For me, starting grad school was synonymous with starting a life in the United States. Everything was new, from trains inside airports that transported you around it to wide open spaces with not a sign of life. The latter was a novel and jarring experience. Almost anywhere in India, you always see people. In Texas, you can go miles and miles without seeing so much as an armadillo. I remember sitting at my window, jet-lagged and missing home on my first day in, hoping to see anything that moved. Even the trees wouldn’t stir. My room-mates were out and I don’t think I have ever felt so alone on a blazing, bright sunny day.
I missed Bombay a lot, including and importantly, the food. Everything with which I was familiar looked similar in the US, but was completely different. The sole Indian restaurant in College Station was a joke; everything was watered down to an extreme. Chinese food was unrecognizable, with hardly a dish on the menu being the same as the ones I knew at home. The nearest grocery store/market was over two miles away. And giving in to the urge to convert everything I bought into rupees made me freak out. (100 rupees for a mere pound of potatoes, are you *#@!! kidding me??) Also portions had my head spinning. A burrito joint called Free Bird, while serving some pretty decent burritos, had a regular size burrito that was humongous (and that was the smallest size!). A couple of days of eating out on such fare and the local McDonald’s and we were done. After scaring up various pots and pans and loading up on groceries, thanks to helpful college seniors, we began the task of organizing food at home.
Back in Bombay, I had loved the idea of cooking and had tried my hand at a decent share of stuff but had never needed to cook on a daily basis. The kitchen was really my mother’s domain. I’d never been more than a sous-chef at best, irregularly at that, playing chef on the rare occasions she was unwell. The sudden task of dealing with daily meals, paying bills and grad school was unbelievably trying. Quick food became a goal to strive for, with a strong concentration for familiar and cheap (we were, after all, foreign students in a foreign country, and it was 50 rupees to the dollar at the time).
One of the first things Indian babies are fed is rice, first in the form of a soft paste, eventually graduating to rice with milk. The adult and significantly more flavourful version of this is dahi-bhat (curd & rice) which some, like my husband, possess the capacity to consume daily basis. It is supremely easy, quick and cheap to throw together. The yoghurt gets tempered with various ingredients, depending on where you from in India, but any of the combinations result in a lovely, mildly spiced rice dish. Pair this with a batata bharit (potato mash), the kind that my mom put together, and you could be forgiven for feeling like a small child having a grown-uppish meal. It was a little slice of heaven between classes and we were home in a brand new world!
My mom’s Dahi-bhat with Potato-bharit
For the rice:-
Basmati (or other long-grain) Rice – 2 cups, cooked
Yoghurt – 3-3 1/2 cups
Salt – 1 tsp or to taste
For the potatoes:-
Potatoes – 2 large, boiled and mashed
Onion – a half, diced
Green Chillies – 3-4, finely chopped
Salt, to taste
– Put the rice in a large bowl. Add the yoghurt and mix to combine.
– Heat a small pan and add the oil. To this, add curry leaves, mustard seeds, cumin, black gram, asafoetida and red chillies, broken into smaller pieces. Add these in the order stated on low heat. Temper until chillies are almost black, but not burnt.
– Move off the heat and add straight to the rice and yoghurt mixture. Add salt add and stir in thoroughly until mixed.
– Put the cooled mashed potato in a bowl and add to it, the chilli and the diced onions.
– Season liberally with salt and stir in, folding over until thoroughly incorporated.
This mixture of spices is more of a rule of thumb rather than a fixed rule. The red chillies, mustard seeds and curry leaves are important here for the tempering. Use the other spices as per availability. The Urad dal will add a fantastic crunch and bite to this dish. The black part could be misleading as this is a white dal, but you’ll see why if you read the link about it in the ingredients. As with most Indian food, the red chillies and curry leaves are expected to be put aside and not eaten. They have already done their job and passed their smoky flavour to the oil and the dish. However, if you are anything like me, you’d eat the chillies anyway.