ate as many of those limes out-of-hand as I did on a plate next to dal or curry.)

I acquired a few more cookbooks, another by Jaffrey, and a couple by Julie Sahni. I planned dinner parties and spent days reading recipes, shopping, making chutney, and cooking. I began amassing a collection of what my husband now refers to, not altogether kindly, as those little bowls.

It’s the little bowls that embody my affection for Indian food — eclectic and colorful, distinct and complementary, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. 

Recently I was invited to a cooking class where I remembered not only how much I like, but also miss, cooking and eating Indian food. I confess that, since having kids, I’ve cooked very little Indian food, thinking it took too much time and the chances of the kids liking it too low. But watching the instructor, Moni, gracefully cook a meal — of lemon rice, aloo gobi masala (mixed vegetables), tandoori chicken, and raita with green beans and curry leaves — I realized that, like most things, breaking the task into smaller parts makes the task itself less daunting. 

Advance prep alleviates the pressure-cooker feeling of pulling together a multi-dimensional meal in a short amount of time. When some of us marveled how quickly certain dishes came together, Moni reminded us that she had spent time the night before chopping onions and ginger, squeezing lemon and lime juice, and measuring spices.


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All cooking requires preparation, but how that time is organized can make a huge difference in the experience. Crock-pot cooking, after all, isn’t without prep. Instead, the process simply dictates that the cook separates the prep time from dinner time. All the crock pot does is cook the food slowly over a long period of time. Because the cook peeled and chopped the food earlier in the day (when he or she was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, rather than tired and hungry), there's less to do when dinner hour rolls around. 

For me, days spent cooking all day for a single meal are gone. There are too many demands and desires in my current life to clock in that many hours in the kitchen. But that doesn’t mean that Indian food is no longer an option. 

Inspired by the delicious food I ate at the class, a couple of weeks later I suggested to some friends that we make Indian food. One friend made spiced rice, dal, and warmed-up naan from the store. Another friend prepared beets and baked a coconut cake with lemon curd. I made mango-lime cocktails, tandoori chicken, and raita. Our combined efforts were a feast, without the burden of cooking falling on one person.

Later that week, I tried a different approach: Tandoori chicken, plain rice, steamed green beans, and store-bought chutney. The same chicken, two different meals; one a feast, the other simply dinner. And both were delicious. 

As for the kids: Let them eat rice! And if they’re hungry enough to venture a spoon into a bowl of raita or put a tandoori drumstick on their plate, I’m happy to share.

p(bio). Carrie Floyd is the Culinate food editor.

Elsewhere on Culinate: Sona Pai's article on cilantro, as well as her story of making curry as a housewarming gift to herself. Also, book reviews of Madhur Jaffrey's autobiography, Climbing the Mango Trees, and her cookbook Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking.

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