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A spice box and a cookbook got her started

By Vijaysree Venkatraman / June 7, 2006



When I set off to graduate school in the US, the Internet had not yet taken over the world. I actually spoke to people to gather information about life in America in general and my destination, New Orleans, in particular.

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I was delighted to find a woman whose son was an undergraduate at the university I was headed to. "My son had some problems initially with the food, but you should be fine. You are a girl, no?" she said to reassure me.

Biting back my foolish but proud claim that I would be as useless in the kitchen as any son of hers, I focused on the issues at hand. What was the weather in New Orleans like? Did I have to drive around? Was there public transportation? Food, in fact, was my last concern.

Newly arrived and equally clueless, two other Indian students joined me in the lounge of the chemistry department. We were inseparable in the initial weeks.

Pointing to this and that, we tried various items in the cafeteria. Determined to be vegetarian, my new friends stuck to whatever was green, such as Brussels sprouts floating around in brine or salads with rusting iceberg lettuce.

Tabasco sauce, a dash of which was supposed to perk up every meal, did nothing for us. We exhausted all the combinations of toppings in the nearby pizza place.

Soon, we found a furnished apartment close to school and signed the lease. As I began to unpack - a pressure cooker and a year's supply of spices materialized from my huge suitcase.

So did a round stainless-steel box with seven circular cups within. It was a gleaming replica of my mother's spice box. Instinctively, I began to fill the containers with turmeric, cumin, coriander, black pepper, Bengal gram, red chilies, and mustard seeds.

As I was about to take my suitcase down to the basement, I found a thin cookbook in its cavernous depths.

Inside there was a simple inscription in my mother's neat hand: "From Amma."

Flipping through the pages, I decided that tomato rasam, chicken soup for the vegetarian soul, seemed like a good place to start my culinary career.

I kept some spicy V8 handy, just in case the rasam lacked the bite we were used to, but did not have to open the can at all.

With this book in hand, I did not dread my weekly turn at cooking. Three months later, I even offered to bring a dish when a professor had us over for Thanksgiving dinner.

One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was that a secret to south Indian cooking, the technique called "tempering," cannot be picked up from any book, no matter how well written. You lay out a spoonful or less of spices on a plate. It is tempting to blend them but you cannot do that. Popped, one by one, into a small quantity of hot oil, each spice yields its distinct flavor at a particular temperature. A tiny miscalculation and you'll end up with a semi-charred mess. But done right, the redolent mix gives vegetable dishes a nutty, crunchy flavor.

The dance of the mustard seeds in the hot, smoky oil during this process can easily get out of control, and many a time I had to put a lid on its wild frenzy, sometimes - unfortunately - not before the smoke alarm went off.

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