Vista-71: Food and the South Indian NRI --- two different approaches


Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Food and the South Indian NRI --- two different approaches

Approach 1: Article by Shashi Tharoor in 'The Hindu'
Yeast is yeast, west is waist
By Shashi Tharoor"The Hindu", Online edition of India's National NewspaperJuly 4, 2004

Unless you're a gourmet chef or a serious food faddist, you don't actually need to cook in Manhattan, says the writer.

REUTERS Don't cook ... get gourmet meals home delivered instead.
MOST of the readers of this newspaper, I venture to suggest — and certainly this must be true of an overwhelming majority of its male readers — have never actually had cook themselves a meal from scratch. The readers of The Hindu hail from a socio-economic stratum that is used to full-time domestic help in the kitchen, and even those among you whom society expects to feed the rest (by which, in an acknowledgment of politically-incorrect Indian reality, I mean the women) play a largely supervisory role in the process. It's the hired help who do the actual hot and sweaty work (for which I hope your grateful families duly give you the credit.)
I'm not being gratuitously offensive — just making the point that the average educated middle-class Indian tends to be a bit handicapped in the culinary self-help department. When someone of that ilk, like myself (who grew up an only son in India, never bothering to step into the kitchen except to ask when dinner would be ready) finds himself living in the West, the handicap can be acute indeed. There are no servants, and in most Western cities restaurants are prohibitively expensive, so unless you can cook for yourself you are really in trouble. My former wife, a first-rate intellectual whose only attempt at cooking a dish before marriage was marred by her complete unawareness of the need for salt, became an expert chef because she had to — when we moved to Geneva.
Finding myself single again and living in the West could easily have been calamitous. Fortunately for me I am living in the one place on the planet where this need not be a problem — New York City, and more specifically the island of Manhattan.
Unless you're a gourmet chef or a serious food faddist, you don't actually need to cook in Manhattan. It's not just that there are tens of thousands of restaurants and eateries on the island, the largest concentration of commercial kitchens per square mile on the face of the globe. It's that many of them are affordable, and they pretty much all deliver. In Manhattan, I cook with my dialling finger.
Within a 10-block radius of my own virgin oven lie two Indian restaurants, three Mexican, four Japanese, five Italian and not-even-the-Mayor-knows-how-many Chinese. "Fast free delivery" is their slogan, even if "fast" is a relative term (I've once waited an hour, but it was snowing) and "free" overlooks the generous tips my conscience prompts me to give the perspiring bicyclist at my door. But "delivery" is the key word. The lack of time or culinary talent never obliges a denizen of Manhattan's apartment buildings to go hungry.
Sure, there's a negative side. You can't always synchronise your meal with the start of the latest episode of your favourite television show; it might arrive just as the plot is taking a crucial turn, and you could miss the key twist just as you are fishing for your wallet at the door. (But since I hardly ever have the time to watch television, this does not affect me greatly.) Sometimes, if you are on the losing end of a long delivery list, your minestrone might be tepid or your sautéed bok choy soggy. And the delivery boys, frontier entrepreneurs to a man, might busy themselves slipping unsolicited flyers under your neighbours' doors, thereby risking a ban on their establishment by your building's management.
But the key problem is the obvious one: you can never be entirely sure what you're getting, and a lot of it could go directly to your waistline. For some Chinese takeaways, "no MSG" is an aspiration, not a promise. An Italian menu that offers "low-fat dressing" might give you a salad swimming in oil. Who knows what that delicious aloo gobhi was cooked in, or whether the raita is made from low-fat yoghurt? Diallers can't really afford to diet: telephoning for dinner is rarely wise for anyone who's counting her calories.
My friend Cath is too lazy (or, as she prefers to put it in New Yorkese, too stressed out) to cook. But she was beginning to bloat on the fat-laden fare being delivered in generous portions to her door. "If I have to choose between starvation and eating too much of the wrong food," she moaned as she wobbled miserably on the scales, "starvation will lose every time."
The Manhattan solution? A firm that delivers gourmet Zone diet meals to her door, overnight. Every morning Cath awakes to find a black zippered bag outside her apartment door containing three Zone meals and two snacks to tide her through the day. The food comes in tiny plastic containers, in quantities barely adequate to ward off malnutrition, and the entrées need microwaving, but Cath is ecstatic. For $35 a day she gets the five dollars' worth of calories she needs, and she doesn't even have to think about what to order: she has no choice but to trust the Zone chefs. Since her main objective is to lose weight, the fact that she dislikes (and discards) half the stuff they send actually works in her favour. Her dress size has been shrinking along with her bank balance.
Sounds like the perfect Manhattan marriage of convenience and consumerism. Except that there's such a thing as too much success. Cath's been losing weight on the Zone plan — and losing, and losing. Last month's new jeans are already swimming around her waist. But she doesn't know how to stop. If she gave up the plan, she'd lose control of her diet. Besides, she loves waking up to those little black Zone bags every morning.
So Cath's decided to have it both ways. The Zone keeps coming — but so, most evenings, does a scrumptious dessert from one of the restaurants in her neighbourhood. The last time I spoke to her she was musing over her delivery choices: baklava from the Turkish Ali Baba, or tiramisu from Tre Pomodori? Her diet may be in jeopardy, but her faith in Manhattan's choices is unshaken. The lard delivers what the Zone taketh away ....

Approach 2: From our man in Kanada-land
By Raja Ramanathan

A different approach to resolving the food problems of a South Indian NRI

I just happened to read Shashi Tharoor’s account of how he and his friend
deal with the issue of getting themselves food in Manhattan. It coincided,
almost to the minute, with my teaching my twenty-five old daughter how to
make vendakkai sambar (vendakkai, bhindi, okra; sambar, we all know what this is, thanks to Shri Mahadevan Chandrashekar).

