Tagged: stovetop

Mom’s Batata Bharit with Rice and Yoghurt

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!

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Whole wheat Pasta with Walnuts in a Gorgonzola sauce

One of the (many!) enjoyable things about living in San Francisco is the easy access to a great variety of cheese. I don’t mean the stuff near the deli at the supermarket, though that’s fine in a pinch. I mean the lovely varieties of artisan cheeses that are available here. One of my favourite ones is Cowgirl Creamery’s Pepato, a wonderful peppery sheep’s milk cheese which is mmmyummmmy all by itself. I can wax lyrical for volumes just about this cheese, but that would mean digressing, so…. putting dream cheese away in fantasy fridge to focus back on the topic at hand.

I like to shop for food like some women like to shop for shoes. I can spend hours wandering around food, gawking at all the wares. I think dogs who stare dolefully at dining tables must be more subtle than I am. Fanatical about hygiene though I may be, I have no problem shmushing my face into cheese counters and such to get a better look at what’s inside. The more expensive the store, the longer I will linger, since the thrifty part of me will engage in long arguments with the part that wants to buy half the store.  The compromise is Greedy Guts get an eyeful of everything she’s not going to have. If you see someone with vacant eyes, staring supposedly aimlessly at the counter while you try to get at the clotted cream around her, forgive me for being in your way, but now you know why.

Sometimes though, the staring brings with it inspiration. On a particularly late night grocery shopping trip, where my thoughts were also on the night’s dinner, I sampled a wonderful gorgonzola. It has been ages since I ate some and wondered if I could put it into a salad. But the cold night demanded something warm and so gorgonzola pasta was born.

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Mom’s Pavacha Chivda

It’s funny how things about you change through life. At this point I’m an owl and drag myself out of bed in the morning. As a child I was an early bird, also the studious sort (read: nerd, I wear the badge proudly). There was many a morning before some test where I was springing out of bed at 5.00 am to study (not because I wasn’t prepared but because I wanted to revise it for the nth time. Read: uber-nerd!) I’d sit in the kitchen so as not to disturb my sister who I shared a room with. I’d open the kitchen window, look out into the dark, quiet street with the street lamp some distance away and then open my books on the kitchen table. There was a wonderful peace to that time of day that allowed me to get a lot done. There was a main road and a market nearby which must have been in full swing by then, but the new day didn’t touch my little space yet. That wasn’t until the mullah at a nearby mosque took up the clarion call of the morning prayer at dawn. Though I’m not a Muslim, the musicality of that prayer has always been soothing to me, uttered peacefully as it is. I’d goad myself to be done with my work before then because I knew my mom would be in the kitchen before it was done and me and my books would need to clear out to get ready for school.

Mom always insisted on a cooked breakfast in our tummies before we went about our day. So pretty soon in the morning, there would be lovely aromas drifting out of the kitchen. After her customary cup of tea (fully required to be awake and coherent by all members of my family except me), she’d finish up the breakfast she’d prepped the earlier night. On rare days that she was under the weather or running late, it would be buttered toast or corn flakes.

Breakfast in India is mostly savoury, not sweet. In my family, it was almost never sweet. In fact, the college coffee shop was a shock to my system when I first came to the United States. It is something I still haven’t adjusted to. Bagels are my only option and often, they aren’t much of one. Often I’d put on my school uniform to come out and find the smell of onion and chilli wafting in the air. One of my favourite morning breakfasts was and still is Pavacha chivda (torn bread with potatoes and onions). This makes a damn fine supper too though.
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