Published:Thursday, 12 Mar 2020 06:03
My grandmother cooked in an embroidered cotton caftan and rubber flip-flops, getting all of her prep out of the way in the morning, sometimes enlisting my help with tedious potato-peeling or kneading.
Blasting Hindi movie soundtracks on the radio, she built the seasonal Gujarati dish undhiyu, a specialty of the city of Surat, with purple yams and plantains, flat hyacinth beans and teeny eggplants, all of it layered in a giant, lipped stainless-steel pot and left to cook slowly over the charcoal outside.
This didn’t happen in India, but in Kenya.
I’m a part of the diaspora. Born in London to East African and Indian parents with Gujarati and Konkani roots, I immigrated to the United States as a teenager. As I was growing up, my connections to these cultures were maintained in my family’s kitchens, if nowhere else.
On the day of a big party, my grandmother and grandfather would sit down side by side at the kitchen table and form an efficient factory line. Together, they would stuff hundreds of samosas with cinnamon-scented ground lamb and blanched peas I’d helped shuck, sealing the delicate triangles with a glue of flour and water.
Their work was fast but precise, and they shooed me away if I tried to distract them. (A hole in the pastry seal would result in a small explosion in the fryer, and a sad, oil-soaked samosa.)
For weekend breakfasts, my grandmother cooked trays of pale yellow dhokla — the airy chickpea batter fermented overnight as we slept, then seasoned lightly with crushed green chiles and garlic and steamed into tall, round cakes freckled with sesame seeds. My brother and I swiped the still-hot, diamond-shaped pieces through puddles of oil dusted with chile powder.
During the day, when everyone else was at work, I’d stand on the wobbly stool in my grandparents’ vast, well-organised pantry and open every container to sniff or taste its contents — thick, sludgy jaggery; crisp, fried chickpea noodles of every shape and size; bags of dark, sweet, home-fried onions; and heavy steel tins of homemade ghee.
More than any European or American restaurant kitchen I worked in as a line cook in my 20s, or dined in as a restaurant critic in my 30s, this is the one that has shaped me: my family’s Kenyan-Gujarati kitchen.
It can tell you who I am, but it cannot tell you, at least not with any accuracy, what the Indian kitchen is like — the uniformity of that place is a myth, because the uniformity of Indianness is a myth.