Cooking Indian Food In College

Learning To Cook In College Gave Me Comfort In An Unfamiliar Place

On making half-baked pseudo-fusion food.

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After one semester of Stony Brook's dining plan, I was in despair. So in the spring of freshman year, I fled the interminable parade of oily, overcooked vegetables and clumpy undercooked rice that passed for dining hall food in favor of a room in West Apartments. There, limited in both time and knowledge, I began to experiment with fusion food.

It was mostly unintentional. For example, I came up with quinoa biryani after I ran out of rice one weekend. Adding basil pasta sauce to my sambar was a last-minute substitution after my tomato got squished by a jar of peanut butter. On the other end, my agave-less attempt at agave-apple tarts tasted really bland (agave is expensive and I am a college student, not Ina Garten), so I substituted with a bit of cardamom. It was delicious. I then began adding cardamom, that staple of Indian sweetmeats, to everything from chocolate cake to ice cream.

Of course, there have been some less than successful creations. The one that still haunts my taste buds is an attempt at making fig and butternut squash soup with chili peppers. It does not taste anywhere near as good as it sounds. Yet my biggest limitation is the cold. A lot of South Indian cooking relies on fermentation and is very difficult to ferment things that would sooner freeze in a Long Island winter. My attempts making a decent adhirasam will be on hold until the coming summer, it seems.

Spices were even harder to master. My lemon rice initially reeked of ginger, and all the curries I made that first February tasted like leaves. Leaves. It was downright disgusting and I made sure to use less ashwagandha the next time around.

Then there was the time I mistook iodized salt for asafoetida…

I still persisted, though. Home had never felt farther than during the windy Long Island winters, and I longed for food that would warm my soul as much as it would nourish my body. Through the tears and occasional dry heaving, my cooking slowly began taking on a semblance of taste, then flavor, before blossoming into deliciously divine-smelling dishes. As time passed, I became more comfortable with the bevy of spices that now occupy pride of place in my dorm kitchen.

I personally believe that there is nothing quite as traditional as learning to cook from scratch. When I was little, I used to be in awe of my mother. Standing over the stovetop, she would toss pinches of multicolored powder into a steel pressure cooker with what appeared to be unsystematic abandon. Yet no matter how haphazard the process looked, the final product was always delicious (unless it involved bitter gourd — I despise bitter gourd).

Whether it was pongal glistening with ghee, pulikolambu with tamarind chunks half-submerged in bubbling red liquid, or perfectly rounded panniyaram studded with slivers of onions like amethysts, nearly every meal was homemade Indian food.

Before going off to college, I asked her for recipes. She gave me some vague lists of ingredients and a boxful of old jam jars filled with spices. The only specific measurement she gave me was a warning to not eat more than one clove of garlic a day. I was disappointed, halted in my pursuit of flavors from a time when I was not mired in midterms. For me, learning to cook Indian food was less about returning to my roots and more about finding comfort in an unfamiliar place.

Now, when my friends ask how I cook, I give them the same blank stare my mother used to direct at me. Perhaps the reason why she never gives me definitive recipes is because she doesn't have any, having herself learned from a mix of error and observation. She admits that before living on her own, she had rarely cooked and couldn't tell the difference between mung and masoor dal if her life depended on it. My grandmother was similar, only learning when circumstances forced her to be the one to feed her family. Sure, ingredients were mentioned and discussed, but the exact specifics were up to the cook's temperament.

For example, my mother experiments with avocado, grapeseed, and lemon-infused oils while my grandmother prefers the simpler sunflower or peanut ones. I personally swear by coconut and olive. I also usually use rolled oats as a base, while my mother prefers millets and my grandmother prefers rice. Neither my mother or grandmother trusts microwaves, and both would be horrified to learn that I make six-minute sweet potato aloo gobi in one.

The authenticity of food is not determined by whether it is made in an iron griddle over a kerosene flame, a steel pan over an electric stove, or a dorm room microwave. It is in the way the rice melts on your tongue in a burst of tomato and onion, the crisp sound of lady's fingers simmering in cooking oil and ground peppers. The brilliant greens, golds, and vermillion of the vegetables, and the rich aroma of turmeric and coriander that wafts from your fingertips, wrapping you in a comforting familiarity.

I am a time-strapped college student. Sometimes it's all I can do to heat a bowl of oats with onion, frozen peas, and spices before running to my next lecture.

