Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mishti Doi, graduate student chicken, archival rice and food moments in the US

This is San Francisco, you never know”, said the waiter with a shrug, contemplating the plate of bay leaves and crushed ice he had placed on my table--when I clarified—that what I had asked for was some Baileys on ice.  An upscale, hustle bustle American cuisine kind of place, near Chinatown: we had just finished an enjoyable dinner.  I have had some interesting moments here, particularly with food, as I have tried to fit into the lay of this land the past 26 years.

My friends and colleagues have always found Indian food enjoyable, like that night under a starry sky in 1994, when we let loose fireworks bought legally across the Wisconsin border, seeing them streak upwards, beholding the flat expanse of darkness that is the signature of the midwest.  Then settling in, I grilled chicken legs on a coal fire smeared with tandoori  sauce.  The spouses of my midwestern colleagues, some of whom had never had Indian food, relished it with a curious trepidation, seeking its recipe and, recoiling in horror, when I describe the 3 tablespoons of cow’s urine that went into the marinade, then breaking into relieved laughter a split second later. 

When I came to Portland in 1985, there were no Indian restaurants in Beaverton, no Indian grocery store that I could think of.  Los Angeles was better, with a little Indian store near ISKCON in Venice that had a fantastic vegetarian $2 lunch on Sunday, and a little shopping center in Arcadia that sold, among other things, 220V appliances.  Those were the times when I cooked dal in the Hawkins pressure cooker my mother had packed for me, the one with a thin metal membrane gasket designed to perforate if the internal pressure got too high.  I had my friend Ty for dinner that night, in the bare, carpeted one bedroom apartment with its textured plaster ceiling and the overhead light that shone down on Ty’s bald patch like a helicopter searchlight on downtown LA.    Ty viewed the Indian engineered Hawkins with suspicion as I dismissively waived aside his objections as typical American arrogance.  Alas, I had failed to clean the relief valve nozzle of the cooker that night, and the gasket exploded with a vengeance, our meal sprayed on the ceiling, Ty ducking for cover, expletives aimed at me.

Inspite of the increased availability of Indian food, supplies are still limited and you often need to make do at times.  For years, M has followed a first order approximation to Misti Doi (sweet yogurt), that Kolkata delicacy of unblemished stature which, had it existed during the times of James Clive, would have sent him into a delirium of bliss so as to have made the battle of Plassey entirely unnecessary.   The real way of making Misthi Doi is a complicated one, but here is a cheat that she picked up from a friend.  Mix a can of evaporated milk, a can of condensed milk, and 2 cups of yogurt—mix it up, keep in an oven at 300F for a while, then turn it off, leaving overnight as the warm oven cools.  Served chilled, the result is a thick, rich, meal ending dessert that has always been a hit (The one made with Greek Yogurt is particularly good).

Indian food can take its revenge, like the time I travelled with a group of American colleagues to Delhi for a conference, and a few of the lionhearted ones ventured out for lassi despite my warnings.  The attack of Delhi Belly was swift and merciless, my close colleague found wandering the halls of his hotel at 4 in the morning seeking an attendant—he had run out of toilet paper.  Bengali sweets though, bathed in their sugary  sweetness are harmless, inspite of the swath of flies hovering around them under glass display cases—the sugar dehydrates the bacteria, preventing any bacterial population from forming. 

Then there was graduate student chicken, the first dish I mastered, whose memory still gives me nightmares--crafted with the engineered bird that Frank Purdue has bequeathed us (organic chicken was not readily available in those days, nor could we have afforded it on a student’s stipend).  It was important to have labeled those packages as chicken, for I sure would not have recognized the taste. We were cooking up a new Indian cuisine in the sparse expanse of Beaverton in those days, using memory, smell, impatience, and the palette of new foods we would uncover at the grocery.  It was a set routine, a terse sequence: chopped onions, ginger and garlic sliced to the extent that patience allowed, the chicken legs fried in an oily exuberance, some yogurt added along with a magic mix of whatever ground Indian spices may be handy.  So lenient was our use of turmeric that a fellow student and friend who came down with an acute case of Hepatits A from food in Mumbai, suspected for weeks that the turmeric was the root cause behind his yellow pallor.  My friend D had his special archival rice dish—it came from a rice cooker that had never seen a scrub with soap—for whenever the level of the rice dipped, D would add a few more cups of uncooked grains to the existing rice, and set the cooker to boil.  There were grains in there that were twice, thrice, perhaps quadruply cooked.

Our expectations of food at times raise amusing cultural cross-connections.   In the days that vegetarian fast food was difficult to find here, a trick was to order a burger at McDonald’s with an instruction to hold the burger.  But the point is perhaps no better illustrated by the writer R.K. Narayan who, when asked during a visit whether he wanted his coffee black or white, indicated that he needed it brown, as it should always be.

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