Deep in the recesses of our refrigerator is a cheap gallon-size plastic container emblazoned with an Italian tricolor crest and labeled “Caputo 00 flour”. You wouldn’t give it a second glance. Or maybe you would, wondering what kind of person hoards flour in their fridge. It probably doesn’t help my credibility here to reveal that the box actually holds five pounds of fleshy tamarind pods from India, wryly masquerading as the foundation to a stellar Neapolitan pizza. However, this small attempt at camouflage feels weighted with meaning, a rebellious holdover from my unsteady start in the kitchen.
For most of my adult life, recreating the Tamil dishes I grew up with was death by a thousand cuts. In my early twenties, as a newlywed and complete cooking novice, I stumbled through recipes with varying degrees of success. My attempts at fried rice were passable; my minestrone soup was a bit dubious but admittedly still tasty. When it came to South Indian Tamil food, however, my failures were not just the worst-case scenario, but also the humiliatingly consistent result.
A trio of ingredients – thengai (coconut), paruppu (lentils), and puli (tamarind) – form the backbone of my ancestral cuisine, and each of them seemed unflinchingly determined to let me down. The frozen coconut I found at the Indian grocery store in California was a bland substitute for the slightly sweet but still earthy version I remembered from childhood. My grandmother would squat on the marble floor of our humid Chennai kitchen, the ends of her sari tucked safely out of harm’s way, grasping the wooden base of the aruvamanai firmly beneath her calves. She’d use the rasp hooked at the end of its razor-sharp edge to spin a freshly-husked and splintered thengai between her palms, catching the snowy pile of coconut meat in a waiting steel plate below.
My grandmother’s flippancy about the ten-inch blade positioned directly in front of her groin was an example of the brazen cockiness exhibited by seasoned home cooks that I’ve always found simultaneously impressive and aggravating. The thengai she grated, however, was just plain dreamy. It lent a beguiling roundness to every meal, calming the other loud flavors that often competed on the South Indian palate. In the Bay Area, I was faced instead with a package of unnaturally white, clumpy, frozen shards, with a strange odor that hinted at being on the wrong side of ripeness. I felt bereft.
The paruppu was another story altogether. Indian food uses a mind-boggling array of lentils, each subtly different in size, shape, and color. For someone who had never noticed the nuances of the lentil world before I needed to start cooking them without a capable guide at my side, I now spent hours peering into canisters of thoram paruppu and kadalai paruppu, trying to decide which I was supposed to boil to create a base for sambar and which was supposed to be sputtered in oil and strewn like blistering golden jewels over coconut chutney.
The detailed instructions I had jotted down watching my mother make these same dishes in India now seemed woefully inadequate. At the time of recording them, I’d been so smug. I’d funneled the ingredients she would casually eyeball into bowls as she cooked, converting her vague “oh, just about half a handful of this will do” into precise spoon and cup measures. None of that was helpful now. Why hadn’t I paid more attention to the delicate variations between lentil types? Thoram paruppu and kadala paruppu were alarmingly similar, although one had a slight, graceful meniscus and the other felt a little flatter to the touch. I was at a total loss. It felt like this race was over before it even had the chance to begin, but I soldiered on anyway, blundering through recipe after recipe, butchering my heritage with every flick of my untrained wrist.
If any of this sounds frightening (it was), the worst part is that thengai and paruppu were far from being my biggest nemeses on the Tamil cooking front. That privilege belonged uniquely to puli. The irony was that my nascent childhood memories of puli consisted purely of pleasure. At school, large tamarind trees ringed our elementary playground, their leafy branches throwing dappled shadows across the earth. On long afternoons, my friends and I would crouch along the perimeter, searching for fallen tamarind pods. We were skilled at identifying perfectly ripe fruit, the slightly hollow sound of the nut-brown shell indicating that it had pulled back just enough from the flesh to crack open with minimal pressure. The manna within straddled that elusive balance of sweet and sour, and we could never get enough. We sucked on the pulp until our tongues puckered, stopping only when we felt our tummies lurch with acidic tang.
This was the puli-addled utopia from whence I had emerged, only to find the dried fruit of my memory replaced at the Indian grocery store by plastic jars of Tamicon – a concentrated tamarind paste that promised ease and efficiency but delivered nothing but heartache. The first time I tried substituting tamarind pulp with Tamicon, the results were devastating. My rasam turned a dark muddy brown, and an astringent smell filled the room. What virulent new strain of cooking hell was this? I threw the whole steaming mess down the drain.
While engaged in this string of disasters, I was independently discovering that I was not in fact a bad cook. On the contrary, my skills were growing steadily, and I was a giddy consumer of the wonders of the American grocery store. For someone who had grown up primarily with Indian produce and dry goods, the sheer volume and variety of exotic ingredients that were now at my fingertips was thrilling. I wanted to demystify every strange-shaped fruit, conquer every section of every food aisle. Thai green curry simmer sauce AND Mexican chilies AND bottles of Italian caper berries all under one industrial-grade roof? It was like chancing upon a dozen new frontiers at once, and I was not going to let this opportunity pass me by. Armed with a working internet connection, a public library card, and a noisy inkjet printer, I set about creating a bulging recipe binder that used every new ingredient I encountered at the store. Before I knew it, I was churning out startlingly magenta borscht and black bean enchiladas and caprese drizzled with aged balsamic, sometimes all in the same week. The feeling of power was heady.
