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Cooking My Way Back

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Leena, ahin aav," Lila Kaki shouted.

Whenever my aunt called for me, it meant only one thing: Eat this.

"Here. You try this. Is chole. Is good."

It wasn't. Chole, little brown chickpeas swimming in a pool of garam masala-laced tomato sauce, was the last thing I wanted to eat as a kid. My 1980s diet consisted of Pop-Tarts, pizza and Ecto Cooler-flavored Hi-C, and Indian food kicked my sheltered palate's butt. One bite could set my tongue on fire or haunt my mouth for hours after the meal.

Lila Kaki was just like the food she made me eat — bold and fiery — and both overwhelmed me. It was totally normal for her to mention that I was gaining back my baby fat in college. For my 10th birthday, she cooked the only Indian food I liked: a dessert called gulab jamun, a doughnut soaked in a cardamom-rosewater syrup so rich that I wanted only one. But she made 101 of them, and all it took was a head bob, a stern look and the words "one more" before I ate four. Then she froze the rest so she could force-feed me the devil balls every time she visited. The smell of rosewater still makes me a little queasy.

Coming of age in the era of "The Simpsons" intensified my aversion to Indian food. Friends displayed their casual racism by repeating "Thank you, come again!" — a catchphrase of Apu, an Indian character on the show who owns a convenience store . In junior high, I thought I could intercept stereotypes by giving a speech on India to my class. I even brought in papad, the potato chip of India, fried and salty and free of spices. Barely 30 seconds in, the jokes started. "Dot head!" "That stinks!" "Why couldn't you bring Slurpees?"

There also were unexpected insults from people I didn't know, such as random teenagers shouting "camel jockey" while I was shopping with my mom.

I let those taunts shame me into hating everything Indian about me: my skin color, my Hindu religion and, most important, my family's food.

Even as I shunned curries, I developed an interest in other cuisines. I spent all of high school and college watching the Food Network and dreaming about my next meal. I decided to become a food writer and began training my palate the way Jeffrey Steingarten did when he was hired as Vogue's food critic: trying every dish I hated eight to 10 times. I tasted salsas from a tiny Oaxacan restaurant so on fire they made me cry; raw, briny oysters with hot sauce; steaks that bled. Slowly but surely, I was becoming an omnivore. The only thing I didn't revisit? Indian food.

In culinary school, as soon as they figured out what kind of brown I was, my classmates and teachers started asking questions.

"What do you know about vindaloo?"

"Could you taste my chicken curry? I think it needs something."

"What's your family recipe for roti?"

The first few times I heard those questions, I braced myself, preparing for the racism that typically followed. But it never came. Not one mention of stinky food or Apu. They were genuinely interested in my connection to Indian food. I was finally able to exhale a breath I had been holding since third grade, and it felt good.

Between my new palate and the positive response from my classmates, I was curious: Would Indian food taste different now?
I started with the few dishes I had liked as a kid: my grandmother's chai and some sweets. I wandered through Indian grocery stores, and I sought advice from women who looked to be my aunt's age. "Is this the right vegetable for making dudhi halwa?" I might ask, holding up an opo squash. They never steered me wrong.

My come-to-Krishna moment happened at my aunt's house around that time, when I had my first Indian dinner in years. As I scooped up a mouthful of spicy chole with warm, freshly fried puri, my first thought was, "I can't believe I hated this as a kid!" Instead of an overwhelming clash of flavors, all of the ingredients were working together. The sweet-and-sour tomatoes, the fragrant ginger, the hot jalapeno peppers — each was perfectly layered to form this crazy, addictive taste. I couldn't get enough of it.

When I had my first cooking lesson from Lila Kaki, she chided me for showing up late. "I had to start cooking without you, and the vedmi still might not be ready for dinner," she said sternly. "Chalo! Let's go." This was no 30-minute meal. Making the vedmi, a sweet filled flatbread, was a four-hour event. The yellow split-pea dal had to be pressure-cooked, mashed, cooked again with sugar and spices, and cooled. Then we had to make the dough, roll it out, stuff it, roll it out again and cook it. I struggled to keep up.

"How much cardamom are you using, Kaki?" I asked. "A teaspoon? A quarter-teaspoon?"

"I use a little," she replied.

"Kaki, how do you know when you have enough water in the dough?"

"I can tell," she said.

Clearly, this was not culinary school. I took photos and videos and asked many questions. I had never hustled so hard for one recipe. But I was determined to learn from her, and I adapted to her teaching style.

Every time we cooked together, she revealed little bits of herself to me. As a kid, she dreamed of getting a job, not cooking. But after her arranged marriage to my Alkesh Kaka in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, she had to be a good Indian woman and cook for her husband. She eventually found work sewing curtains when they resettled in the United States, and by then, she cooked for comfort. She used to smuggle seeds from India to grow here: esoteric herbs and vegetables that alleviated her homesickness. It struck me that when I ate stuffed colocasia leaves from her garden, I was consuming family history.

Our relationship grew deeper once I had children. She'd sneak bites of sweets to my daughter while playing with her hair. "Here. You try this. Is mohanthal. Is good." She'd make her a cup of chai with lots of milk, explaining proudly, "This is how my mom made for me, not too much tea."

Once we went to a South Indian restaurant, and the waiter set down our dosa, a paper-thin, crisp and lacy three-foot-long crepe, with the spicy potato filling on the side. Lila Kaki stopped playing with my daughter and gave him a death stare.

"What is this? Why is the filling not inside the dosa?" she demanded.

The poor waiter stammered,

"Th-this is how the chef makes dosa."

"No. Take it back and make it the right way."

"But, this is how we — "

"No. Fix it. Chalo. Let's go."

She dismissed him with a wave of her hand and a head bob. Years earlier, this would have annoyed me. But that day, it just made me love her and her unapologetic ways more. I felt lucky that I got another chance to know her better and to absorb my family's culture, especially after wasting so many opportunities in my youth.

Now Lila Kaki is passing her traditions to my daughter, from the food right on down to her tenacity and brazenness. I'll be there to teach my daughter her limits, how to know when less is more and when to stand up for what she believes. She'll grow up knowing that it's OK to speak her mind and that she comes from a long line of brave women and bold food.

— Washington Post 

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Food | Life | May 2017

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