(by Neema Avashia)
On my annual pilgrimage to Tudor’s Biscuit World—undoubtedly one of the Seven (Culinary) Wonders of the World for West Virginians—I ordered my usual: a giant, fluffy, buttery biscuit and a bowl of fried apples. The glistening apples in a brown melamine bowl reminded me of the same dish I'd seen countless times on my family’s red- and blue-flecked melamine plates, alongside the other components of a traditional Gujarati meal: daal (lentils), bhaat (rice), shaak (spiced vegetables), and rotli (a thin, buttered flatbread)—DBSR, for short.
I’d never questioned this composition as a child. We often ate murabbo, a cardamom-saffron-mango relish, with our meals. Gujarati cooking is based on the premise of balancing sweet, salty, sour, and spicy, and all meals hold these four flavors. The apples just seemed like another kind of murabbo to me. But here I was at a fast food joint, realizing for the first time that those apples were one of my mom’s many attempts to merge, on our plates, her life in India with our lives in West Virginia.
The DSBR of my parents’ youth in India was our standard dinner Sunday through Thursday, but the weekend brought vestiges of their short stint in New York City. My father had left India to pursue his dream of being a doctor, and perhaps, also, to explore a life less dictated by Indian societal expectations. My mom, who had also dreamed of coming to America for college, followed shortly after their wedding. They thrived in the multiculturalism of their apartment complex in Jamaica, Queens, and the culinary diversity of The City.
When my dad was hired as the physician at the Union Carbide Corporation, they moved to West Virginia. From then on, Fridays were pizza nights, with crust brought home from the company cafeteria and homemade sauce whose recipe involved a traditional Gujarati vaghaar —sautéing mustard seed, oregano, and red chili flakes in oil before adding in the tomatoes. Though try as they might, my parents always expressed remorse that their pizza didn’t live up to Singha’s Famous Pizza in Queens. Saturdays were for taco salad. And Sundays were for falafel, with Kroger’s creamy cucumber dressing substituting for tzatziki, and homemade salsa substituting for the red hot sauce that every New York falafel cart carried.
As my sister and I got older, my mom became more enmeshed in the culture of our new community. She traded her saris for skirts, joined the board for the local library, took up quilting, earned her CPA, worked for an accounting firm, and silenced her Gujarati in public because of the shame my sister and I expressed. Her forays into non-Gujarati cooking grew more expansive. She developed a small group of foodie friends: Mrs. Bupp, Mrs. Warren, Mrs. Rosenberg, and Mrs. McGovern, who were brave enough to invite a vegetarian Indian family over to their houses for dinner, and relished the opportunity to come to ours. Our many meals together furthered my mom’s explorations of cooking far outside the parameters she’d been raised with. Calico casserole, Moroccan tagine with couscous, and ratatouille all appeared on our dinner table, with the same kind of ease that my mom exudes whenever she meets someone new.
Throughout these explorations, I was sitting at the table, partially working on homework, and partially absorbing all of her successes and mishaps as a cook. Certainly, I spent many nights watching her roll out rotli, toast it on the skillet, puff it over the flame, and coat it with butter. But I also watched her fry eggplant for her eggplant parm. And later, as she and my dad traveled more widely, I marveled as she returned from trips abroad and taught herself to make Ethiopian injera or Sri Lankan string hoppers (lacy rice noodles) to share with us.
Disconnected from her homeland, I like to think that cooking was my mom’s way of connecting with her family, with her West Virginia neighbors, and with the world more broadly. In adulthood, my cooking style has come to emulate hers, both in level of experimentation, and in expansiveness. Like her, I cook to connect. And often, when I am stuck for creative inspiration or instructions, my first resource is my mom. But between us, there are no recipes, really. There are just the flavors—salty, sweet, spicy, and sour—that we seek to balance in our food, and perhaps in life.
Neema Avashia is a teacher in the Boston Public Schools.
1/2 c. butter, cubed
6 tart apples, sliced but not peeled
3/4 c. sugar, divided
1 t. cinnamon
Melt butter in a deep saucepan.
Add apples and half of the sugar, and cook over low heat until tender, about 15 - 20 minutes.
Add remaining sugar and cinnamon, and cook for 5 - 10 more minutes.
Serve immediately, with biscuits or rotli.
Keri No Murabbo (Raw Mango Relish)
2 large mangoes, grated
1 big pinch saffron threads
4 c. sugar
5 or 6 cloves
small piece of cinnamon bark
1/2 t. cardamom powder
Try to squeeze as much liquid as possible from the grated mango.
Collect the mango water in a bowl, and soak the saffron threads in it.
In a stainless steel pan, combine grated mango and sugar, and mix well.
Put the pan on low heat and cook, stirring continuously.
First the mango mixture will get watery as the sugar dissolves, but it will thicken.
Once the syrup thickens, add the saffron-soaked water, and turn off the heat.
Add the cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom.
Let the mixture cool completely, and store in a sterile jar.
Keep in a cool, dry place.