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.