Thursday, May 02, 2013

A Spoonful of Pickle Makes Life Go Down Easy

At 2am on a cold, damp weeknight, the highway that connects Washington, D.C. to its Virginia suburbs was nearly empty. I had the run of its deserted lanes as I hurtled through the darkness towards home with this single tantalizing thought on my mind – a bowl of hot rice, ghee and spicy mango pickle.

The past several days and nights had been one unending blur at work and the next few weeks didn’t promise any better. To add to my misery, none of the standard take-out places around my office in Washington, D.C. offered the one quality I sought in the dinners I was forced to eat at my desk – they were not comfort food. Not to me.
Once home, I headed straight into the kitchen to put a pot of rice on the stove – one cup of basmati rice rinsed clean and two cups of water in a small sauce pan. As soon as the water came to a boil, I turned the flame nearly all the way down and closed the pan with its tight-fitting lid. In the ten minutes it took the rice to cook, I washed up and changed, and got the pickle and ghee jars from the pantry.  

A gentle crackling from the base of the rice pot was the reassuring sound I’d been longing for, the signal that the rice was perfectly cooked, soft, plump and fluffy. I lifted the lid off, letting the steam escape and I caught a warm, moist, starchy cloud on my face.
As I breathed in, I felt the wrinkles on my forehead give way. The creases around my eyelids softened and my cheeks eased back to their original stations. I could try to describe its aroma in culinary terms, but in its swirls the steam held the rustle of mom’s sari, it held the twinkle in dad’s eye as he told us one of his jokes, it held my brother’s cackling laughter – all of which I’d left behind in India. At that moment, that aroma was home.

Too impatient to let the rice cool as it should, I scooped some up into a bowl with a wide, nearly flat spoon (known in literal translation from Kannada, my mother tongue, as the ‘rice hand’) I’d brought from India for that purpose.
Then, on top of the rice, a swirl of a teaspoon of ghee, its color and bouquet betraying its origin in butter.

Finally, my pickle of choice, the mango pickle. A couple of teaspoons did nicely for all of the rice in my bowl.
Chunks of raw mango nestled in a thick sauce of oil and pickling spices. The deep red of the chili powder (made from a special type of dried red chili prized for its intense color, called Byadgi, native to central India) combined with the rich yellow of the turmeric and powdered mustard seeds to form a tint and taste all their own.

Bright red with flecks of black. Tangy with the muted bitterness of roasted fenugreek and asafetida. Spicy with layers of heat from the chili and the mustard. Salty.
Unmistakably pickle.

I held the bowl in my left hand and – in true South Indian style – dug the fingertips of my right into the bowl, working the ghee and the pickle around and into the rice. There is a premium on serving and eating hot food in South India, and my fingers were proof of having lived up to that standard for years – they hardly felt the heat of the just-cooked rice.
That or the endorphins popping in my brain at the sight and smell of the ghee and pickle numbed my fingers.

Aided by the moistness of the ghee, rice and pickle came together in perfect union. The heat of the pickle, tempered somewhat by the ghee, and the now-warm rice blazed their way past my ravenous taste buds. Simple, starchy, buttery rice infused with the salty, spicy, sour, slightly bitter flavors of the pickle. The mango chunks, having marinated in the pickling spices for a good long time, provided sudden, crunchy bursts of intense flavor.
It was sublime.

On any other day, late night infomercials would give me company through a bedtime snack, but that day, with the occasional swish of a car whizzing past the house for company, I stood barefoot in the kitchen and polished off the entire bowl.
Not for the first time, I wondered what it was that drove me to seek this particular combination of foods in times of distress. I didn’t bother then to press for an answer, just content in the knowledge that for the moment all was right with the world.

It is only recently, when dad was irretrievably lost to me, that my mind made the connection.
Memories of dad flicker in and out these days, the rumble of his guffaws, the way he would fling his towel over his shoulder, his relentless haggling with the vegetable vendor, the games he would make up for our gang of cousins and friends, his voice when he called my name. I bounce around, in my mind, through the many homes we lived in at various points during my childhood.

Some recollections, however, refuse to leave, waiting patiently until I acknowledge and examine them. One of those is of our mealtimes when we were growing up.
Dinner was the one meal during the weekday when everyone sat together. We ate on steel plates, in the kitchen, on the floor. All of the plates had raised edges so they could contain the many dishes of South Indian cuisine that had the consistency of gravy. Mine was oval in shape, my brother and parents had circular plates. Even after all these years, when I go back to mom’s home I still reach for ‘my’ plate.

My brother or I would lay out the plates in a circle on the floor with enough space in the center for the containers of rice, Rasam (a soup-like lentil and tomato dish), a vegetable curry, assorted condiments such as pickles and spice powders, ghee, and curd (yogurt).
If dad was particularly hungry, he would get started as soon as he sat down. He could never resist the temptation of hot rice, ghee and pickle. He would mix them in his plate and feed us siblings first, then mom and then himself, repeating the cycle until mom, who would still be bustling about the kitchen trying to get all the dishes on to the floor, was done. She would protest that she was busy but it fell on deaf ears. Everyone would then settle down for the second course of rice with Rasam and curry (beans, cabbage or eggplant curries were staples), ending with rice and curd or buttermilk.

Juicy family and work gossip served as an ever-present accompaniment. Dinner was a raucous affair. 

It still was, every time I traveled back to India with my own children in tow. My brother and I would promptly revert to our roles as children and there would be at least one re-enactment of our dinner ritual from our childhoods, complete with dad feeding us. Over the years, the circle on the floor grew wider and noisier with more plates and more voices. Until the loudest link in the circle was no more.
In my own home, in my own kitchen so far away in time and space from the kitchens of my childhood, my bowl of rice and pickle is my ticket, the only way I know to transport myself, in an instant, back to that circle of my childhood.

It is magic.