Saapaadu Ready: Travels With My Mother's South Indian Kitchen

Tamarind rice. . Shutterstock

We are packing for a trip. My parents, my uncle, and I are about to drive eight hours from my uncle's house in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Birmingham, Alabama, where we will stay with my cousin Manu for a week. In preparation, my mother, Viji, has piled the following items in the middle of the living room: one pomegranate, one bag of okra, one chayote squash, one and a half cauliflower heads, three eggplant, five tomatoes, five lemons, six green plantains, 11 carrots, and a bunch of cilantro wrapped in cloth in a Ziploc. These are our vegetable passengers.

They're joined by a jar each of Assam tea and French lentils, one package of grated coconut, one big container of basmati rice, three jars of powdered dals, one container of pounded rice, biryani masala mix, one jar of tamarind pulp, and one huge container of homemade yogurt. "Make sure all their mouths are properly closed!" cries Mom from the kitchen.

She adds idli (rice cake) molds, a saucepan, a mortar and pestle, and a pressure cooker, which is itself crammed with spice containers (cumin, fenugreek, sesame and mustard seeds, cardamom and coriander pods, black peppercorns, and whole red chilies). To be clear, the growing mountain of ingredients and equipment won't be deployed until we reach our destination. "There are restaurants in Alabama," I bleat out, watching glassware, cups, cutlery, paper dishes, towels, and pillows disappear into the back of my uncle's blue Honda Odyssey. "There are stores. Businesses where currency can be exchanged for food."

Ignoring me, my mother turns her attention to feeding us while we're on the road: grapes, bananas, one large Tupperware of puliodharai (tamarind peanut rice), roasted peanuts, two packages of tea biscuits, two packages each of cashew cookies, pistachio almond cookies, and butter cookies, murukku and Madras mixture (deep-fried snacks made with chickpea flour), a box of Middle Eastern sweets (baklava, dates, phyllo treats), four yogurt drinks, and a jumbo bag of potato chips. My folks continue the three-dimensional Tetris game of loading the van: food and coolers here, two full cots over there, pressure cooker underneath, suitcases in between. I text Manu a picture of the van as a warning (he's a light packer). "Woo!" he replies, accepting what is coming his way.

Our VIP passenger: a giant saucepan of raw, sloshing idli batter, the lid rubber-banded shut. It gets wedged at the bottom.

As someone who cooks in spurts, I'm suspicious of this mission, this overkill. I can follow a recipe, I occasionally lay out a feast for friends, but I also order entire seasons of takeout. However, my older female relatives back in India would approve of this stuffed van. They discuss meals like admirals preparing for war. What's for lunch? For dinner? Do we have enough to make that? Who went to the market? Can we avoid leftovers? And then they question me: What do YOU eat? For breakfast? For dinner? Do you cook with gas? Electricity? Do you eat pee-za? Pasta? Can you at least make rasam? ...DO you cook?

My uncle, Bala Mama, starts the van, now probably a foot closer to the ground than when it was empty. We debate whether we're ready to leave, recalling the time we turned back not once but twice for forgotten food—and, as Manu's brother Naren points out, we do lack something: a first aid kit. (No matter, I riff to myself; dosa batter is probably antiseptic, and if anyone gets hurt, we'll just pack the wound with puliodharai.) We head for the interstate, and, long before we have any medical need for it, the puliodharai is out. Between spoonfuls, Mom begins describing one of the best meals of her lifetime, cooked by Dad's cousin's mother-in-law over 20 years ago. "She made a meal, a very simple meal, that absolutely floored me. It was just potato curry and molagu kozhambu [pepper gravy]. And you know the simple trick she used? She skimmed the oil off the top of the kozhambu and used that oil to fry the God..."

Mom loves to hold forth about food. In the last few years, she has even begun calling herself a foodie. But she wasn't born with a rolling pin in her hand. Her mother had to cook—in 1960s Chennai, eating out was rare—but never relished it. So, even though domestic work fell largely to women, Mom was not trained to cook or clean. And when the time came to meet potential husbands, she quickly intuited who would encourage her independence.

"One guy, he was in the foreign service—my father's eyes were practically gleaming, he was such a good catch—but I could just tell he wanted a wife who'd be a nice society hostess, serve tea, and smile at everyone," she says, and you know where the story is heading. "This guy just took it for granted that he was an IFS officer and everyone was going to kiss his ass. I was the only daughter in my family, and I wasn't going to give in that easily. So, to get rid of him, I talked nonsense. I told him I had Communistic leanings. I told him I was an atheist and a Communist and a feminist, I just bristled at him—anything to get him off my back. I made him flee. My dad was so mad—'What more do you want in a man? You think you're some big apsara [celestial nymph]?'"

