Today, Chaya Bhuvaneswar dishes on some of her favorite meals, family traditions, and recipes to boot:
Banana leaves, the thinness of them flat against the floor, holding, precarious, mounds of rice heavy from vegetable sambar. These were my first introductions to thali eating. Not the metal but chlorophyll, green tasty leaves that roll, disposable and no longer replete, modest, quiet outside houses where pigs and dogs sniff them out and lick off traces of left over meals.
The thali itself, made of metal, conveys a cool resistance to the urgently hot food. Touching one of the metal thalis my parents brought from India, bounteous plates from my grandmother’s trousseau, valuable across decades, I see that thalis are unbreakable.
I feel unbreakable, sitting on the floor and eating with my hands. As if I am already there, taut in the low place where my oppressors imagine me. I am there, and like Langston Hughes’ dark child eating in the kitchen, shoved out of the grand room, forced into the back, I sit there in the place I have been pushed, and eat. Eat and grow strong.
There’s a tradition of broad shouldered, meaty-armed brown women in South India. Some are former dancers and singers; some have even entered politics. There’s no way to choose one and put her picture below, but in my mind there is a picture of a composite Tamil Tayi, goddess of my parents’ native language, and it’s that picture that gives me permission to eat course after course of rice. First rasam shadham (RECIPE HERE:; note – avoid any places that say “don’t use rasam powder.” Just don’t play that. Don’t. Also be suspicious of people who use the phrase “lentil donuts.” You see that in a restaurant claiming to be Indian – get up and walk out. They’re VADA’s people. VADA’S. Or vadai’s. But NOT donuts. No.).
THEN a combination, over at least two hours, of several sabzi’s (neat how what Americans call “curry” is “sabzi” in the rest of the world, like Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, etc. and also translates to “vegetables”). (Note: curry/ sabzi = NOTHING to do with raisins. NOTHING. Sorry. Feel strongly about that.)
Good samples: bindi (okra). Dry. Don’t fry it too much. Oh, OK, here’s a recipe. I’m trusting you:
Others that TASTE FANTASTIC but occupy a range of difficulty to actually make and/or get supplies for but I HAVE TO INCLUDE MY MIND IS WATERING:
Bitter gourd curry. (sighs, salivates). This is what my grandmother used to make for me starting from my first night in Madras at her house. She knew I loved and craved this. CRAVE. Basic recipe is you cut and shallow fry after starting a mix of peppercorns, sesame seeds, lentils sputtering on the fire. Real Simple. Ha. Sort of as simple as preparing a souffle, really.
Not to forget some kind of either potato curry she would make or else this other root vegetable. I THINK it was dry taro curry. I KNOW it was LIT. You can try to make it from this Youtube video. It won’t be the same.
She definitely wouldn’t have let me watch the silly looking hippies playing their guitars during a meal like this. NEVER.
Anyway, other sabzi’s. Don’t want to miss out. Eggplant and karamani – black eyed peas. Have you ever? Ah, if not, I pity you. Even my mother, too busy to cook that much, had mastered a spicy, redolent black eyed peas chundall (a kind of dry chili? Can’t think of a comparison) she would serve every year for Navaratri, nine holy nights you can learn about here:. But Eggplant and karamani curry. The textures just worked together. No need for rice in that spoonful or small handful to the mouth, from the thali. Try this (the coconut is key. DO NOT USE PRE-FAB. Buy a coconut, crack it, take out the meat, use a metal shredder. Will not regret. You may need a machete to crack it. Don’t be scared though. My grandma wasn’t.)
Wait, you aren’t full from all that sabzi yet, are you?? I thought I told you – we KEEP THE PORTIONS small. They all have to fit on banana leaf. You’re eating a dab or two of each, not mounds.
Because next you have to eat CARROT SAMBAR. Or GREEN PEPPER SAMBAR. Either one will send you to heaven, with steamed white rice (preferably Jasmine long grain rice). Fine – a recipe. Try, try, why not. Everyone aspires.
Are you full yet? Because you’re not finished. Probably you need to get up from the floor where we are sitting (wait, first it was just me, did you join me there? Watch out for the folds of your sari. DO NOT spill anything on the 9 yards of silk, Ok??) Walk around. Exercise care. Above all, do not knock over the Madras kapi – hot, milky coffee in metal tumblers – I remember almost burning myself on when I was a child intent on duplicating what my grandmother died, she with her strong hands pouring from one metal cup into another, fast, to cool the coffee off quickly, so men could drink.
You haven’t had one major dish, with which I’ll stop. Thyru shadham, or “yogurt rice”, with different varieties of pickled vegetable or fruit, my favorite being mango and lemon pickles. Eat this and you’re guaranteed to sleep, no matter how wicked you’ve been. It has become a hangover cure, about that I’m not surprised. Like coating your insides with the most soothing of things - yogurt – and making the yogurt stick, with rice – but first waking yourself up, bloodshot eyed and all, with that pickle. Luckily, neither of my grandmothers ever saw me use Thyru shadham in this desecrated way. Not that I ever did in college, and whatnot. Recipes:and . (I included the mango pickle Youtube recipe for entertainment. You’re not going to make that. Just buy this:
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Li, The Millions, Joyland, Large Hearted Boy, Chattahoochee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, jellyfish review, aaduna and elsewhere, with poetry in Cutthroat, sidereal, Natural Bridge, apt magazine, Hobart, Ithaca Lit, Quiddity and elsewhere. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color. In addition to the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection prize under which her debut collection WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS was released on Oct 9 2018, she recently received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, Sewanee Writers Conference Scholarship and a Henfield award for her writing. Her work received several Pushcart Prize anthology nominations this year as well as a Joy Harjo Poetry Contest prize. Follow her on Twitter at @chayab77 including for upcoming readings and events.