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​An Open Letter To The People Who Don’t Tip Their Servers

This one's for you.
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Dear Person Who Has No Idea How Much The 0 In The “Tip:" Line Matters,

I want to by asking you a simple question: Why?

Is it because you can't afford it? Is it because you are blind to the fact that the tip you leave is how the waiter/waitress serving you is making their living? Is it because you're just lazy and you “don't feel like it"?

Is it because you think that, while taking care of not only your table but at least three to five others, they took too long bringing you that side of ranch dressing? Or is it just because you're unaware that as a server these people make $2.85 an hour plus TIPS?

The average waiter/waitress is only supposed to be paid $2.13 an hour plus tips according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

That then leaves the waiter/waitress with a paycheck with the numbers **$0.00** and the words “Not a real paycheck." stamped on it. Therefore these men and women completely rely on the tips they make during the week to pay their bills.

So, with that being said, I have a few words for those of you who are ignorant enough to leave without leaving a few dollars in the “tip:" line.

Imagine if you go to work, the night starts off slow, then almost like a bomb went off the entire workplace is chaotic and you can't seem to find a minute to stop and breathe, let alone think about what to do next.

Imagine that you are helping a total of six different groups of people at one time, with each group containing two to 10 people.

Imagine that you are working your ass off to make sure that these customers have the best experience possible. Then you cash them out, you hand them a pen and a receipt, say “Thank you so much! It was a pleasure serving you, have a great day!"

Imagine you walk away to attempt to start one of the 17 other things you need to complete, watch as the group you just thanked leaves, and maybe even wave goodbye.

Imagine you are cleaning up the mess that they have so kindly left behind, you look down at the receipt and realize there's a sad face on the tip line of a $24.83 bill.

Imagine how devastated you feel knowing that you helped these people as much as you could just to have them throw water on the fire you need to complete the night.

Now, realize that whenever you decide not to tip your waitress, this is nine out of 10 times what they go through. I cannot stress enough how important it is for people to realize that this is someone's profession — whether they are a college student, a single mother working their second job of the day, a new dad who needs to pay off the loan he needed to take out to get a safer car for his child, your friend, your mom, your dad, your sister, your brother, you.

If you cannot afford to tip, do not come out to eat. If you cannot afford the three alcoholic drinks you gulped down, plus your food and a tip do not come out to eat.

If you cannot afford the $10 wings that become half-off on Tuesdays plus that water you asked for, do not come out to eat.

If you cannot see that the person in front of you is working their best to accommodate you, while trying to do the same for the other five tables around you, do not come out to eat. If you cannot realize that the man or woman in front of you is a real person, with their own personal lives and problems and that maybe these problems have led them to be the reason they are standing in front of you, then do not come out to eat.

As a server myself, it kills me to see the people around me being deprived of the money that they were supposed to earn. It kills me to see the three dollars you left on a $40 bill. It kills me that you cannot stand to put yourself in our shoes — as if you're better than us. I wonder if you realize that you single-handedly ruined part of our nights.

I wonder if maybe one day you will be in our shoes, and I hope to God no one treats you how you have treated us. But if they do, then maybe you'll realize how we felt when you left no tip after we gave you our time.

Cover Image Credit: Hailea Shallock

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My Strange Obsession: Bibibop Addition

I am obsessed with Bibibop.

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I am obsessed with Bibibop.

Sounds strange, right? But it's true.

For those of you who have never had the opportunity to experience Bibibop, Bibibop is an Asian Grill set up similar to Chipotle. You're able to go down the line of food, choosing a base (always go with the purple rice), hot toppings (they all slap), protein (the tofu is to die for), some cold toppings (a great way to try kale for the first time), and a sauce (if you don't get the Yum Yum sauce, you're weird.)

And, let me tell you, the final product is always delicious.

I hadn't been introduced to Bibibop until this past year, but once I tried it for the first time, I never looked back. Now I am constantly craving the taste of the Yum Yum sauce. I usually hit up Bibibop once every two weeks, but if I was rich, I would probably eat it every other day.

Though, admittedly, the prices are pretty good. And they celebrate meatless Mondays with 20% off to anyone who doesn't get meat in their bowl.

Plus, it's pretty healthy. Unlike most restaurants, like Chipotle, where your somewhat healthy meal can instantly become bad for you with the addition of something on the menu, Bibibop's entire menu provides nutritional value and offers gluten-free and vegan options.

Basically, Bibibop is the most underrated and most delicious restaurant in the world, which is why my obsession with it runs so deep. Although I would usually admit that obsessions are unhealthy, I think this one might be okay.

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