Courtesy of Janani Sreenivasan

She admits she could have aimed differently—and this is likely the reason she and Dad have never pressured me to marry. "If I'd known more about the world, maybe I would have just walked out the door—maybe I wouldn't have gotten married so early. But I was sheltered. I thought if I was lucky enough to meet and marry the right person, someone who was intellectual, who read a lot and was constantly thinking and learning, maybe it would give me perspective and a chance to grow."

She was 22, and Dad 26, the afternoon he came to visit in 1976. He'd attended grad school in the United States, and he would be returning there for a job, getting a green card. "He'll be more liberal," thought Mom. He was familiar, too; they were both from Tamil Nadu, raised with the same vegetarian food, the same language and culture. They both enjoyed reading and movies and valued education. And they found each other cute. So, that same afternoon, they decided to get engaged. The wedding was in September 1976, and, for Mom, the months afterward were a flurry of firsts: first airplane ride (luggage: two suitcases), first apartment (in State College, Pennsylvania), first snowfall, first viewing of All in the Family—and her first time cooking for herself and another human being.

Dad didn't expect her to be a society hostess, or even a traditional cook; he had lived on his own already and could feed himself. He saw food as fuel. But Mom was a curious eater, and together they tried alternatives to the foods she had grown up with. The nearest Indian grocery was in New York City, so they went to the local supermarket, which pushed unfamiliar iceberg lettuce, parsley ("We thought it was cilantro!"), blueberries, boxed cereal, hard cheese, canned vegetables, and other oddities, like milk in cartons. (At home, milk was delivered every morning in a plastic bag.) Unfortunately, vegetarian options at Pennsylvania restaurants in the 1970s were grim, and trying out "American food" occasionally proved hazardous; not knowing to score chestnuts before roasting them, my parents dove for cover as the hot nuts flew like bullets around the kitchen, studding the ceiling. Some of the new foods were good (like Italian dishes, whose sauces reminded Mom of South Indian gravies, and Little Debbie cakes, which became a vice), but many weren't. Dad, low-maintenance by nature, could rough it on Western food. Mom, as it turned out, would not.

Courtesy of Janani Sreenivasan

The irony: She was surrounded by food, a wealth of it, fresh and packaged, easier to buy and store than the food at home...and she was still hungry. Traditional South Indian food, she realized, was not just fuel. It had structured her day for 22 years; she craved it when she woke up, and it filled her belly as she fell asleep at night. She needed idli, sambar, and molagu kozhambu, and she needed them in Pennsylvania, steaming on her table, now. And so—working from memory, from the one cookbook she brought with her from home (Meenakshi Ammal's Cook and See), and from sheer munchies—she began piecing the South Indian menu she grew up with back together in her new home.

She went by trial and error; there was no Splendid Table or online recipe search in those days, and calling India for advice was expensive. When she finally got the hang of things, she went overboard—after her first dinner party, there was barely room in the fridge for all the leftovers. Dad knew the cooking had gone sour whenever he came home in the evening and she suggested takeout pizza, which she topped, appropriately, with sour lemon pickle, brought all the way from Chennai.

We drive past the South Carolina Peachoid, a water tower in the shape of a giant orange butt, and cross into Georgia, where I was born. By the time I came along in 1983, Mom (who stayed at home with me, continuing to hone her cooking) had graduated through practice to a confident, comical hyperactivity in the kitchen. Her reign was chaos: pressure cooker hissing, mustard seeds crackling, chili fumes asphyxiating everyone in the house to the strains of her Carnatic scat-singing, followed by "Sorry, guys! Just a few more minutes" and cries of "SHYIT! SHYIT! SHYEEIT, woman! SHYEEIT!" bursting from the kitchen as she variously burned and maimed herself, eventually summoning us with the cry of "SAAPAADU READY!" ("Food is ready!"). Her saapaadu—which I ate with a spoon and she and Dad ate with their hands ("Eating with my hands is how I make love to my food," she proclaimed, "and sometimes I even forget to put spoons out for my guests!")—was delicious. I'm just not sure how she survived making it.

