The traveling rice cooker
The best meals we had in Italy came from my mother's suitcase.
In a country known for its chicken cacciatore, pasta Bolognese, and spaghetti and meatballs, my favorite meal came out of a rice cooker in a hotel room.
My mother had bought a 220-volt rice cooker, knowing that she'd crave her favorite Indian foods during our two-week family vacation in Italy. My parents don't like to eat out much. So to save money, my mother had brought a roll-along suitcase with the rice cooker packed inside along with a few other ingredients we'd need: rice, spices, mustard seeds, semolina, and a couple of sweet potatoes.
"You actually brought sweet potatoes?" I asked, laughing. "You know, I'm pretty sure they have those here."
My mother smiled and continued to unpack, knowing I'd be happy later on that she packed those sweet potatoes.
"Maybe we should hide the rice cooker in our safe so the cleaning ladies won't report it," I joked. "We'll need an entire can of air freshener to cover up the smell."
Considering how proud Italians are of their cuisine, we were happy they didn't burst in with a SWAT team smelling of garlic, Parmesan cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes.
But I couldn't joke about the food my mother made. While we strolled through piazzas during the day, we stopped and ate a plate of pasta, a slice of pizza, or a cup of gelato. But at night, when we came back to our hotel, my mother made us lentil soup and flavored rice dishes. Those quick meals reminded me of the dishes she made at home, where she slowly stirred broths and soups in boiling pots. We laughed about how well and cheaply we ate during our trip.
We didn't realize how fortunate we were to have home-cooked meals until we met another Indian family on a boat heading to Murano.
"My kids are dying for some sambar satham," the woman said, excited about returning home to Paris to make the South Indian staple dish.
"I actually made some last night," my mother said, mentioning the rice cooker.
"You're kidding," the woman said, shocked, but also impressed by my mother's inventiveness.
My sister, Roopika, and I decided to challenge my mother to make one of our favorite dishes, mattar paneer – which consists of cheese soaked in tomato gravy – using just her rice cooker.
After a day of touring Venice, we bought balls of mozzarella and fresh marinara. At our hotel, after adding some chili powder and cumin to the rice cooker, my mother's mattar paneer was ready.
But that wasn't all.
She boiled the sweet potatoes in the rice cooker and mashed them, adding the fried mustard seeds and a pinch of lemon juice and salt to make a sweet spread. She had already made some upma – a coarse porridge made of semolina – for lunch and had overhead me saying how well it would pair with an Indian pickle.
"I think I saw a lemon tree outside," she said, asking me to pick some fruit.
"Are you serious?" I asked. But when I walked outside, I saw a tree brimming with green fruit and picked a lemon.
I boiled it in a coffee maker in the hotel room, and once the outer peel was soft, I chopped the lemon into pieces seasoning it with salt, chili powder, and mustard seeds. Under my mother's direction, I squeezed some extra lemon juice into some banana yogurt I had saved from breakfast, and cut some bananas into it, adding some salt and sugar and mustard seeds to make a raita, a yogurt-based sauce.
My mother knew that on this trip we'd miss her home-cooked meals as much as she would. Each year, I usually use my vacation hours for a trip home to see my family and look forward to my mother's cooking. But this year we all went to Europe together.
Italians would understand my desire for my mother's food. Italian men are known to continue living with their families into their 30s, no doubt drawn to their mothers' minestrone and veal Parmesan.
Those Italian mothers would no doubt feel a kinship with my mother. "When you ask for something, I never like to say no," she says. "I'll always find a way."