I was recently given a prompt in a writing class I’m taking which was “Do you love hot and spicy foods or do you avoid them for fear of what tomorrow might bring?” Here’s my answer, what’s yours?
That being a very subjective question, it would be hard to define what I consider spicy, to someone else’s definition. If this was a “Who Can Continually Eat the Spiciest Food Ever?” contest, I’d win it hands down. I learned to eat it the hot way.
I grew up in a Irish family of bland meat and potato eating dinners. Salt was as spicy and exotic as we got. I’m not complaining. As an adult now I have the utmost respect for my Mother, who tirelessly labored every single night of her life to have a real dinner on the table at 6 pm sharp. Then seven of us would SIT AT A TABLE and eat together. Kudos to that!
Me, I’m a heat and eat Mom. What is heat and eat? Throwing Chicken Fingers and Fries on a pan and baking them for 20 minutes. “Here kids, there’s the ketchup.” I was really bummed when my son realized that mac and cheese wasn’t a “real” dinner. I blame that one on his Nani, my Mother.
Prior to becoming a Mother I had a Mother-in-Law. I met her through her son whom I married. We eloped. He is from India so obviously it wasn’t arranged. Uh, sorry. His family is from a town called Visakhapatnam, a city in South India. They really aren’t from there, they are from a village near there… you know. I’ve never been but I don’t think I would call it a suburb. Visakhapatnam also known as Vizag is a port city on the southeast coast of India.
Here’s a lesson on the differences between North India and South India. South Indian food IS eating a ring of fire! Pass the buttermilk please, so I learned. “If spicy fare from Southern India appeals to your gastronomic senses, then Vizag has some excellent”… (Wikitravel.org) Told you, Wiki don’t lie.
If you’re at all familiar with Indian culture you know that the women cook, watch bad Hindi soap operas, gossip and cook. The first time I met my Mother-in-law and tribe, an awkward hour or two after I married their son, I walked in the door and was immediately given food. (Not spicy, sweet.) That’s odd?? My husband, at the time, said “eat, its called Prasad.” Prasad is food that is a religious offering in both Hinduism and Sikhism, which is consumed by worshippers. Literally, a gracious gift. It is extremely insulting not to eat the offering so I did. It was different but good.
The next visit, a day or two later, she gave me a cooking lesson. I didn’t ask, she just took me by the arm into the kitchen and started oiling up pans, shaking out spices, SPICES, and frying foods I never heard of or smelled before. What made it more interesting was that she didn’t speak English. She spoke Telugu. Teluwhat?? The spoken language of their people. Oh how I longed for Hindi.
Now Atama, my Mother-in-law starts handing me spoons, pointing at pots and speaking to me like I was a Telugu speaking person. Bagane vunnanu? Baganeno. Uh-huh, smile. Grease is splattering everywhere and the kitchen was getting smoky but all was well in Atama’s world so all was well in mine. At one point I tried to mime about measurements IE. teaspoon, tablespoon? Oh, no no no no, she mimed back by pointing at her eye. Next she started pinching away at those innumerable exotic red spices while I stood there awkwardly shaking my head smiling and pretending that I knew what I was doing. If you’re ever stuck in a situation where you need to look productive, grab a towel and start wiping.
A few minutes later I was given a task, chop the onion. How much, half? No, the whole big entire thing. It had to weigh at least 1 lb. Now I don’t chop onions and the only time I remember my Mother chopping onions was when she made meatloaf, on Wednesdays, with potatoes. So I did tearfully smiling.
At this point my husband was kind enough to come into the kitchen to check on me (the food). He proceeded to have a conversation with his Mother in Telugu, completely leaving me out by not translating. That’s nice, talking about me? Thanks. Fast forward, the food is ready to eat and there was a lot.
The table was set. Lamb curry, chicken curry, curried vegetables, Sambaar (lentil soup with whole spices and chillies), pooris ,which are like a crepe made of dough eaten in the South where as in the North you would eat Naan, fried okra, fried potatoes, and always rice. White rice, lemon rice and another kind of rice I don’t remember. Around the table were little dishes with what looked like sour cream and ranch dressing. I would soon learn that those little dishes were sticking close to me.
Everyone sits, except Atama . The women don’t sit, they serve. I here “thinu, thinu (tee-nu, tee-nu) eat, eat. It’s pandemonium! Hands flying everywhere, dishes being passed every which way (not in a circle, I’m in culture shock) and the family is loud. Food is dished onto my plate and I sit there, look down, no silverware? Everyone is eating with their fingers! OMG! When I lived in Japan at least they had chop sticks. I had never seen this before. Scooping up chicken curries with the pancake looking pooris using their fingers and then just shoving it in. When in Rome.
Just sitting there I started to feel hot. I could tell my face was getting red. I picked up a poori, scooped up some curry and then… the top of my held blew off. There was no hiding it. I couldn’t even pretend. My eyes started watering, nose started running, I’m sweating and fanning myself with one hand while chugging a glass of water with the other. Suddenly there is a pause, everyone stops, looks at me and start speaking gibberish all at once . With a questioned look on their faces, my husband knew, is it too hot?
Next thing I know those aforementioned little dishes with white sauces are coming my way. I’m told to mix it into my food to cool it a bit. Yes please! I find out one is yogurt with cucumbers in it and the other was butter milk. While I’m trying to recover they all start laughing like it’s the funniest thing they have ever seen. They think it’s great! Well it was white rice and poori’s for me for the rest of that meal. No kidding aside, I think drinking a bottle of tabasco sauce wouldn’t have been as hot. By and large, South Indian cuisine is perhaps the hottest of all Indian food.
Please understand. I am not insulting their food. It was excellent for them. I would have to acquire a taste for it over time, which I did. This was my Intro to South Indian Food 101. When it was time to leave Atama hands me a bag of, I don’t know what. She speaks in code to my husband who then says to me, “My Mom mixed the spices together for you so you don’t have to measure, just sprinkle it in when cooking.” I’m thinking on what? I say thank you etc.etc.
Cultural differences are important. We didn’t think so at the time, maybe religion however there is a lot more than just that, like food. Over the years I did “try” to cook Indian food. (The decent execution of that being my main existence in the marriage as far as the women were concerned.) It’s just easier to order. I did learn some Telugu and my Mother-in-law was forced to learn English. (They had been living in Queens, NY. for 25 years and she never learned because she didn’t have to, she had her people.) Traditions and rituals were learned and shared but I always wondered what my Atama really thought of me. Then one day, I found out.
There she stood in the kitchen cooking, frying, pinching her spices and tossing in those chillies. When we sat to eat, She had cooked the food two different ways. Food for them, the spicy hot ring of fire and food for me, that was kicked down a few notches to a ring of embers. My husband leaned over and whispered in my ear, “that’s how you know she likes you.” To this day I love hot spicy Indian food but like I said, it’s subjective. I miss my Atama’s cooking and I miss her too.