I have early memories of going to the market with my mom with bags of gahu, wheat for atta. There was a chakki (mill) there run by two men. My mom would pass the bag of wheat over to one guy who would pour it into a large metal funnel. A few strategic taps and a drum would be on a roll and within a few minutes we had freshly milled flour. The guy at the other end would scoop the flour into bags. Occasionally puffs of flours would rise up from the pouring process, bathing the entire interior of the shop in a milk cloudy haze. Fine as the best talcum powder, I can still remember how warm those bags would be, filled as they were with the still warm flour. The machine, the process; all of it fascinated me.
While waiting with mom for the flour, I noticed other people walking up with considerably smaller bags, even tins. The contents of those tins were tossed into a much tinier machine and were ground within seconds. Mom explained this was the masala mill, used by people to make their own masalas or ground spices. Sometimes a person would walk up with a bag and walk away with scarlet-hued dusted sack. These were folks getting their very own chilli powder ground. The gold flecked ones were generally garam masala.
We arrived in the US of A one hot sweltering Texas morning and within a few hours found ourselves in the little town of College Station. We grew to love it over our years in grad school there but that very first day, we were distraught. After the hustle, bustle and multitude of humanity that had surrounded us every single day of our lives in Bombay, this place was remarkably unnerving. The heat sapped all our energy and our jet-lag addled brains couldn’t quite process this other side of the world where we could see no one, not even after spending an entire morning at the window of our student house. No one stirred on these streets. The grass was impossibly green for a place so hot. Most importantly, for all of us arriving students was this truly awful problem – for the first time in our lives, having stepped out of our childhood homes, our fridge was bare.
Empathetic older students fed us that night. In the following days, we explored the new town and found out very quickly that if we were going to enjoy a taste of home, it had to come from either our own kitchens or that of expat friends. College Station had one Indian restaurant and it was the most rotten example of its species. I was in despair. Was this the fate of Indian food outside of India? Did it get watered down to a shadow of its origins in its attempt to appeal to a broader audience? I fervently hoped this wasn’t true.
Up to about the age of six, I was a super picky eater. I’ve chronicled my hatred of fish before but that was just the tip of the food-berg. As far as I was concerned there was an embargo on radish, squash, pumpkin, any kind of gourd, string beans, even okra. Even back then, my little mind could not fathom my distaste for okra. I thought it was the cutest vegetable ever (in India we call them lady’s fingers how cute is that?). I loved the flavour of the vegetable my mother made. I mean it had potatoes. I’ll eat pretty much anything with potatoes. And yet, I couldn’t stand to eat it. I’d separate out the potatoes from the okra. My younger sister was easily distracted and excelled at slipping the pieces of okra into her plate when she wasn’t looking.
The blue glow of the gas flame cast as eerie flickering glow on my kitchen walls. It was a bright, crisp November morning but my kitchen is at the back of my apartment. It has no windows and only enjoys borrowed light from my living room unless I turn on the lamp overhead. There was no need for that to heat a cup of water for tea.
Stirring the chai in my cup. I contemplated what sweet should be made for Diwali, which has approached much too fast this year. (Weren’t we just celebrating Holi?) I had the savoury portion covered with the poha chivda I made earlier this week. I just needed on sweet thing to complete the picture. I didn’t really want to step out to the shops today. Looking around, I saw my AP flour jar and immediately knew it was going to be shankarpali. It takes some doing but the ingredient list is three things: flour, sugar and ghee.