The best Indian restaurant? Mom's kitchen
PERHAPS the worst person to ask for Indian restaurant recommendations is an Indian. My standards are incredibly idiosyncratic and few Bay Area restaurants can satisfy me. Vik's in Berkeley and Udupi Palace in the South and East Bay comprise the entire list. What can you expect from someone whose mother fed her the best Indian food ever?
What do you mean I'm exaggerating? It's a fact! My mother cooks the most delicious dosa, roti, pulya, saru, sambar, chapati, raita and poori that I have ever tasted. Every day, she heated up corn oil in the pot and used it to bloom selected spices — a handpicked masala (mix) — that would flavor the whole dish. She would open the spice drawer and select perhaps a pinch of cloves and a spoon of turmeric, a dash of coriander and a trickling of cumin.
While I was growing up, I ate her incredibly yummy food every day, for dinner if not for lunch, as well. Aside from dinners at the houses of other Indian immigrants, we seldom ate out.
Finally I realized that this was not just frugality. My parents didn't like American food.
The exceptions made a perplexing list. They would eat bean burritos or tostadas from Taco Bell and pancakes from McDonald's and IHOP, after adding hot sauce, or spicy chutnipuddi powder they brought with them. For a treat, my mom took me to Soupeddler. And we used to order pizza from its eponymous Hut — sprinkled with jalapeos.
A few days ago I asked my mother about this. To them, the pizza was like roti (a pancake), the tostada was like hapla (a crispy shell), and the soup was like saru (a vegetable broth). And those dishes were cheap and vegetarian and stayed that way, because we went to corporate franchises.
I won't eat franchise fast food anymore. I enjoy good food (like my mother's) too much to eat industrially processed pabulum full of preservatives and trans fats. Besides, I loathe corporate conglomerates as much as the next UC Berkeley grad. But, in this refusal, I also cut myself off from childhood memories.
The smell of Taco Bell reminds me of going to the coin laundry with my mother. She'd give my sister and me a few dollars and we'd run to the strip mall's Taco Bell, bursting with the desire to choose our own meals. The perfectly flavorless tortillas, the homogenized refried beans, the impossibly unmeltable "cheddar" cheese — I would taste those and think of joy.
But I refuse, as easy as it would be, to bloom those memories, to drop them into hot oil and let them perfume my senses.
And — as I found out when talking to my mom — they didn't mind home-cooked American food.
"Remember when I was in a car accident in Pottstown?" she asked.
"Of course I do. We were all there, all four of us, and you broke your foot."
"Our neighbor Hilda would come over and cook for me, after the accident. She was an old lady. She made rice in a soup with green chile peppers and lemon juice, and vegetables. I ate all her soup. It was wonderful."
My mother remembered meals with the Moreartys and with Mrs. Rogers, who played Yahtzee with us. It turns out that my parents were happy to eat American food when their friends made it — I just hadn't seen or remembered.
"Hilda, she was a perfect American. Her son died in the war, in Vietnam. And her daughter had told her that she was a gay. She used to come over and talk. She showed me around Pottstown — I learned all about Pottstown from her. You know, I was in the U.S., I didn't have my mother. She was my American mother."
Here is my mother's recipe for mensinsaru. It's both a cold remedy and dinner.
1/2 tablespoon butter or thuppa (i.e., ghee or clarified butter)
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon fresh or ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon cumin (optional)
A few whole cloves (also optional)
Start by melting the butter or thuppa in a pot. Don't boil it. Then add the rest of the ingredients. Once you can smell those spices, they've flavored the fat.
Add 4 cups water. Boil it down to 2 cups and drink with honey. Or add salt and serve it with rice.
Write to Sumana Harihareswara at email@example.com.