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Issue Date: Fall 2006


A love note to India.


Thrity Umrigar

 

Photography by Barney Taxel

Although I've lived more than half of my life in the U.S., certain memories of my childhood in Bombay, India, linger. Some remembrances will never cease to make me nostalgic: the orange and gold colors of the sky at dusk, the way the city streets glistened at night after a downpour and, above all, the taste of my Aunt Homai's famous dhansak on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

This quintessential Parsi dish, with a thick sauce, called daal, made with spiced lentils and pieces of chicken or mutton, is unknown even among most Indians outside this small ethnic group that traces its ancestry to ancient Persia. It's served over browned rice flavored with burnt sugar and cumin seeds.

I grew up in a large, busy household filled with relatives, and we didn't always come together for meals. But Sunday afternoon was different - my father would return from his customary morning rounds of the family-owned factory by 1 o'clock, and then it would be time to sit down for a hearty lunch. While my aunts bustled around in the kitchen, my dad and I would sit in the living room, sharing an ice-cold bottle of Kingfisher beer. (When I turned 16, my dad's philosophy was to allow me to drink alcohol at home in his company, so that I would never be tempted to drink away from home with friends.) He would pour the golden beer into the crystal beer mugs he'd bought in Germany. We would clink glasses and say, "Cheers." Invariably, there would be music playing on the stereo. My dad would call out for snacks - cashews or beer nuts - and my mom or my aunt would chide us for ruining our appetites.

My dad had another culinary quirk: He always wanted "something crunchy" with his meal. On Sundays, he would stop at a restaurant on his way home and pick up a bag of freshly made potato chips. This was in the old days, before the invasion of Frito-Lay and other multinationals, when restaurants and bakeries still made their own chips.

On our Sunday table there would be a deep pot holding Homai's dhansak, pieces of lime to squeeze over it, a platter of the browned rice and another of fried kebabs, a dish of kachuber (a salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and cilantro) and sometimes a small plate of freshly boiled beets.

We would eat, mostly in silence and with single-minded focus, as most self-respecting Parsis would. (The Parsi preoccupation with good food is legendary in India.)

Occasionally, people would smack their lips and tell Homai that she'd outdone herself this time. At some point, Dad would reach for a second helping of his beloved potato chips, and his older sister would grimace and remind him about his cholesterol. Dad would pretend to listen and maybe let a single chip drop back into the bowl, in a gesture of acquiescence that fooled no one. If I caught his eye, he'd wink at me.

I was happy on those Sunday afternoons. After the beer, the food, the music, the gathering around the table, would come a nap, and then, in the evening, maybe a movie.

As I write this, I am preparing for a visit from my family. I work on a laptop at my kitchen table, so that I can keep an eye on the stove where a pot boils. They should be here in time for dinner tomorrow and I am making - what else? - dhansak.

It won't be as good as my aunt's, of course. But with any luck, along with the lentils and spices, they will be able to taste the love.

Thrity Umrigar is the author of the novels "The Space Between Us" and "Bombay Time" and the memoir "First Darling of the Morning." She lives in Cleveland Heights.


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