My daughter lives in a downtown Toronto apartment
for the last few months having decided to move out of the parental home, in
her quest for an identity. Very often the rest of the family, wife, son Sid
and I spend weekends at her studio apartment watching movies and generally
‘chilling out.’ This weekend she wanted me to teach her how to make
vendakkai sambar and asked me to get all the ingredients to do so, and,
teach her, which I just finished doing when I saw Shashi Tharoor’s interesting
article of July 4, 2004.

Like Shashi, I grew up in a South Indian family, where for the first fifty
three years of my life my entry into the kitchen was limited to asking when
the food would be ready. This was abetted very much by my mother-in-law who
lived with us for the last ten years of her life, and, thought it was an
insult to her culinary skills if her son-in-law so much as added a dash of
salt to the food she cooked with such love.

Such would have been the course of my life, but for the most unfortunate
accident that my mother-in-law had. She fell down in the house one evening
and broke her hip. She was admitted to hospital, and, my wife had to spend
many hours in the hospital helping her recuperate from surgery following
the accident. As I sat through the first few of those evenings, my alternatives were
similar to those of Shashi, get a catered meal from many of the Indian or other
catering establishments in and around Mississauga, live on pizza or such food
or just watch the pounds slither off as I starved. Having been brought up for fifty
plus years on good home made South Indian cooking my conditioning was far
too deep to settle for such alternatives.

So, one morning, about a week after my mother-in-law’s accident, I gingerly
asked my wife to give me the recipe to make rice and paruppu (plain, cooked
toor dal). The beloved one looked at me with bewilderment. ‘Are you going to
actually cook ?’ she asked. It seemed to be more of a shock for her than her
mother’s accident.

She sat down and took a deep breath. ‘No, sweetheart, I
will keep the rice and paruppu in the cooker and go. You just open it and
eat in the evening…’ she said fully convinced that at fifty three no man
could learn anything new, let alone cooking. The life partner’s response came
to me as a challenge, a challenge to my ancestors who had always done things
new and brave, including my mother who is reported to have a sung, around circa
1942, a Bharathiyar (Subramani Bharati was a famous South Indian poet of the freedom movement days who wrote, among other most beautiful poems, very stirring patriotic verse. His songs were banned by the British and he had to live in Pondicherry, then a French enclave,  to escape being jailed) song from well within the confines of her home as an English
policeman passed by…History has not recorded whether the policeman heard
the song or whether he had any reaction to it if he did, but, it got my mother into
trouble with her father who said she was bringing ruination on the family by
doing such things. Being the son of such a brave and valiant mother who did
what was right and correct, the mind was set. I will cook.

‘Sweetie, just tell me how to put the rice and paruppu…’ I said. Having
brought up two children and a husband my wife knew just when to give up
reason and put her faith in God. She then walked me through putting rice
and paruppu in a pressure cooker with the detail and precision of a
kindergarten teacher teaching her wards how to tie their shoe laces. Still
not convinced that a disaster would be averted she made a last try, ‘I will
come home a little early today and you can put the rice and paruppu in the
cooker when I am around…’ No. My mind was set. I would do so on my own.

That evening I came home and put together, with a meditative awareness that
would have made a Zen teacher proud (if Zen teachers are allowed to feel proud)  the pressure cooker,  as instructed. I waited for the pressure to come through
with the hissing sound, and then waited the mandatory seven minutes the
beloved wife had asked me to. Once the seven minutes were over I took the cooker
under the cold water tap to reduce the pressure. I couldn’t wait till the cooker
cooled to watch my maiden efforts. When I opened the pressure cooker, the
rice and paruppu looked perfect. I took one grain of each and tasted them.
The feeling was similar to what Neil Armstrong would have experienced as he
stepped on the moon for the first time. ‘One small step for man, one giant
leap for mankind…’ ‘One rice and paruppu for me, one giant stride towards
freedom for the male species…’

I put a little margarine (in lieu of good homemade ghee) on the rice and paruppu and ate. My son walked in a few minutes later and was thrilled to see something other than pizza or
Kentucky Fried Chicken. Father and son ate together, and, the guru herself
came by late at night and sampled the first efforts of cooking. She was not
unimpressed. For thirty years she had never thought that her husband would
amount to much. Now there seemed to be hope. Strange are the ways of God she
said to herself that night…

The next day was tomato rasam(a watered down sambar, is how one school of thought describes a rasam; there are more charitable descriptions), then a full fledged sambar and potato curry (sambar and potato curry is a great Sunday lunch favourite in several South Indian homes), then a porichha kozhambu (describing a porichha kozhambu is difficult, suffice that any kozhambu is a gravy like preparation generally mixed with rice and eaten, porichha means fried). In three months I had graduated to paruppu usli (cooking this is generally a milestone achievement, it is a mixture of toor dal ground and mixed with vegetables to make a yummy dish) and Morkuzhambu (nearest translation, kadi) and was showing off. I was part of an internet group that exchanged recipes. My wife saw these emails from the Ashas, Shyamalas and Ranjinis with some concern, but, was so happy at the new found freedom she
had from the kitchen to really object.

These days she reminds me in the morning to soak the kidney beans before we leave for work so that I can make rajmah when I come in the evening.

She comes home in the evenings, just goes up, changes, gets into bed,
switches on the TV, and, gets served in bed, by seven thirty p.m. When my
daughter invites her friends for dosas, you know who makes them. Now, could
there be greater women’s liberation….


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