I was raised on an all-Indian diet.
That means roti bread on the weekdays with spicy lentils and braised vegetables, and the same on the weekends, except the addition of some sweet mitai dessert squares after dinner to cool the spice off our tongues. It was a bit of an unfortunate circumstance, because as it turns out, I couldn’t exactly stomach spicy foods. A disappointment to my mother, I’m sure, who had to resort to cooking two versions of the same meal just to get our culture’s food down my mouth.
What can I say? I preferred pasta.
Unsurprisingly, my first few months at Brown were a paradise for my spice-numbed tongue. Pasta, fries, burgers, and if I was feeling adventurous, maybe a piece of crisp lettuce or two. The home-cooked vegetables at home were shriveled and bare from their violent frying, and then just about waterlogged with spices as if to try and bring some life back to them. As far as I was concerned, that wasn’t something you had to worry about with mashed potatoes.
I’m across the country right now, and with food so deeply entrenched in all cultures, it was easy to delineate a “there” from a “here.” My mother’s cooking was reserved for Thanksgiving and winter break, and at Brown, I ate very differently. I’m sure at least one of my ancestors is quaking in the grave– “Purvi—we give her life and she like white people food? Put some turmeric on that!”
And before I get asked this—Kabob and Curry isn’t real home-cooked Indian food. Unfortunately. Trust me, if those cream-based, oil-laden dishes had been on my dining table instead of sad shriveled spinach, I doubt I’d be writing this article right now.
Then, the unthinkable.
I was FaceTiming my high school friend back home, talking about tattoos (as one does). We’d had the conversation about a hundred times before, because tattoos were one of those things you always talked about yet never commit to. But this time, this time, she’d committed. “I want, like, an elephant on my shoulder—right here—with an outline of India around it. It’s just sort of like, reminding me of the culture and my cousins and where we came from; you wouldn’t understand. You don’t even like the food—you’re practically not Indian.”
The fact that I was still thinking, almost guiltily, about the conversation a week afterwards sealed the deal. Something had to be done.
“It’s not my fault,” I complained to another friend, Parvati. “I like pasta. Kabob and Curry isn’t real Indian food. Where would I even get actual spices?”
Those were all excuses, and she knew it, and she laid it bare before me:
- I had Ratty pasta literally every single day, and it wouldn’t hurt to take a 24-hour break.
- We didn’t have to go to Kabob and Curry, we could:
- Get all the ingredients from Not Just Spices and cook something in her kitchen, because she’d been blessed by the housing lottery with a Young Orchard suite. And also:
- She was free Saturday for dinner, so we could go for it all then.
Her retorts were ironclad, and my fate was sealed.
Not Just Spices is an Indian grocery store on Hope Street. The first thing I discovered was that they had real mangos. Not the Safeway kind, but the plump, ripe, sweet-to-the-point-of-sickly mangos. The storeowner, maybe noticing the very confused new face in his store, cut a piece from one and let me have it right then and there.
Or maybe it was a marketing technique, because I hadn’t tasted a mango like that since I’d gone to India in sixth grade, and promptly ordered him to ring me up a box of ten.
The store itself was small, crammed into a corner lot. The smells were overpowering; lentils and Indian flours and samosas and, of course, spices galore. There was a whole wall dedicated to them, a rainbow of fiery reds and golds and purples. I recognized those same smells, the same cramped aisles and over-stuffed shelves, from the Indian grocery store back in Fremont, the one my mother would drag me into in exchange for getting a Krispy Kreme glazed donut across the parking lot. Though there was no Krispy Kreme in sight, I stayed; I hadn’t been homesick in a while, but the aromas and colors and textures struck a chord with me that made me wonder if I was, just a little bit.
That being said, I let Parvati handle purchasing the ingredients. She knew more than I did about that stuff. We left with a bundle of tomatoes, a bag of lentils, a small sack of whole-wheat flour, and a heavy box of ten ripe red mangos.
The kitchen at Young Orchard was everything the housing lottery gods could bestow upon a student, but I was worried about Parvati’s roommates—it had been a constant worry of mine back home, when my non-Indian friends would walk through our door and immediately crinkle up their noses and pretend to gag. The smells from the kitchen always stuck to everything, the walls, the carpets, even us.
But I needn’t have worried. Two of them were out, and the other actually seemed interested and came over to watch what was going on.
My task was easy: make roti. After aggressively SnapChatting the friend who had prompted my odyssey “I DO THIS EVERY WEEK,” I pulled up a YouTube tutorial and tried to watch. My mother had never taught me; the only thing I knew about rotis was that they were like flatbread: thin and circular. Oh, and that if your rotis weren’t round, you apparently would never get married.
It didn’t seem that hard. Just water, flour, and a couple spices (duh) shaped into balls and then spread thin with a rolling pin. Parvati took the much harder task of making a lentil soup while I started mixing.
Once, I tried to learn how to French-braid my hair. It was a similar process to this: watch a YouTube tutorial that made it look easy, then completely fail to make anything even remotely resembling a French braid. I couldn’t get the right consistency. The dough was thick and stuck to my fingers even as Rani Aunty on YouTube was deftly rolling them into uniform balls and dropping them into a pile. Mines didn’t look like balls. They looked like lumps with a bad hair day. I was cursing, Parvati was laughing, her roommate was laughing, and then I was laughing too, because how the hell did Rani Aunty make this look so easy? How did my mother make this look so easy?
I decided that if I was going to be rolling them flat, it didn’t matter much what they looked like beforehand, so I skipped the video to that step and brandished the rolling pin I had found in Parvati’s pantry.
Instead of sticking to my fingers, the dough now stuck to the rolling pin. Or it didn’t stick at all, and was rolled too thin until it was littered with holes the size of my thumbs. “You got the easy job,” I told Parvati, whose lentil soup was looking just about exactly how it was supposed to look. Bubbling, golden red, swimming with beans and tomatoes, smelling like Not Just Spices and home, too.
But I was determined as I fired up the pan and tossed each malformed roti onto the oiled surface. The hard part was over, after all; flipping something over a pan couldn’t be any different from doing the same with pancakes. Or so I thought, until my first over-enthusiastic flip tore the roti in two, one half flipped and the other half still stuck to the pan. I was gentler and more patient the next time.
None of the rotis in the finished stack were perfectly round, so I suppose I’ll die single. But one of them was a dead ringer for the map of Australia, and that was way cooler.
It was strangely a nice feeling to bring some small bit of home here, the same way I had brought high school photos and the California keychain on my backpack. I thought about that more than the food itself as I dove in to the daal, which was a mistake, because I immediately shot up, out of my seat as if I had sat on hot coals, and sprinted to the sink.
“What happened?” Parvati gasped. She had taste-tested the daal before she put it on the table and was sure it wasn’t poisonous.
“Sp—sp,” I couldn’t make a full sentence as I stuck my tongue under the cold water. When I finally emerged, spluttering and gasping, I choked out something that was supposed to sound like, “Wasn’t expecting how spicy it would be, my mouth was on fire—nothing against the taste though, it’s really good.”
It didn’t sound like that, I’m sure. The months of pasta had diminished any spice tolerance I may have had.
But I wasn’t lying to her. It tasted quite nice, almost exactly the same as the daal I’d had the night before flying to Providence for the start of my freshman year. Except back then, I hadn’t realized what a blessing it was to have the familiar sharper-than-sharp flavors and the colors and the sounds as we were making it. It was like looking at an old photograph.
Then Parvati, upon sampling the roti, carefully chewed, swallowed, and said, “You know, it’s actually not bad.”
Sometimes, that’s all you need.
Photograph by Jessica Spengler