I was also wary of joining forces with her. Sometimes I prepped vegetables, which I enjoyed—until I realized how much she enjoyed my help. I had heard her voice a desire for her own sous chef, prep team, dishwasher, though she didn't want a restaurant of her own. "You're so good at cutting vegetables," she'd say eagerly, as if envisioning me at her side in the kitchen daily, and I'd panic and flee, promising myself, I will not be good at this. I would not take on her busyness, her mania, her constant motion. Hundreds of tapioca snacks drying on the back deck, homemade yogurt every two days for decades, using a starter from India—who was asking her to do that? Dad and I didn't expect it of her. I resisted her recipes, her tips, her gift of a small pressure cooker. On one visit home, afraid the parent–child separation would never take, I boycotted her food outright; I lasted two days on fruit. (I was not a teenager, but 25 years old, when this happened. Yikes.)

I, as modern daughters must, would rise above my stove-bound serf of a mother—I would a) have a career, b) thrive outside the home, c) let someone else cook, and d) pursue my hungers, which were nothing like hers. And so, throughout my teens and twenties, I buried myself in books, went for an MFA in nonfiction, and, aside from bursts of domestic activity that lasted a few weeks here and there, adopted a defensive irony toward the kitchen. "You're so philosophical and cerebral, just like your father," grumped Mom, and it was true. As I saw it, food was temporary—you made it, ate it, and it was gone. The things I really wanted to create—words, music, movies—could last forever.

But as I busied myself with words, the kitchen began to reenter my consciousness. When I arrived in New York in 2009 after several years in Iowa, I was surrounded for the first time by people preoccupied with food in a visible, jabbering, bustling way that reminded me of Mom. And, as if fate wished to fill the gap, my first neighbors in the city, May (Greek-American) and Jerie (Honduran-Chinese), were both extremely hungry individuals who took matters into their own hands. I began to receive frequent texts of "Hey, I made pizza/plato típico/[insert delicious food that alters evening plans]'s ready, come on over!" Jerie in particular whizzed about the kitchen in a way that felt familiar, though with far fewer injuries to her person. I never missed a chance to come on over.

Vicky Wasik

During my search for good vegetarian meals in New York, I also found the blog of an inventive vegetarian restaurant called Dirt Candy, which sought to make vegetables the stars of dishes rather than their accompaniments. The humor, irreverence, and "why not?" attitude of its owner, Amanda Cohen, began to grow on me—even I couldn't resist the idea of billowy rosemary cotton candy, silky portobello mousse, and savory smoked, grilled broccoli "hot dogs." Cooking, I was starting to realize, was not just a chore to be thanklessly repeated day after day; it was also a language, a mode of self-expression. And its process was not so different from creating in other media; you saw something in your imagination, you believed in its value, and, using a set of skills and techniques, you made it visible and appreciable to others. It wasn't the way Mom saw cooking, but it began to be mine.

I left home 15 years ago, and whenever I visit my parents now, I find myself surprised by some new turn in Mom's cooking and in her preferences. The early instinct to ground herself in Indian cooking has given her a foundation from which to branch out and to indulge her natural, bubbling curiosity. Now, she bugs us to try new restaurants and tinkers not only with the foods I grew up with but with falafel, kung pao tofu, stir-fries, and pasta. She cooks by intuition, improvising as she goes along. She visits farmers markets and the Japanese grocery store, and, in this past decade of cable TV and YouTube, lusts for anything vegetarian she sees or hears about, no matter how distant from her origins, like boiled peanuts ("We're in the South, we have to eat the peanuts!" she cries from the backseat), bubble tea, stinky tofu, and—I can't imagine this will end well—80-proof booze.

"I guess I was always curious," she admits. "My father said it was a blessing to be able to observe and listen to and enjoy and appreciate the world, to never be bored, to keep searching for something new. I remember where I was on I-5 when I heard about Stilton cheese on The Splendid Table. I began salivating, you know? Then I asked Dad to bring it back for me on his next England trip." She ended up flinging it away after one bite, but with no regrets. "Take the best from all cultures. That's the best way of living I've found," she shrugs. (It wasn't her suitcase the cheese destroyed, after all.)

