ANOTHER DAY IN THE COUNTRY: Happy Birthday from India
© Another Day in the Country
Several weeks back, I asked my sister, “What would you like to do on your birthday this year?”
Unlike me, she’s not fond of surprises and would much prefer choosing.
“Let me think about that,” she said.
It didn’t take long for her to come back with an answer. She wanted to have lunch with our artist friends from Lindsborg and play games afterward.
For the meal?
“I’d like you to make Indian curry,” she said.
“We’ll do it all,” I answered enthusiastically, because I love making curry.
It may seem strange to you that two girls from Kansas would love such unusual cuisine. It all began in California at the Liberal Arts College where I worked, when a young boy whose family was from India came to study.
He was fluent in English, wore a traditional Sikh turban, and loved hanging out in the Campus Center that I managed.
He was also homesick and hungry for his mother’s home cooking, and when he found out I liked curry, he volunteered to “teach” me how to make Dal — a traditional lentil curry.
This sympathetic beginning led us through years of what we called “Indian experiences,” which included his large extended family eventually coming to America to study, often showing up at my house unexpectedly and his mother kneeling on the floor of my small kitchen kneading dough for chapatis.
“Oh, you cannot make proper curry without spices from India,” Surin lamented that first time he helped me cook.
“When my mother comes, then you will see,” he sighed.
Little did I know what all I would see, thanks to my introduction to this young man and his family.
And he was right. If the only curry spice that you are familiar with is that yellow powder on the shelf at the grocery store, then I’m guessing you don’t like curry. That powder is mostly tumeric—good for you but not all that tasty.
Real curry spices, according to Surin’s mother, are a combination of spices like ginger, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, and, yes, turmeric, “plus others that you do not know and each cook makes her own, Pat Wick,” she would say, “and many of these things you cannot get in America.”
She’d brought them along in her suitcase.
Many years later, when I was writing and doing photography for an organization called “Maranatha Volunteers International,” I was sent to India twice. The year of the millennium, I was there for a month and I count it as “the experience of a lifetime.”
I came back with saris and drums, pictures galore, bangles and bindis, and curry spices. Just before I was scheduled for that long flight home, my translator said, “Let me get you the kind of curry spice that I use. It’s the best.”
She dove into a shop and came out with a box of MDH Kitchen Aid, which I tucked into my carry-on. When I ran out, I found it on the Internet — the magic of our shrinking world.
As the curry for Jessica’s birthday bubbled on the stovetop, I pulled out my book of pictures from India. Instantly, I was on the streets of Calcutta, with its incessantly crowded traffic. I could hear the horns honking in my mind and I laughed remembering that my driver had cautioned, “Ma’am, do not get your camera, or your hands, outside the window of the car. It is dangerous! We lose our side mirrors all the time.”
It was the countryside I loved more than the city. It was wheat harvesting time the first time I was in India, and they would haul the bundles of wheat to the roadside and spread it over the pavement for the cars and trucks to drive over — one of their inventive ways of threshing wheat. I kept wondering how effective it was, but it worked.
As the dal cooked I perused pictures of Indian women in their colorful saris cutting rice in the fields. They looked like beautiful butterflies even though they lived in poverty. My camera was constantly clicking.
We had it all, for Jess’s birthday dinner: vegetable curry, cauliflower curry with peas, dal, raita, basmati rice — that fragrant grain that smells like popcorn when it’s cooking — mango chutney, papadum, naan, and mango lassi to drink. My house smelled wonderful. We could have been in Dehli but we were in Ramona!
Then we had chocolate cheesecake, a very American dessert that our Austrian friend Michaela had made on another day in the country.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2019