At some point along this new way, the work involved in chipping away at my family’s recipes no longer seemed worthwhile. Why was I still trying, anyway? I could never get the paruppu cooked to just the right point (I could practically hear my mother’s dissatisfied clucking whenever I opened the pressure cooker), and just the sight of that blasted jar of Tamicon was enough to make me burst into tears. I wasn’t rejecting my native food as much as it seemed to be repeatedly refusing me. I put my terrible attempts to make sambar and green bean usli on ice and moved on to genuflecting at simpler, more exciting culinary pastures. But the guilt remained, a constant horned devil at my shoulder. Every time I conquered an adventurous new dish, it cackled quietly, “Sure, you might have whipped a decent buttercream, but you still don’t know how to make your mother’s rasam. You’re a sham.”
Look, it’s not like I didn’t try. I had the handwritten notes from pre-wedding lessons with my mother. I sought out cookbooks that specialized in the Tamil food I remembered, but their instructions were a challenge to decipher. The classic series of books for the Tamil home cook was called Samaithu Paar, quite literally translated to “Cook and See”. But after spending a few sessions with its cryptic instructions (for example: “Add water extracted from a lemon-sized ball of puli and a sufficient amount of sambar powder to the pitla and simmer until a good smell comes”), the book’s title felt less like an open invitation and more akin to a gauntlet, thrown down with a smirk and single raised eyebrow. My shoulders drooped in response. I was no longer up for this challenge.
It was almost a decade before I tried again. In the interim years, I had been buoyed by the satisfaction that came from feeding people. Spending time in the kitchen had nourished me, reaping rewards I could never have imagined. But the truth remained: I was cooking everything except the one cuisine I had thought would come most naturally. Having recently become a mother had forced a change in perspective as well. I wanted my children not just to acknowledge the foods their parents had grown up with, but to relish them. I dreamt of our sons devouring a well-made dosa just as quickly as a bowl of spaghetti, knowing that a crisp fried appalam rivaled any bag of potato chips, watching homemade ghee puddle and melt softly into a fluffed mound of rice before ladling mor kozhambu over the top. Even more urgently, I wanted all those things for myself again. Convincing myself I didn’t crave the traditional dishes of my culture had worked for only so long before my tastebuds wept longingly for what I had forsaken.
My attempts to stage a Tamil cooking revival began somewhat aggressively. I bookmarked countless suggestions online on how to extract the most authentic Indian flavor from vegetables grown on foreign soil. I scoured the Indian grocery store for the best brands of pantry items and spices. I worked on decolonizing my social media feed, trying to understand the inherent biases influencing what made it onto the shelves of Safeway and Whole Foods. On each visit to India, I stockpiled ingredients I had ignored for years. Where earlier trips had been filled primarily with shopping trips for clothes and bric-a-brac, now on the way back to California, my suitcases overflowed with bags of fresh tamarind and organic cardamom pods. And, perhaps most pressingly, I badgered my mother for information. I wanted to soak up everything I had previously overlooked. Tell me more, I said. Teach me what you know. I promise this time I’m really listening.
I’m not sure what I expected to happen exactly. Maybe I hoped for a measure of redemption, allowing me to reclaim my heritage in a way that had eluded me until then. What I found was so much bigger. To begin with, there was my mother. Her initial disbelief – “You’re not really going to try making any of these dishes, are you?” – transformed into expansive delight when she recognized my genuine (desperate) desire. Our Whatsapp thread became a series of footnotes and warnings. “Make sure you don’t use much water to melt the jaggery.” “You should be able to really smell the ginger.” “Choose tender okra and slice it extra thin so the gotsu isn’t slimy.” And most often, “Just call me, I can’t type anymore.” Suddenly, we were talking more than ever, and our calls would meander beyond my initial recipe questions to encompass everything happening in our hemispheres.
If this wasn’t payoff enough, the ultimate denouement was just as unexpected. When I finally reattempted each of my favorite dishes from childhood, with almost no exceptions, every one of them turned out tasting exactly as they should. The flavors intersected and emulsified miraculously. Some even made me close my eyes and send up a silent prayer of gratitude, or better yet, call my mother on Facetime to share the results. It turned out I had been looking in the wrong places for inspiration; what I needed to conquer the food of my culture was confidence, practice, and a sharp set of santoku knives. Time had taught me what a recipe book could not, taking me a culinary journey around the world to find my way home again.
I cook it all now. Aviyal with its vibrant matchsticks of carrot, potato and squash, simmered in a coconut yogurt sauce. Spinach poricha kootu, greens tempered with mashed lentils and peppery vetha kozhambu powder. Idli batter, home-ground and fermented overnight on the counter until it blooms into something so much greater than the sum of its parts. But the rightful hero at the center of it all is tamarind. Where Tamicon was moody and capricious, real tamarind is sublime, a true powerhouse ingredient. When tamarind is involved, the film of turmeric-stained oil in my saucepan gleams just so, and the steam rising from the stove swells with potential.
It’s a midwinter evening. Today, I’m frying vadaam to accompany our meal, and it has drawn a small audience. Our five year old’s eyes widen as the dehydrated tapioca crisps hit hot oil and unfurl into lacy white flags. He yells for his brother – “Anna, they’re almost ready, and I’m going to get all the biggest pieces!” The mountain of vadaam I’ve already deep fried climbs skyward in a colander, but I know most of it won’t last until dinner. My husband stands a few feet away, done with meetings, swirling a glass of wine, his knowing smile a quiet comfort. The dog is at my feet, warming herself in the sunlight that falls in wide stripes across the wood floor. The day, like many others recently, has felt interminably long, with Zoom calls, and online school, and meltdowns, and we just found a rat in the garage. But we also have a box of tamarind in the fridge, and the chance to start again in the morning.
Purnima Mani is by turns an impatient parent, baking aficionado, middle school English teacher, and opinionated immigrant. Her skills in each of these areas tend to be eclipsed by her enthusiasm, but nevertheless, she perseveres. Find more of her writing at purnimamani.medium.com