Her gamble in 1976 seems to have been a smart one; Mom has had the freedom to experience quite a bit more than she would have with a different partner. She's traveled to many places with Dad, and in the last few years, during his busy periods, she has struck out on her own to places that interest her, taking group tours to Peru, Morocco, and Japan. Food-wise, these trips are as often comically disillusioning as they are triumphant, but she uses them as occasions for ingenuity and flexibility. When she had trouble finding vegetarian food in Tokyo, she boiled ramen noodles in the coffee pot in her room and used the bag itself as her bowl, transferring cooked noodles from pot to bag multiple times during the meal. "I was proud that I didn't have to buy a bowl," she explains. "I believe in jugaad" (the Hindi word for a "hack" or DIY solution). And, if I'm honest, she doesn't just explain it—she gloats, proud of living by her wits and seeking out adventure, filling her belly as quickly and playfully as possible. "I don't blindly follow any rules, any recipes, because they slow you down. Truthfully? My stomach is the first to rumble in the morning," she says, "and it decides when the rest of you will eat. I will go padapadapada around the kitchen and finish it off and close up the shop. You had better keep up."

I drive the last hour into Birmingham while my passengers shout conflicting instructions; we arrive safely anyway. Manu lives on the second floor, of course, so everything in the pop-up kitchen must be lugged upstairs. After a grocery run for more vegetables, chilies, and ginger, we spend the week cooking our way through the pile, Mom whirling around Manu's kitchen in full force, doing her shtick, her funny voices, singing, scolding the appliances as if they're alive ("Work, dishwasher, or I'll kick you out of the house!").

Tamarind rice. Shutterstock

We dispatch all the vegetables brought and bought, every last grain of rice and oily remnant of the fried snacks. The batter is freed from its prison and becomes idli on our plates, eaten with the red chili powder Mom calls "gunpowder." I feel newly comfortable around all this activity, and, as my contribution, I cut green beans (and myself, leading to a bit of hazing and regrets over the forgotten first aid kit). We visit the Krispy Kreme factory, where Mom leads the way but is disappointed by the very modest machinery, the not-so-long conveyor belts. We go out: for pizza (no pickles this time), for midnight Steak 'n Shake, for Mediterranean, for Mexican. Mom has a jalapeño margarita, and when she tastes it, the entire table howls: Her head snaps back, her eyes pop with surprise, and then she smiles and slides the glass closer, not finished with her "wake-up juice" yet. I make a mental note to learn how to make one for her.

As we eat, I also share the project I will undertake when I return home: interning in the kitchen at Dirt Candy. I explain that it's not (yet) a career move, just a step to get cooking back into my life again, to renew my respect for it; I hope I won't be the first intern chased from the restaurant with vegetables carved into clubs and spears. Mom cheers.

"Learn everything you can," she says. It's a deal.

Three days after I return from the trip, I show up at Dirt Candy at 7:30 a.m. Once again, I'm surrounded by piles of vegetables and raw materials, but this time, I feel ready to take them on. I learn a better way to hold a knife, how to activate yeast, use a scale, a chinois. I grin at the Wonka-like transformations around me: the powdered and juiced vegetables that flavor the bouquet of beet-pink, spinach-green, carrot-orange, and corn-gold monkey bread served in a tiny flowerpot; rutabagas deep-fried to form tiny, sculpted birds' nests; kale reborn as tiny green matzo balls, spinach as ramen noodles, carrots as jerky, radishes as spaghetti, eggplant as flan, and lettuce, cucumber, radicchio, and golden beets as—somehow—ice cream. The day I finally see Her Vegetableness, Dirt Candy owner Amanda Cohen, in action, slicing a pile of rainbow carrots for a new menu item, I bubble with suspense: What is she going to do with carrots? Will they become gravies, aioli, soufflés?

The impish answer: a trio of pillowy steamed carrot buns, sliced in half and stacked with lettuce, onion, pickle, crispy yuba, and tender carrot confit with a "Big Mac" hoisin sauce—carrot sliders. Asked if there is anything she would not do to a vegetable, Cohen smiles: "Never say never."

The day the carrot buns go on the menu, I stay past 5:30 p.m., into service. The prep music—Boney M., Kishore Kumar, Rihanna, Adele—gives way to the night music. The lights in the dining room dim. I feel what a chef friend calls "the change" from the casual bustle of the day shift to the focused urgency of the night. Dishes begin to take shape on plates, receiving their final touches (tiny huckleberries, flower-shaped slices of baby corn), and are handed off to servers for real people to smell, taste, eat, and then recall with pleasure later on.

I've been on my feet for 10 hours, but I don't want to leave. Saapaadu's ready, and I want to see it go to the table.