Friday, August 20, 2010

Beginnings, part two

 I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, but went to college in San Francisco. While a student, I dated a musician, originally from New York who had traveled around India for several months, and smoked bidi, the slim cigarettes rolled up in a brown leaf with an acrid aroma. Together we frequented Bay Area Indian restaurants and the musty little spice shops that often mushroomed nearby--once we bought what must have been a years supply of garlic, just because an Indian man was selling it cheap from the sidewalk. The restaurants at that time served mostly Moghul-style North Indian fare in exotically draped dim spaces reeking of sandalwood with soft sitar music and candles setting a fantasy mood. I recall most of the dishes tasting almost the same, rich, buttery and sweetly spicy, even when hot enough to set my mouth on fire. Desserts were also super sweet and creamy, smelling faintly of face cream and eucalyptus. After graduating, I got a job at a publishing company in Singapore. I moved there and ended up by happy circumstance living in the Little India section just off Serangoon Road. In this area a wizened old man with his head wrapped in yards of white cloth sold yogurt scooped into plastic bags from a milk pail strapped to a bicycle. Rows of open-fronted shops sold spices in large tins, freshly ground in what looked like huge coffee mills. Other shops sold sweets, saris, bangles and jasmine garlands strung on silver threads. It was here I first discovered South Indian vegetarian food, ladled from buckets onto mounds of rice on banana leaf plates for eating with ones hands-- no cutlery provided. The food was lighter and fresher, dancing with flavors that intrigued: coconut, tamarind, black mustard seeds and fragrant curry leaves.  These exhilarating banana leaf meals sparked what was to become a lifetime interest and love of Indian food— both eating and cooking it and unearthing the tangled history of a complex cuisine. In Singapore I discovered a small microcosm of India, with a mix of Tamils from South India and Sri Lanka, Sikh Punjabis, Indian Muslims, Malayalees from Kerala, Gujaratis, Sindhis and Chettiars (the latter two clans are prominent in the business community with roots in ancient trader/merchant classes). All had distinct cuisines discovered at street stalls, restaurants and in people’s homes, and all were deliciously different from the rich Moghul-style dishes I was familiar with. Singapore was a perfect introduction to India, preparing me for the assault on the senses a trip to India takes. When I finally made it to India almost a decade later, everything was new yet familiar.

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