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The Lunchbox Trade

(by Priya Bhandari)

I cannot stop bragging about my mom. She's my hero. She taught me self-discipline and endurance at a very young age.

When I was growing up in New Delhi, she was offered a position in the office where my dad worked as a finance manager, but she turned down the opportunity to take care of the family. Back then I didn't understand the importance of that decision. But now I can see the results.

We spent a lot of time together doing yoga, art work, and cooking. And I was always blown away by her dedication—made even more remarkable by a family tragedy, a robbery that took my father's life, almost killed my mother, and left her with physical and emotional disability. For years, we kind of lost our mom and were so grateful for her recovery. And seeing the strength required made me a stronger person too.

(with my mom and younger sister)

Any time I asked, “How did you make this delicious meal?" her answer was, “I made it with love—that’s all you need to do, and it will turn out better than you ever imagine.” Her cooking made her famous beyond our family, even at my school. My classmates would ask to exchange lunches so they could enjoy my mom’s home-cooked meals. Sometimes I got lucky about the trade; sometimes I just sighed and said, “You can have my lunchbox.” For any kind of school ceremonies, my teachers would ask me to bring something from home because they knew my mom's reputation for perfect deliciousness.

But if you ask her, she would say she's just average. According to her, perfection means some lofty professional level of expertise, like being a chef in a fancy restaurant. I’ve told her, “No, you can be a fabulous cook and choose to feed your family and the neighborhood around you.” But she never got that.

On the day that I left for the United States to attend graduate school, I was worried about leaving my mom. She insisted that my education was her dream too, and I should do it for her. I agreed, but missed her food so much that I started taking cooking lessons from her over Skype. It has helped me to make conscious healthy choices, on an affordable budget.

Actually, just thinking about her dishes is almost like having them on my tongue.


Priya Bhandari has a master’s degree in environmental engineering. She is the author of The Good Healing: My Guide to Overcoming Fear After Trauma. She lives in New Jersey and now works as an actress; she can be found @wateryblue04.

Kadai Paneer

2 T. coconut or olive oil

1/2 t. cumin seeds

3 cloves

1/2 stick cinnamon or 1/4 t. cinnamon powder

1 large red onion, chopped

1 T. grated fresh ginger

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 t. chili powder

optional: 1 t. turmeric

1 1/2 t. ground coriander

1 large red or green pepper

2 large or 4 small tomatoes, chopped

1 T. fenugreek leaves

14 oz. paneer cheese, cubed (available at Asian markets)

salt, to taste

Heat oil in a pan, and add cumin seeds, cloves, and cinnamon.

When they start to sizzle, add onion and cook until softened.

Add ginger and garlic paste, and cook for 1 minute.

Add chili powder, optional turmeric, and coriander powder.

Add chopped bell peppers and tomatoes, and cook for about 5 minutes.

Add paneer and salt, stirring.

Serves 4 – 6.


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