After days of pleading, the elders relent a bit. I am to cook them a vegetarian feast with the perfect balance of spices and flavors. It is a test, one they are sure I will fail. And in it lies my destiny. If my meal is a success, I can go to the United States.
The elders pick a Friday, considered an auspicious day by many Hindus, for my debut as a cook. Though they’ve given me this advantage, they try to hide their smirks as they inform me that I need not stretch myself. They are not looking for complex masalas or complicated curries, merely good food.
I begin with tender green beans, forgiving and flexible, which I cut into small pieces and sautæ in oil with mustard seeds and urad dal. I sprinkle the beans with desiccated coconut, watching as the thin strips flutter downward: falling tea leaves foretelling my future.
I chop cucumbers, tomatoes, and red onions for the pachadi and douse them in thick yogurt, over which I arrange fresh green cilantro in concentric swirls. Under the yogurt-white landscape the red onions appear like bluish veins. Red tomatoes, white yogurt, and blue onions. Red, white, and blue. Is it an omen, or just my imagination?
I tease some spinach over a low flame until it blossoms into a green as deep and bright as the eye of the ocean—and smile with secret satisfaction. The spinach is for palak paneer, the one dish in my menu that is not from South India and that will stand out as a misfit. Renegade food made by a rebel; the thought pleases me. I puræe the spinach and stir in asafetida, tomatoes, pearl onions, and cubes of creamy fried paneer—fresh cheese with the texture of warm tofu—suppressing a bubble of laughter.
Tomatoes brew in tamarind water with turmeric and salt as I cook red lentils. I blend them in, garnishing the rasam with cilantro, mustard seeds, and roasted cumin. The scent of cilantro perfumes the air and soothes my soul.
Tomato rasam is the vegetarian’s equivalent of chicken soup. It’s the only comfort food I know. When the monsoons ravaged the red earth of my homeland, my grandmother would puræe the rasam with sticky rice and add a spoonful of warm ghee. We would watch the swaying trees arch under the sheets of rain, contentedly spooning the rasam-rice mixture from silver bowls.
I hover over virgin rice, cooking it until each grain is softened but doesn’t stick. I stir in turmeric soaked in lemon juice, then ginger, peanuts, and curry leaves I’ve fried in oil. The rice looks like a painter’s palette. Cadmium yellow speckled with burnt sienna.
As sweet butter turns into golden ghee, the food of gods, the litany I learned at my mother’s knee echoes in my head: Ghee promotes growth, ginger soothes, garlic rejuvenates. My grandfather eluded the cholesterol police by drinking a tumblerful daily and living till 104.
Dessert is a simple payasam, rice pudding, with roasted pistachios, plump rai-sins, and strands of saffron strewn on top. The feast ends with aromatic South Indian coffee, a mixture of ground plantation and peaberry beans with a dash of chicory. I filter the coffee powder through a muslin cloth, then mix it with boiling cow’s milk that froths on top and, following my mother’s prescription, just enough sugar to take out the bitterness but add nothing to the taste.
The elders arrive, resplendent as peacocks in their silk saris and gleaming white dhotis made from spun Madras cotton. Even my teenage cousins are dressed to kill. They survey the ancient rosewood table that totters under the weight of the stainless-steel containers I have filled. I arrange banana leaves on the floor and invite everyone to sit down on the bamboo mats.
My guests pick and sample, judiciously at first. They don’t want to eat, but they can’t stop themselves. They fight over the last piece of paneer, taste overtaking caution. Grandma leans back and belches unapologetically.
I can go to America.