A food passage to India

By TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder

Published: 01-03-2023 4:27 PM

Food fulfills many functions for human beings. It nourishes our bodies, giving us strength to face the world. It gives us a chance to express our creativity as we play with ingredients and recipes.

To me, one of food’s most important purposes is to evoke memories, transporting us to places and people from our past. My family and I enjoyed a special edible memory during the recent holidays when we recreated one of my late mother’s favorite dishes to prepare and eat: chicken curry.

My mother adored exploring and embracing new experiences and cultures. One of her favorite countries was India.

She spent a total of almost four years there, beginning with a stay with my father in Mumbai, then known as Bombay, in 1953 and 1954. She and my father were their mid-30s and were accompanied by their four-month-old son, my older brother.

My father had been pondering topics for his doctoral thesis in agricultural economics. He decided that applying for a fellowship to study overseas would be a good idea.

He was a terrible linguist so he wanted to go to a country in which he could get by with English. India was an obvious choice; it had only recently achieved independence from Great Britain, and most professionals and academicians spoke English.

He received a Ford Foundation stipend to study the potential for non-agricultural employment in rural areas of that country. The whole family set off, ready for adventure.

They took their time getting there (there were no nonstop flights in those days), doing most of their travel by ship.

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In Mumbai my father threw himself into his studies, and my mother threw herself into a different sort of work: serving as housekeeper for their landlord, who gave them extremely reduced rent (necessary in light of their small income) in exchange for her services.

She supervised the servants but also cooked a fair amount herself, finding that her landlord and her new Indian friends wanted to taste American cooking.

Macaroni and cheese and pies — apple, lemon meringue, and especially pumpkin — were particular favorites, as well as Southern fried chicken and salad with a French vinaigrette.

She wrote to friends back home, “I’m sure I’m not a typical Memsahib! I spend at least half the day in the kitchen and I go shopping with the cook at least once a week and take buses instead of taxes — but it’s all lots of fun. And people are very kind indeed. No matter where you go, you can feel the friendliness.”

In exchange for her lessons in American cooking, her friends and the cook she supervised taught her the rudiments of Indian cuisine.

My parents’ time in Mumbai was cut short when my mother contracted polio in the summer of 1954. As soon as she was able to travel, the little family returned to the United States.

She never doubted that she would recover, however. And she never stopped loving India and Indian food. Our family returned to live in that country many years later, when I was a teenager. This time the Weisblats were stationed in New Delhi.

In New Delhi my mother had a job outside the home, teaching at an international school. Nevertheless, she continued to plan and sometimes make meals. She was particularly fond of curry, which she and our cook made with anything available — vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, mutton, or chicken.

My family remembered her and her enthusiasm for India last month by making her chicken curry. The recipe I have wasn’t precisely what she always made; in fact, she didn’t always make a specific curry recipe. She threw ingredients into her pan as the spirit moved her and never made curry the same way twice.

Nevertheless, it is authentically hers. It was written down by a Massachusetts neighbor, Jody Kerssenbrock, who watched my mother prepare it one day and wrote down the ingredients as they went into the pot. I share it with readers below.

I also share a poem my mother wrote, “Delhi’s Streets.”

When we were in New Delhi, she composed a short volume of poetry, which she called “My India.” The book and this poem sum up much of her passion for India — the people, the colors, the air, the food.

The poem conjures up the India I recall from my youth. I have a feeling the bustle of Delhi has changed by now. Its streets certainly see more cars than they did in the poem! But I know that India is still on the move.

Jan Weisblat’s Chicken Curry

Ingredients:

4 to 6 tablespoons oil

1 onion, sliced and chopped

1 1-inch piece fresh ginger, chopped

2 cloves garlic, mashed

1 chicken, cut up

2 tablespoons curry powder

1 tablespoon chili powder

salt to taste

1 cup chicken stock, plus more as needed

1 tomato, chopped

1 tablespoon peanut butter

the juice of 1 lemon

Instructions:

Heat the oil in a frying pan. Sauté the onion, ginger and garlic.

Brown the chicken pieces lightly; then remove them and set them aside.

Lower the heat, and add the curry powder, chili powder and salt.

Sprinkle the pan with stock to keep the powder from burning. Stir well and cook this paste, stirring, for four minutes. Stir in the tomato and the peanut butter, and cook briefly.

Sprinkle in more stock and add the chicken again. Then stir in 1/4 cup more stock, or enough to make the sauce the consistency of a light gravy. Simmer the chicken, covered, until it is done (40 minutes to 1 hour), adding stock as necessary.

Before serving, add the lemon juice, and taste for seasoning.

Serve with rice. Chutney, chopped peanuts, and shredded coconut make tasty condiments.

Serves 4 to 6.

“Delhi’s Streets” by Jan Weisblat

India is on the move.

It is bullock carts and tongas –

Horses and buggies with one seat facing rear.

Bicycles, three abreast on the main streets.

Men, pulling carts of furniture,

And small boys, riding father’s bullock cart

At three miles an hour,

Driving home from market

Smiling at sudden manhood.

Taxis and scooter cabs

Zipping along on three wheels,

Open to the breezes.

Buses with people oozing from the doors

And trucks with OK TATA written on the back.

Scooters and bikes whizz by

Each carrying its extra lady passenger

Saried and combed,

Leaning into the wind.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning author and singer. Her latest book is “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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