When we were new immigrants back in the 1970s, every time someone commented on my besan (chickpea flour) laddus, my father got a kick out of saying, with a mischievous grin, “the recipe is from the Hare Krsna Cookbook!” He knew that he was disappointing their expectation that it was a time-honored family recipe passed down through the generations, suggesting instead that we Indians in America could actually learn something about Indian cookery from those bald-headed, saffron-robed, anemic, and thoroughly inauthentic-looking youths who danced ecstatically in Harvard Square. But after all, anyone can learn a national cuisine, just as anyone can lay claim to a religious tradition: it’s not restricted to people who inherited it genetically. Rather than regarding the devotees with bewilderment and derision as many Indians did at the time, Dad would look at them with indulgence and even delight.
It would seem that the Hare-Krsna-ites made up for their self-denial in other areas of life with sugar: all their recipes contained what seemed to us excessive quantities of it. I regularly halved both the amount of sugar and of butter they called for, and the final product didn’t seem to suffer in the least.
There wasn’t the plethora of Indian grocery stores, restaurants, and cookbooks that abounds today. I remember my delight when, at a book fair, I found Dharamjit Singh’s Indian Cookery, in the Penguin booth and bore it home like a trophy. It immediately became a family standby (Dad dubbing it “the Sardar-ji cookbook”), and I will forever be grateful to Mr. Singh for his chickpea curry (chhole) recipe, which has become my signature dish, and which I make in large quantities for every party, along with a huge pot of pullao rice.
In the early Seventies Andrew became a vegetarian and, inspired by his example, I did too. At first he simply got thinner and thinner, not having grown up in a vegetarian household and not yet knowing how to cook balanced vegetarian meals. I was no help because I hadn’t yet learned to cook at all, and when, as a college student, I started turning my back on non-veg (as they call it in India), the only options left to me in the dorm cafeteria were salad and cottage cheese. It was then that Anna Thomas came out with The Vegetarian Epicure. My parents presented it to Andrew for Christmas in 1974, and we seized upon it with zeal. The Veg-Ep, as we soon began calling it, was the first of that new era of cookbooks which were far more than just bare-bones recipes—they were also warm, engaging stories, vehicles for culture and family lore. We in turn made her recipes our own and over the years they have been woven into our family stories.
Or at least, versions of them have been. The Veg-Ep came out in the days before concerns about cholesterol and heart disease, and its recipes are loaded with butter and eggs, which we have cut down drastically. I see that Thomas has now come out with The New Vegetarian Epicure, and I expect that she has brought it up to date in that department. But we are deeply attached to the old one, and treasure every one of its tattered, butter-soaked pages, many of which have fallen out and some of which lean permanently against the wall on our kitchen counter.
In 1981 the multi-talented Madhur Jaffrey produced World of the East Vegetarian Cooking, a narrative-style cookbook modeled on the Veg-Ep down to its square format, and one that met our twin needs for both Indian and vegetarian recipes. Better still, it did not even try to be authentic, but rather celebrated hybridity long before fusion was a culinary buzzword. I have nothing to support the claim, but it may have been the first Pan-Asian cookbook. It soon became another family favorite, and I can honestly say that not a single recipe I have tried from it has been a dud. Following the recipe to the letter, I was finally successful in making dosas, the only takeout food that we ever ate back in India.
Although we were comfortably middle-class and certainly never went hungry, food was rationed in India in the 1960s and many ingredients were simply unavailable; our mother always had to improvise. Wherever we moved she carried with her as her guides an old Penguin handbook, English Cookery, along with a British rationing cookbook published during the War that offered valuable advice on how to use substitutes in times of scarcity. With these books, the Siemens electric oven we had managed to carry back with us from Greece, our meagre ration of maida (white flour), and a lot of ingenuity, Mum produced billowing Yorkshire puddings, fluffy sponges, and currant-filled fairy cakes along with the daily staples of rice, dal, and mutton curry.
Having lived either abroad or on the other side of India for most of his adult life, Dad had never had the chance to learn his home cooking, until he returned to Maharashtra in 1976 for the first time since he had left India in the late Sixties. While there, he made it a point to pick up a Marathi cookbook, and when he came home he made a systematic study of it, ordering everybody out of the kitchen while he worked (and, Mum complained, using up every pot and utensil in it as well), and producing all the characteristic tastes of home. Not to be outdone, I found an English Delights from Maharashtra (Aroona Reejsinghani, Jaico Books) at India Tea and Spices in Cushing Square, Belmont (one of the first Indian grocery stores in the Boston area), and set about making poha, pithale, and other regional specialties. I managed to whip up a fair approximation of the real thing, though Dad’s chapattis were always perfectly round while mine were invariably misshapen.
Both my parents, especially Mum, had grown up with scarcity and habits of thrift, and they maintained those habits when they came to America. Coming to hang out at our house after school my friends, accustomed to raiding the kitchen for snack foods, were astonished to find the refrigerator and the cupboards bare (as they saw them)—no bags of potato chips, no packages of Hostess cupcakes, no jars of chocolate-chip cookies. At the time, we were apologetic, but from my parents’ perspective, we were well stocked, with the refrigerator full of fresh vegetables and half-gallon cartons of unadulterated milk and orange juice and the kitchen shelves loaded with five-pound bags of no-longer-rationed flour and sugar, glass jars filled with rice, lentils, and chick-pea flour from India Tea and Spices. It’s just that they had not yet learned the American habit of eating processed foods: they made everything from scratch. And though I may have been embarrassed at the time, I learned from them and, in our turn, Andrew and I grew our own food, joined food cooperatives to buy organic foods in bulk, and abhorred waste.
My parents may have been thrifty, but they certainly weren’t stingy. From them, I learned to throw parties where, in very unAmerican fashion, the tables groaned with generous quantities of home-cooked food that could have fed an army. No raw broccoli and sour-cream dip at my parents’ Christmas parties, but tray after steaming tray of Dad’s delectable samosas, crisp, spicy pakoras, huge pots of chicken curry served with fluffy white Basmati rice, coconut barfi (courtesy of The Hare Krsna Cookbook), and topped off with Mum’s annual pièce de résistance—two massive English trifles in deep glass dishes, layered with whipped cream, jam, custard, raspberries, and the lightest of light sponge cake, all steeped in sherry and the juices from the berries.
A typically immigrant anxiety about not having enough to go round always made both Mum and Dad take off two days from work before these parties and make twice the amount needed, so that Mum was inevitably exhausted before the party began and our guests counted on going home with large quantities of their favorite leftovers. For his part, Dad played the perfect host the whole time, pressing more food and drink on everyone without eating a crumb himself. When the last guest had left he would finally relax, make himself a large plate of food, and say, “Well, that went off well, didn’t it?” Forty years later, I would venture to say the same of our family’s move to the United States, with the help of a handful of cookbooks, a circle of friends, and a lot of improvisation.