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The Thy Tracker (continued)


May 15–23  Peranakan  24–25  27–29  Sireh  30a  30b  30c–31
Malaysia: Melaka June 1–2, Kuala Lumpur 3–4, Penang 6
Vietnam: Saigon 13–16  19-20  22  26  27 30
Nha Trang July 7a 7b, Hue 14a 14b, Hanoi 19–20
India: Pondicherry 31, Bangalore August 2–4, Kerala


August 2, Thursday

It’s another cool, gray day in Bangalore. The capital of Karnataka, the city mirrors San Francisco’s temperate climate and friendly openness as well as its high-tech drive and head-over-heels expansion. But every morning the sing-song call of the salt man, one of the many wallahs plying their foods or services along the narrow streets, reminds me that I’m finally in India.

Meera, a friend who stays close through years and miles of separation, has given me her office as a bedroom. For the first time in weeks, I have a little home of my own, complete with an Aunty who always makes sure I have enough to eat and an Uncle who reads the latest crime headlines to scare me into safety. Meera’s parents built this home over thirty years ago. On Third Cross in Gupta Layout, not far from Ulsoor Lake, it has the requisite, immovable granite grinder in the kitchen. High shelves boast a vast collection of metalware, neatly stacked pots and bowls and plates of every size and shape. Heavy-duty blenders and gas burners hint at a more modern kitchen, but spices are still ground at home and masalas mixed for every dish. In their salt bin is a scoop that Aunty made herself out of a small coconut, the year before I was born. And their slightly lopsided idli steamer has been in continuous service for even longer.

Aunty and Meera have given me a crash course in the traditional dishes of Kerala, the homeland of their family. Kerala is a narrow state nestled between the waters of the Lakshadweep Sea and the ridges of the Western Ghats. Next week I will meet Meera’s grandmother. She watches over the family home, eating rice still grown on their land and drying tamarind for the daughters who have moved away. I’ve been trying to memorize the essential ingredients of their “basic” dishes, but it’s been a challenge to even finish sampling the vegetables and fruits I bought during a spree at the produce stands in Russell Market. Snake gourd, fresh tapioca root, red spinach, drumsticks, double beans, ash gourd, yellow-ripe cucumbers, banana blossom, two different varieties of pomegranates, the last of the season’s mangoes…and those are just the ones whose names I can remember.

I have also indulged in a bit of shopping on Commercial Street. Meera helped me pick out four salwar kameeze sets, the long tunics and loose pants that rival saris in color and variety. After trying on my first one, I became another convert to their liberating comfort. In Vietnam, shopping is much more stressful. Window shopping there is frowned upon, especially in the morning when omens for the day’s business are cast. The haggling process is arduous and highly ritualized, and even pointing at a certain draped swatch of silk or sniffing a bunch of herbs initiates the process. Here, the tailor shops unfurl their hand-loomed cotton on a low, padded platform and wait patiently while Meera steers me away from grey’s, navy’s, boring stripes. Fine ikat weaving, brilliant jewel tones, and wood-blocked paisley will be better reminders of India.


August 3, Friday

For lunch, I try fried rice, tsing hai chicken, and gobi manchurian at Chung Wah, a popular Chinese restaurant on Residency Road. Or, I should clarify, a Chinese-Indian restaurant. Established by the descendents of a Hakka leather shoemaker who first immigrated to Calcutta, the restaurant’s creations have a loyal following. Their food is as comforting to Bangalore Indians as kosher Chinese food is to American Jews. Of course, local spices and techniques find their way into the stir-fries. The chicken blends puréed onion with the usual cornstarch sauce. The fine, fragrant grains of the fried rice are the Jeera Samba variety, perfectly suited and one of the best I’ve tasted. And the highlight of the day, gobi manchurian, are battered, deep-fried, and then coated with ginger, garlic, and chilies. Fusion food as it was meant to be.


August 4, Saturday

With interviews and cooking demonstrations scheduled from morning to night, my days are long and tiring but full of wonderful food. Rada, Vijya, Kavitha, Uma, Aunty…so many women have welcomed me into their kitchens. Grinding and cutting and frying as mothers or mother-in-laws taste approvingly, they openly share their family’s recipes. The heart of the home, a family’s kitchen is protected with great care here in India, and to be allowed to step into one must never be taken for granted. I’m honored by the warmth and generosity these women have shown me. With their help, I’m beginning to understand the intricacies of Southern Indian cooking.

