Friday, September 14, 2007

An Indian dinner in "the best city in California"

Brown Geek's parents are in town from India and kindly invited me to their house for dinner. Life is funny this way: it really couldn't have come at a better time for me to be in the company of a such a close-knit family who really understand how difficult it is to live so far apart from one another.

Brown Geek informed me at the door that just like in Taiwanese culture, you call your friend's mom and dad "Auntie" and "Uncle." After a glass of wine and a tour of the house, Auntie sat me and Brown Geek down with a plate of bonda, spicy mashed potato balls, coated with chickpea flour and fried. On the plate was also a scoop kesari, rich yellow cream of wheat with pieces of cashew -- it was sweet, cooked with ghee and scented with cardamom. It is customary to give the guest something sweet at the beginning of the meal, he said.

Auntie and Uncle watched me carefully as I sat down at the table (they said they wouldn't eat until Brown Geek's younger brother came home). I loved the cream of wheat, of course -- it is a version that is about 100 times better than what I make every morning for breakfast from the box. And the bonda -- Auntie seemed worried for some reason because she had added some chili powder to the potato mix even though Brown Geek had somewhat exaggerated my wimpy tolerance for spice. I surprised her by eating all six bondas on my plate.

Relieved, she broke into a smile and told Brown Geek something that sounded (and looked like), "I told you so!" I had long heard that she is by far the best cook in the family, and I can see there is proof in the reputation.

Since there is little chance that I would be able to reproduce the bonda in my own kitchen, I managed to at least wrangle some information from Auntie about the bonda seasoning: tumeric, chili powder, salt and asafetida (a powdered gum resin, according to wikipedia, that imparts a strong onion/garlic flavor). She had a whole bowl of them made already, sitting in a stainless steel bowl and covered with a paper towel.

After I finished my appetizer, which, under any normal circumstance, would have been enough for a meal for a normal-size human being, it was time to fry up the much-anticipated uthapam.

Uthapam is a South Indian vegetable pancake. The very first time I had uthapam was actually when Brown Geek ordered it at our old company when everyone would work overtime. I remember taking a bite and demanding to know what it is. Up until that point I had never really had South Indian food before. Apparently, his efforts of ordering food had not escaped the radar of the managers at our old company. During dinner, Uncle proudly showed me all the awards that Brown Geek had won from the company, not the least of which was a Good Samaritan award (a frosted glass plaque mounted on a wooden wine bottle -- !!!) for ordering all those late-night dinners.

The preparation for the pancake had started the evening before I arrived -- dal and rice had been soaking in water the previous night ("For one hour..." Uncle and Brown Geek tried to tell me, but who am I to listen to these guys? Auntie corrected them: "Three hours," she said.) Auntie then grinds the soaked grains in a special contraption, which may or may not look like it was from a Star Trek episode. The batter is lightly fermented, I believe.

To the thick white batter, Auntie added a bowl of very neatly chopped red onions and a little bit of chopped small green chili peppers. Then came another bowl of perfectly diced carrots, tomato, and bits of cilantro. In a flat frying pan over high heat and a couple of tablespoons of oil, she pours in a ladle of the batter. A few minutes later she drizzles a spoonful of oil over the pancake. A few minutes later she turns the pancake, drizzling a bit more oil onto the other side. (When do you know to turn it? I asked. By practice, she said. It looked like she turns them when they form bubbles on the surface. Since I probably won't have an audience of uthapam eaters soon, you'll have to trust my scientific observations here)

While standing over the stove watching the uthapam cook to crispy perfection, Auntie and Uncle disagreed on the virtues of the gas stove versus electric stove. She says the electric is fine, but I have a feeling that she is such a seasoned cook that she could probably conjure up this meal over a camp fire if it came to that.

There was no disagreement in the house, however, about whether this was the best uthapam ever, period. The pancakes were crisp on the outside and very tender on the inside, with just a hint of sourness in the batter. The most entertaining part of the uthapam experience, however, came from Auntie's famouse sambar -- a spicy soup for you to dip the uthapam. She had mixed her own sambar spice mix and brought two whole containers of it here from India. To the soup she added "drumstick" -- a vegetable that looks somewhat like baby okra.

Brown Geek and his brother had convinced me that you eat the drumstick just as you would any other vegetable -- but I was so unnerved by the gleeful way they were waiting for me to bite into it that I made them tell me how to eat this very strange-looking vegetable.

It turns out that the outside of the drumstick is very tough -- you wouldn't be able to bite into it even when it has been cooked down in the sambar. You pick up the stalk of "drumstick" and press it with your teeth, squeezing out the soft seeds and flesh of the vegetable. It tasted somewhat like a cooked cucumber to me.

Rounding out the meal, Uncle challenged me to a scoop of some spicy pickled green mango, mixed with a bit of yogurt to cut the heat. He also brought out a small bowl of very ripe, cold mango pieces. Unfortunately by this time I was too full to obtain any useful information about these items.

After dinner, Uncle told us that he had concluded California as the best state in the United States to live, and this very spot being the best city in California. Washington D.C. came in a distant second. (Auntie shook her head from side to side to agree, and Brown Geek's brother playfully pushed her head down, telling her to nod instead). Uncle showed me his binder of travel journal, writing, clippings and prayers that he has kept in his trip. He recorded each leg of his journey carefully, noting the length of Central Park in kilometers and naming all the boroughs of New York.

"Thank you for sharing this with me," I told him.

He said something and the family roared with laughter. Apparently he thought I said, "Thank you for giving this to me." Calmly, with a very straight face he had asked Brown Geek, "She thinks she's taking this with her?!"

So, instead of his travel journal, I took home a ziplock bag full of bonda and the kesari.

Also thanks to Brown Geek and Karthik for the photos!