Sunday, February 12, 2006

Sitting pretty

Soul Kitchen
Parimala is still here - she leaves for her new home in Mumbai on the 13th. Eventually I will leave for my new, temporary home in Madras, if I ever get out of the Malgudi Miasma. Every time I try to make photo CDs there's some kind of weird error. I missed the two big self-mutilation religious festivals of February - Thai Poosam, where guys pierce their tongues and chests for Lord Murugan, and Moharram, where Muslim men flagellate themselves bloody in memory of a martyr. No, I didn't get photos. This time.

At home (6th Lane, Brodipet) we eat on the cool, black slate flagstone floor off of banana leaves. The occasional mosquito hovers around the dark corners (Indian homes at first seem cavelike, dark and dim - then you realize it's intentional, to maintain precious coolness against the heat). I wonder how I ever sat at a kitchen table to eat. My mother always scolded me for sitting on my feet crosslegged even at the dining table; now I know that was proof that I really was, as my Oriya Swamiji in Nashville, Tenn., told me, Indian in my previous lifetimes.

There is a definite - even dogmatic - order to a South Indian meal - first, and foremost, rice. Then a curried vegetable (sometimes carrot, sometimes okra, or gourd, or bitter gourd, or pumpkin or green beans) and a small dollop of melted ghee (clarified butter - which has to be the most delicious thing in the world, transforming everything with which it comes into contact, mitigating the spicy curry and aiding digestion) .

Then more rice, to mix with the dal (lentils). Then more rice, to mix with the yogurt and a small heaping of salt ladled out with a demitasse spoon. About every five minutes, you get the question: "More rice?" "Curd" (yogurt), my favourite, is always last. Most of the curries are so spicy, I want to eat the curd along with everything - which seems to irritate or maybe amuse my hosts. Curd comes from a flimsy plastic bag from the shop, which has a tendency to fall over on the floor, spilling the curd. Finally, along with the curd, rice and dollop of salt you get pickle - my mouth waters just thinking of it. A tart, pungent pickle - lime, lemon, amla (Indian gooseberry), and mango are my favourites. These are homemade by my hosts' mother Krishnakumari. I tried explaining that "in my place" we also love pickles but they're only made of cucumbers, vinegar and salt.

We eat with our hands, or in my case, my fingers. I pick up the food and mash it together with my fingertips, but my hosts use their entire hands, including palms up to the heel of their hands, and thoroughly mix the food "till it is like paste," they instruct me. "It is best for digestion." Which makes sense, the more you mix it up on the front end the less work your stomach has to do. They seem very concerned that I am not mixing my food sufficiently (and don't have my hands thoroughly doused in food). Also, "you will not get good taste," they warn me.

In contrast to North Indian cuisine (what most of the world calls "Indian food"), south Indian style is very low calorie. The most fattening thing is white rice, which has little gluten and few calories. They don't use the heavy oils, or wheat-based tandoori breads and puri, of north Indian food. Looking around, I don't see many obese south Indians, even the wealthy ones - just a few older ladies who've had lots of kids. Also a contrast with the north!

Dinner is never served before 10pm, lunch, never before 1pm. I am especially comfortable in this cool, vintage (about 50-75 years old) limestone house because there are no servants. When Krishnakumari is away working in Amaravati, the menfolk can do everything themselves, and they do - cook, wash dishes, clean, sweep. This is quite a contrast to much of India.

Sorry I don't have any pics of bloodstained devotees to offer. I'll have to mark my calendar for next year.

Now photos are not uploading properly. We are not amused.


Shinu Mathew said...

Where are you? What happened? no posts for couple of days. No access to interenet?
Lt me know.

Libran Lover said...

If you like pickles, you should be on the look out for tomato pickles and something called mango-ginger pickles. Mango-ginger pickle, is NOT a mix of mango and ginger pickles. It is ginger with a tangy, mango-like flavor! Unbelievable! And awesome as a pickle!

King Amdo said...


"to make photo CDs there's some kind of weird error"