Virtually all Indian restaurants in the US serve tandoori and Mogul cuisine, using a mish-mash of flavors and techniques from the north. South Indian cooking, on the other hand, is lighter and fresher, with superb vegetarian cooking in Tamil Nadu and seafood dishes in Kerala. I am, of course, generalizing. For example, I’m not even approaching the exquisite Muslim cuisine of Andra Pradesh on this trip. Or cooking of the Syrian Christians who, worshippers since the first century A.D, predate those upstart converts from Portugal who landed later in Goa. Or the dying cuisine of the Jews of Cochin, now numbering only 27 and lacking a kosher butcher. For those of us in the Bay Area who think we live in a diverse community with international flavors, a trip to India can help put things in perspective.

Alas, only so much time in the day, only so much room in my stomach! So, I’ve been focusing on the cooking of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the two most southern states. Both shared ancient trade links with Southeast Asia. Centuries before the Europeans figured out that they would not sail off the world’s edge, the kingdoms of Southern India and SE Asia sent scholars, ambassadors, traders, and daughters with dowries to each other’s shores.

Almost every dish that I’ve tasted uses a touch of coconut in some form, and like in SE Asia, tamarind adds fruity tartness. The basic masala incorporates onion or garlic, cumin, green chile, and a small handful of freshly grated coconut. Dishes often carry undertones of methi, known as fenugreek in the US, and hing, or asafoetida, a pungent plant resin that replaces onion and garlic (prohibited ingredients in some communities). The distinctive marks of South Indian cooking are the lightly fried mustard seeds and curry leaves stirred into dishes at the end of cooking. To finish, a swirl of coconut oil adds richness and fragrance. Although healthful leanings have cut the amount of ghee and coconut oil used in daily cooking, Vijya’s neighbor warned her not to skimp on the coconut oil when she cooked for me, so that I would know the true, best flavor of South Indian cuisine.

Samaithu Par (or “Cook and See” in the English edition) by S. Meenakshi Ammal is widely accepted as “The book on South Indian Vegetarian Recipes.” Here, young brides receive this definitive collection of Tamil recipes, much like The Joy of Cooking in the US. Written in a simple, barebones manner, it uses old measurements like ollocks (about ¼ of a litre) and vis (close to 1400 grams) and palam (say, 35 grams). It also assumes, as any cookbook writer once did, that women knew all the obvious, basic steps. I’ve been looking for the older editions of this two volume collection, the ones with wood-blocked covers of a woman in a flower-bordered sari standing in her well-equipped kitchen, spoon in one hand and her opened copy of Samaithu Par in the other.

The book’s introduction warns its readers that: “this book is a guide only. One can achieve perfection only after three or four attempts, that too earnestly. Tastes differ from person to person. Hence there cannot be any rigidity or ‘must’ in cooking.”

Meera loans me her copy for bedtime reading, and then tells me a story about trying to cook Indian food in the US. When she first arrived in the northeast for her graduate studies, she was asked at a dinner to complete a recipe while the hostess went upstairs to dress. It was a very basic cabbage dish, a thoren that she “could make with one hand tied behind my back and both eyes closed.” Yet, when she looked at the one-page recipe written in the western cookbook for this very familiar dish, with its exacting list of measurements and long procedures, she was paralyzed with doubt. It was only after she finally closed the book that she could continue cooking.

These past days, as I watch the women glide about their kitchens, they tell me their recipes in simple proportions or with sensory guides. “Old tamarind pressed to the size of a small lemon” or “cook until it no longer smells raw” or “wait until the steam rises” or, the simplest and best one of all, “ah, now it looks like my mother’s!”

We in the US talk about the texture of food, but this means only its feel in the mouth. Here in India, a crucial component of eating is the touch of your hand on your food. Uncle and Aunty have been trying to teach me the art of sipping with my fingertips and cleaning my plate with the side of my pinky and completely melding my rice with tart rasam or spicy curry or cooling curd. (The latter is the hardest one for me, as in Vietnam keeping one’s rice cleanly white through the meal is a virtue.) When we’re at home, Uncle reminds me to drink the last essence of the meal—“the best of all the meal’s flavors”—straight from my thali, the metal plate that holds all the courses, layering flavor upon flavor. When we’re out in a restaurant, I watch in awe as Aunty defies the laws of physics, as one friend says, and carries liquid easily to her lips with a quick twist of her wrist.

Aunty take time to explain all that she prepares for me. My favorites are her morning meals. Softly steamed idlis, crisp dosas, pillowy idiyiappams—there’s no end to the comforting breakfast treats made from ground rice. I am most definitely being spoiled.

Next: Kerala, India >

July 2001