A decade ago, after just a few ill-fated and highly self-esteem-damaging attempts to learn my native South Indian cuisine, I threw in the rice cooker.
Really. I chucked my tiny four-cup nemesis into a dumpster, and with it any illusions that I’d ever make dosa, please my parents and become some sort of hipster Madhur Jaffrey.
“It’s too complicated! There are too many spices,” I’d fume as I toasted mustard seed, lentils and turmeric into a blackened, bitter mess.
South Indian food is also fairly unfamiliar stateside, its tamarind, coconut, tiny-but-potent chilies and fresh herbs more reminiscent of Southeast Asian flavors than the vindaloo Americans know.
Unlike the northern regions of India, where wheat flourishes and is milled into an array of naans, rotis and ghee-soaked parathas, southern India is tropical, shaded by coconut and banana trees and filled with forests of black pepper as juicy as berries on the vine. And just beyond the 24-hour clatter of cities such as Chennai (population: 8 million), the southern plains are covered in a lush, green carpet of rice paddies.
For the large number of vegetarians from the coastal state of Tamil Nadu, where my family is from, rice is everything. It is boiled for a pantheon of rice dishes. For crisp dosas and spongy idlis, it’s ground into a batter. It’s even pounded flat and fried for crunchy hot mixes that serve as a midday snack.
Rice is in my blood. But I’ve never been able to cook it.
Oh, sure, I have charred it. I have pulled it from that rice cooker so waterlogged that, as my friends arrived for the Indian feast I had promised, I sobbed large, panicked tears.
Among children of immigrants, cooking is often fraught: It’s a way of carrying on cultural traditions, of fighting off the anxious feeling that you are a generation away from blurring into everyone else. Each narrowly avoided grease fire was evidence that my very Indian-ness was tenuous.
“You were not interested,” my mother, Lakshmi, tells me in her lilting, faintly accented English when I ask her why I never embedded myself in her spacious suburban kitchen, where a zillion pungent spices hide in as many burnt-orange Tupperware containers.
A few years ago, Mom optimistically presented me with my own stainless-steel spice box. The boxes are staples of Indian households, offering quick access to frequently used spices. Perhaps because she knew I was a lost cause, mine is so small it’s almost dainty, about the right size for a 5-year-old’s Easy Bake kitchen. I left its seven tiny little cups empty for years.
It has not been all my fault. There are no cookbooks in most South Indian households, no binders full of casserole recipes from which to pull dinner plans. There are no measuring cups or spoons in our home. Ask my mother how to make rice and she suggests that one can “take two fingers water, and one finger rice,” or something to that effect.
These are not recipes, I often chide her. They are riddles.
When one’s culinary track record is as bleak as mine, it is wise to call in the big guns. And so I sheepishly explain to Vikram Sunderam, the James Beard Award-winning executive chef of Rasika, that I’m hoping he can teach me to cook, beginning with rice.
Astonishingly, he is sympathetic to my plight. His menus span all corners of the subcontinent, each dish always pitch-perfect in its distillation of the cooking traditions of its particular region. But his father is South Indian.
“Just cook it like pasta!” Sunderam insists when I meet him in the subterranean kitchen of Rasika West End. He is emphatic that I forget about the rice cooker — done and done, sir — and use what he calls the draining method, which is to boil the rice and then drain off the water when it’s done, as if it were spaghetti.
I enlist Sunderam to teach me to make one meal, a simple but common trio of vegetarian dishes: lemon rice, a vegetable stir-fry known as poriyal, and a yogurt accompaniment called pachadi. As he dices carrots and effortlessly tosses his spices in the pan, Sunderam explains the traditions that I, as a vegetarian, haven’t experienced, such as the rich seafood dishes that also hail from the southern state of Kerala as well as Tamil Nadu, which sits on the edge of the rich, blue Bay of Bengal. The never-ending train of explorers and invaders who came into India from the north centuries ago deeply influenced North Indian food, Sunderam says, but in the South, the cuisine was and still is driven by the tropical geography.
I leave with recipes that contain actual measurements, which feels like a minor miracle. When we’re done, he also asks me to taste everything, arguing that it will help me as I attempt to re-create the dishes later.
I sigh, as I often do when I’m a diner in his restaurants. It tastes exactly like home.
When I try to explain South Indian food to friends, I always begin with dosa, a dish with enough exposure in the West that it rarely needs an introduction. A golden lentil-and-rice crepe that can be as crispy as a potato chip (while never crumbling like one), it’s a crowd-pleaser. But it’s hardly representative. The crepe itself is a blank canvas, made for dipping into accompaniments that have the range of hot, sour and cool that the cuisine can evince.
