by Mary Gulivindala
I was recently asked in a writing class to expand on the following: “Do you love hot and spicy foods, or do you avoid them for fear of what tomorrow might bring?” Here’s my answer:
Prior to becoming a mother I had a mother-in-law, whose son I had eloped with. He is from India, but since we eloped, this marriage obviously was not arranged. His family is from a village near a town called Visakhapatnam in South India.
Thus, I have definitely learned the difference between North Indian and South Indian cuisine. South Indian food IS eating a ring of fire! Pass the buttermilk, please! In India most women watch bad Hindi soap operas, gossip and cook. The first time I met my mother-in-law and the family tribe, an awkward hour or two after I married their son, I walked in the door and was immediately given food. (Not spicy, sweet.) My husband said, “Eat; its called Prasad.” Prasad is “a gracious gift.” It is insulting not to eat the offering, so I did. It was different but good.
The next visit I would be given a cooking lesson that I didn’t ask for. I was taken by the arm into the kitchen where Atama, my mother-in-law, started oiling up pans, shaking out spices (SPICES) and frying foods I never heard of or smelled before. What made it more interesting was that she didn’t speak English. She spoke Telugu. Teluwhat? (Oh, how I longed for Hindi.)
Now Atama started handing me spoons, pointing at pots and speaking to me as if I were a Telugu-speaking person. “Bagane vunnanu? Baganeno.” Uh-huh, smile. Grease was splattering everywhere, the kitchen was getting smoky but all was well in Atama’s world so all was well in mine. At one point I tried to mime about measurements, i.e., teaspoon, tablespoon, etc. Oh, no no no, she mimed back by pointing at her eye. Next she started pinching away at those innumerable exotic red spices while I stood there awkwardly shaking my head, smiling and pretending that I knew what I was doing.
I was given a task, to chop the onion. It had to weigh at least one pound. Now I don’t chop onions, and the only time I remember my mother chopping onions was when she made meatloaf on Wednesdays, with potatoes. But I did so this time, tearfully and smiling.
The table was set. Lamb, chicken curry, curried vegetables, sambaar (lentil soup) pooris, which are like crepes, fried okra, potatoes and ALWAYS rice. White, lemon and another kind of rice I don’t remember. Little dishes with what looked like sour cream and ranch dressing were on the table.
Everyone sat except Atama. The women don’t sit; they serve. Then it’s pandemonium! Hands flying everywhere, dishes being passed every which way (not in a circle; I’m in culture shock), and the family is loud. Food is dished onto my plate, and I sit there, look down, no silverware? Everyone is eating with their fingers! OMG!
Sitting there, I started to feel hot. I could tell my face was getting red. I picked up a poori, scooped up some curry and then … the top of my head blew off. There was no hiding it. I couldn’t even pretend. My eyes started watering, nose started running. I’m sweating and fanning myself with one hand while chugging a glass of water with the other. Suddenly everyone stops, looks at me and starts speaking gibberish all at once. With a questioning look on their faces, I’m asked “Is it too hot?”
Next thing I know, those aforementioned little dishes come flying my way. I’m told to mix it into my food to cool it a bit. Yes, please! I’m told one was yogurt with cucumbers, and the other was buttermilk. While I’m trying to recover, they all start laughing. They think it’s great! Well, it was white rice and pooris for me for the rest of that meal.
This was now my culture, I would have to acquire a taste for it over time, which I did. It was my “Intro to South Indian Food 101.” When it was time to leave, Atama handed me a bag of I-don’t-know-what. She spoke in code to my husband, who then relayed the message to me: “My mom mixed the spices together for you, so you don’t have to measure. Just sprinkle it in when cooking.” I’m thinking, “Sprinkle on what?”
Over the years I did “try” to cook Indian food. It’s just easier to order. I did learn some Telugu, and my mother-in-law was forced to learn English. Traditions and rituals were learned and shared, but I always wondered what Atama really thought of me. Then one day, I found out.
There she stood in the kitchen, cooking, frying, pinching her spices and tossing in those chilies. When we sat to eat, she had cooked the food two different ways. Food for them, the spicy hot ring of fire; and food for me that had been kicked down a few notches to a ring of embers. My husband leaned over and whispered in my ear, “That’s how you know she likes you.”