In my childhood, I took my mother’s cooking for granted. My siblings and I used to joke about fighting for the seat next to the garbage can at dinner so that we could hide the food in our napkins and throw it away when Mom and Dad weren’t looking. We always complained, “Not Indian food again,” hoping for pasta or pizza. But Mom, despite working two to three retail jobs at a time, miraculously found time to cook homemade Indian meals. Most were subsis, or vegetable curries, served with a side of roti or chapatti. But when my parents hosted guests, Mom would go all out and make six-course Indian banquets, with her award-winning tandoori chicken (the award was given to her by the Indian Association of Indianapolis) and homemade kulfi (rich ice cream with cardamom).
My mom was born in Mumbai and came to the United States in an arranged marriage with my father. I don't think she ever planned on spending the rest of her life here, and her cooking reflect a longing for the culture she missed. When she was successful at making a new dish, she often exclaimed, "I've made it just like my mother used to." Surprisingly, Indianapolis had a budding Indian-American community (I attribute it to lots of pharmaceutical and engineering companies in the area). Since she was educated at English-speaking schools and had a B.A. in English, her accent rarely caught much attention. Not only did she dress in Western attire, she was a bit of a tomboy—jeans and blouses and sneakers.
The family she left behind in India were entrepreneurs, and she always wanted to own and operate her own business. When I was 14, her parents gave her money to purchase a Baskin Robbins franchise. The shop, at $1.00 per scoop, did not earn much revenue. But when I was in college, she sold the store and was able to get a loan for a Subway franchise. She was always overworked and pressed for time, and as she moved into owning American fast-food businesses, cooking authentic Indian meals became infrequent.
Eventually, I moved to Chicago and enjoyed my rollercoaster 20s, returning to my parents’ house for special home-cooked meals. But it wasn’t until Mom got sick that I really longed to study her recipes. One family tragedy compounded another: My mother was diagnosed with cancer, and two days later my father died of a heart attack. Reeling from trauma, my mother needed her daughter’s help.
I happen to be a lesbian–I was out to my mother, but never fully accepted by her. So living with her, though warm and delightful at most times, was also suffocating. I would sneak upstairs to talk with friends about the life I’d left behind, whispering as if I was doing something wrong and could be grounded.
Despite this contention, Mom and I got along splendidly. We enjoyed hanging with the cats (there were four of them–two of mine and two of hers), sipping lots of freshly made chai, and swapping off who cooked. When she was up to it, she would teach me a new recipe. And when she was not, she would endure my rudimentary attempts at healthy meals like vegetable stir-fries or vegetarian tacos.
She had a keen desire for what she called karela, which I finally realized was bitter gourd. We’d go to the local Indian grocery and pick through baskets of bitter gourd, Mom identifying the best ones by their shape, color, and firmness. She advised soaking it in salt water for a day to remove the kata, or sourness. Then we pan-fried it in a kadai (a cast-iron wok-like pan) with green chilies, turmeric, and mustard seeds. Bitter gourd is prized for its vitamins and minerals. And, despite a grim diagnosis and complications, Mom lived for three more years. Perhaps some of that time can be attributed to eating what was healthy and what she adored. While food may not always be able to save lives, I think it provided my mother healing properties, even if just the pleasure of familiar tastes giving measurable comfort. And although I’m not exceptionally skilled at recreating my mother’s recipes, I’m blessed to recall rich memories of her cuisine and how we celebrated it.
Sapna Kumar is an actor and comedian; her website is www.sapna-kumar.com.
Tandoori Chicken On the Grill
2 – 2 1/2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
3 t. lemon juice
12 garlic cloves, crushed
1 1/2 t. salt
1 t. crushed ginger
1 t. garam masala
1 1/2 t. red chili pepper
3 – 4 chopped green chilies
1 t. chopped coriander leaves
1 t. red food coloring or paprika
1 c. whole milk yogurt
Rub the chicken with lemon juice and set aside.
Mix the garlic, salt, and spices into the yogurt.
Rub the chicken with the yogurt, and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.
Grill for 10 – 15 minutes on each side.