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October 11, 1999


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Memories of Paati's Kitchen

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Shoba Narayan

The first thing my grandmother did on entering her kitchen in Noorni village, south India, was to pour tulsi (holy basil) water down her throat. She didn't sip it. Sipping out of glasses, or any other vessel for that matter, is considered impure and uncouth in India. Paati had a tall copper tumbler that she would fill with water, throw a sprig of tulsi leaves and leave overnight.

At dawn, she would enter the kitchen -- fresh from her bath, with water dripping off her damp sari. She would light the lamp at the altar, conduct her puja and and chant Vedic mantras. At the end of her puja was the holy drink, a tumbler full of basil water straight down her throat.

For us children, Paati's kitchen was like a war zone. Large stainless steel bins stood like sentinels guarding the doors. There were hundreds of rules. We couldn't touch uncooked grains after handling dinnerware, dairy and grains had to be placed in opposite corners of the kitchen, leftovers couldn't even enter the kitchen, and God help you if you drank some milk and left the glass on the kitchen counter. It was an ancient, complex system, somewhat akin to the kosher rules of the Jewish faith. But I didn't know that as a child.

Yet, Paati's kitchen tempted us with its enticing mixture of smells. In the morning, it was south Indian coffee -- with its aromatic blend of plantation and peabury beans with a dash of chicory. The coffee powder was decocted, using a muslin cloth as a filter. It was mixed with boiling cow's milk, enough sugar "to take the bitterness out without adding to the taste of coffee" as Paati would say, and served in stainless steel tumblers.

And then there were the spices, of course! The five seminal spices of Indian cooking are black mustard seeds, red chilies, cumin, fenugreek and coriander seeds. Generations of Indian women are given an Anjala box as part of their dowry. Inside the circular box are arranged five containers with the spices.

When I first came to America to attend graduate school over a decade ago, the only thing that my mother cared to pack was my spice-box. The unsuspecting Customs officer who opened my suitcase for inspection was confronted with an Indian kitchen nestled inside a Samsonite suitcase. Clear plastic bottles filled with yellow turmeric, black mustard seeds, golden lentils, green curry leaves, sprigs of cinnamon and bay leaves lined my suitcase. He confiscated them all, and put an end to my spice trade.

I recently remodeled my kitchen in New York so far from Noorni village where our family lived for generations. My kitchen has oak cabinets with fancy pull-out shelves and lazy susans, a microwave, a food processor -- all the trimmings of a modern kitchen. Yet, the underlying design is geared toward clean, vegetarian cooking, just as it was in Paati's kitchen. After consulting several kitchen designers, I decided that Indian cooks, after centuries of experimenting had come up with a set of rules that were specifically geared towards efficient, tasty vegetarian cooking.

Some of the rules are simple. A grinder is a must. Paati had an old-fashioned stone pestle and mortar set close to the stove. I have a Moulinex spice grinder. You can wrestle with it, try out all the prepackaged curry powders that you like, but if you are a serious vegetarian cook, you will ultimately need a spice grinder to grind fresh spices into your curries. Other rules are spiritual. It helps if you have a space for lighting a lamp or candle in the kitchen. The Chinese called it Kitchen God, the Indians call it puja area.

I have designated a corner of my Formica counter as my puja area, and light a lamp every morning and evening before I commence cooking.

There are architectural rules as well, and ways of circumventing them. Indian tradition says the best place for the kitchen is the south-east corner. It is the residence of the God of Fire -- Agni, who will stoke your stove and keep the kitchen fires burning. Well, our kitchen was in the west...

The problem with most New York kitchens is, of course, that they aren't roomy enough for the hordes of women that populate them. In India, cooking is a communal activity to be shared with every woman in the household.

During the annual shraadam, an elaborate day-long ceremony, when the entire clan gathered to pay obeisance to our ancestors, generations of women worked together in the kitchen.

At the crack of dawn, the women gathered in the kitchen to prepare the feast that would feed the 12 Brahmin priests, two cows, our entire family and all the crows in the neighborhood. Crows were supposed to carry the souls of our forefathers, so the more crows we fed, the better it was for our lineage.

There were strict rules: dairy couldn't mix with grains, everything had to be fresh and prepared according to a menu and recipes that had been decided on generations ago. The young ones rushed between the store room and the stove, carrying grains, shredded coconut, vegetables, water, and spices; my cousins and I did the prep work, and our mothers helped our grandmother preside over the stove. Three generations of women working in harried harmony.

In New York today, I stand in solitary splendor trying to replicate the noise and bustle of my childhood home. Only the wailing ambulances outside and the soulful Indian songs from my tape recorder serve to remind me of the scores of Indian kitchens were some of my happiest childhood moments were spent.

Shoba Narayan is a freelance writer, foodie and mom in New York City. She graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism prior to which she was a sculptor and chef. She has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe, House Beautiful, New Woman and other publications. She is a commentator for National Public Radio.

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