July 25, 2009
It was a dreary fall Saturday in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Mom and dad decided to use the day to run errands, leaving me at home to babysit my grandparents visiting from India. I was in high-school – pleased to have some time away from the folks – thinking I could get away with some channel surfing and typical homework procrastination. Babaji had other ideas.
“I’m going to teach you how to cook.”
It wasn’t a question, but more of a declaration - as if, in his mind, the time had come. It did not matter that up until that point I’d never cooked outside of heating up my mother’s rotis while she sat after feeding my father, my brother and me – usually in that order. I was a little wary. In my house as in most South Asian homes the men didn’t cook. I wasn’t sure what my grandfather – of all people – was going to teach me.
“Ye dehe do.”
Yet another command. He wanted me to wash the bright, purple eggplant he had me pull from the fridge. Babaji peeled two potatoes quickly and efficiently with a paring knife and did the same with a large, white onion. I started chopping on the large, wooden butcher-block island that was the pride of my mother’s kitchen.
“Nehi, nehi.” Don’t chop the onion too small Babaji admonished as I tried to awkwardly help. He gently pushed me aside and showed me how he wanted it done.
In minutes there were four chopped piles – eggplant, tomato, onions and potatoes. I reached for the hairy, woody ends of the eggplant, obviously headed for the trash.
“Nehi.” That’s the best part. The best part? I rolled my eyes behind his back, praying he didn’t catch me. Respect in our culture was key to a long, healthy life. Garlic and ginger were peeled, also roughly chopped, and added to the pile of onions. My eyes began to water. Babaji was as stoic as ever.
Babaji struggled with the electric stove. In his village they use stone ovens and an open flame enticed by coal, cow dung and twigs. Electric burners were new to him. I helped him set the stove on medium-high under the large, heavy saucepan.
He poured in about two tablespoons of vegetable oil, let it gain some sizzle and then added one spoon of cumin. Next came a teaspoon of turmeric and the onion, garlic, and ginger combo. Make sure there’s enough heat and that it cooks enough to get brown, Babaji said. I’ve always loved the smells that come from this combination of ingredients in hot oil: earthy, warm, and comforting all at the same time..
Anupy, pay attention! Next, the tomatoes. A minute later I scooped up the entire pile of potatoes in two hands and poured it into the hot pan. Beta, mix this and don’t let it stick to the bottom. I attentively and gently stirred so as not to break any of the potatoes that Babaji explained need to be added first so they could cook longer than the eggplant.
“Baingan dalo,” Babaji said. Put in the eggplant. I grabbed as much as I could, leaving the stems behind. No, add those too. “But why?” I asked. Silence. So I did it.
Babaji stood with his back to me and mixed slowly and deliberately. I watched as my normally stern, no-nonsense grandfather suddenly became soft and gentle talking about the dish he was making. You don’t want to mix it too much or all the pieces will break, he explained in Punjabi. And, when everything looks like it has mixed well, put in the mirch and masala - the chili and the spices. He measured nothing. First, the thinly sliced tiny green chili he had me chop – the only delicate slicing of the day; then, a spoon of red chili powder and a few spoons of salt. Put the lid on the pot and let it sit on low for a few minutes. He left a corner of the lid slightly ajar to let out steam, the steady stream adding to the aromas already invading the kitchen.
As I cleaned the kitchen, Babaji gave his dish one last mix with a metal spoon and commanded me to look in the pot. See? This is perfect. He gingerly took out a hot piece of eggplant stem and turned it over so I could see the round bottom where we had cut it away from the meat. Look inside. See that? If you had thrown that away, we would have lost the best part – the soft, fleshy inside. It’s the sweetest and the tastiest. Babaji took it in his mouth, sucked out the eggplant flesh still stuck in the stem and threw the spent green hook away.
I’ve never looked at eggplant the same again, nor have I stopped cooking.