If the poriyal and rice were my attempt to add home-style food to my arsenal, my desire to learn to make dosa is about having a party trick. For sambar, a lentiland-vegetable stew with an army of ingredients, I will defer to a packaged spice mix. But I want to learn to make the crepes and the coconut chutney that are so often its accompaniment.
Ananda Poojary, the owner of Woodlands restaurant in Langley Park, where some of the region’s best dosas are made, agrees to meet me with ingredients in hand. For dosa, he shows me just three: rice, the lentil called urad dal, and fenugreek seeds. The secret to the crepe is what you do when you’re at the griddle. A dosa should never be flipped like a pancake; it should be so thin that it cooks through. Poojary tells me the ideal dosa is crispy to the bite, but pliable; to show me, he takes one in his hands and rolls it slightly. When it is my turn at the griddle, I carefully pour on a pool of batter and use the stainless-steel cup’s rounded bottom to spread it. Behind me, I can make out the unmistakable sound of the restaurant’s dosa cook, snickering.
Feeling inexplicably gutsy, I had decided to make the dishes and serve them to friends, but after my first two lessons, I’m not sure I’ve learned anything at all. I have been avoiding the kitchen for days.
I have one last stop: a South Indian temple. In many temples around the world, vegetarian food is cooked by holy men and offered to the gods and then to devotees as blessed food, known as prasadam.
On a Frederick County hilltop, the $8.5 million Sri Bhaktha Anjaneya Temple will open in the next few months. One of the priests, Thyagarajan Subburathinam, explains to me in Tamil that prasadam — which can include tamarind-laced rice and spinach curry, protein-packed pongal and sweets — are cooked with holistic principles in mind. Acidity, digestion and balance are all at play: Each ingredient, each combination of spice and cooling yogurt, protein and leafy vegetable, “is about keeping our minds clear,” he says. In addition to meat, onions and garlic, alcohol and leftovers are verboten.
Very religious South Indian families, including mine, eat like this at home, too. It’s the kind of diet I grew up with. (Though these days, I supplement it with the occasional negroni.)
Subburathinam invites me to learn from Raghavan Srinivasa, the priest who is the temple’s dedicated cook, as he prepares hundreds of orange-hued jangri, intricate floral-shaped tuiles made of lentil batter.
After watching Srinivasa, I try squeezing my own jangri from a cheesecloth packed with the colored batter. It looks like a snaking pile of dung.
I lament that there’s hardly a second to breathe over this bubbling pan of hot ghee. That is the very nature of Indian cooking, Srinivasa tells me as he examines my jangri with a grimace. The preparation involved can seem painstaking, endless. But when it is time to cook, one had better hustle like an Olympic sprinter.
I’m comforted by the notion that even the priest, who has been cooking for 45 years, has been in my position. For the first time, I feel confident about my bad cooking. My dung pile is good enough.
A couple of days later, a few friends gather in my Northwest Washington apartment to taste what I’d been working on for the past few weeks. My roommate’s fiance, Joe, who had once apprenticed in an Indian kitchen, confesses delicately that he wasn’t entirely sure I’d ever manage to get a South Indian dinner on the table. (Admittedly, a week earlier, I didn’t know how to cut a carrot.)
But there it was: lemon and coconut rices, which I’d boiled like pasta and which were so fluffy they garnered compliments. A chutney, made with Poojary’s recipe, perfectly spiced and nutty. My dosas were on the thick side, but they looked exactly like the ones at Woodlands. Was I a real Indian cook, a changed woman? Not in the slightest. But South Indian food suddenly felt demystified. Being in the kitchen didn’t make me hyperventilate. With my mother’s assistance, I even finally filled my spice box.
When I was cooking with Sunderam, I had wondered about his own children, and whether their exposure to his cooking had made them more curious about Indian food than I was. Surely his daughter, who is 19 and studying international business, was wise enough to pick up a thing or two from her famous father?
She says she’s going to hire a cook, Sunderam says with a laugh. “Both my children aren’t into cooking. They like to eat. Now that they’ve grown up, they really want to try different cuisines.”
The tone in his voice was familiar. They are not interested.
I laughed to myself, because I know something that Sunderam probably has yet to realize about his Indian American daughter.
She’ll come around.
Sunderam will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at live.washingtonpost.com.