Monday, February 15, 2016

Valentine's! Galentine's!

I am not a big fan of Valentine's Day. Roses leave me cold, the hoopla is something I avoid, and I got over the cutsie cards when I was a teenager.

In my view, love is something to be celebrated every day. But this year, February 14 was very special because it truly embodied a celebration of true love.

My 14 year old, Keya joked that she was celebrating 'Galentine's' and she'd started eagerly planning mid-week. Her best friend Charlotte, whom she first met at ballet class, has been sick with mononucleosis. Since it is a debilitating and highly contagious illness, Char has been home from school much longer than she or her parents wanted. The girls hadn't seen each other since the Christmas holidays. We even had to miss seeing Char on her 14th birthday earlier in February.

Through the past six weeks, the girls have stayed in touch. Keya calls and Facetimes Char every day, making sure she is all right, commiserating with her when she is down and keeping her up-to-date on the ballet audition season. Char wrote Keya a good old fashioned letter, using it to practice her cursive!

Keya's weekends in January were packed with auditions for summer ballet programs and Char unfortunately was not well enough to attend any or even come to ballet class. But the girls held each other up, one helping the other through boring days stuck at home unable to dance, the other encouraging her friend before each audition and listening to her blow-by-blow account of it after.

Now finally Char was well enough to see Keya and they came up with a plan. Let's meet under the fig tree at the library, they decided. We'll have a Valentine's Day breakfast picnic. Char was going to make her delicious gluten-free desserts but she was too tired to bake, so Keya got up Saturday morning with an idea. Before I knew what she was up to, she had taken down peanut butter chips, dark chocolate chunks and white chocolate chips from the baking cupboard.

She melted each batch of chips and layered them in cupcake papers to make her very own peanut butter cups. Then she told me about the strict diet that Char is on. No gluten, no raw vegetables, no dairy, no red meat. So she planned her menu accordingly, telling me repeatedly what we needed to avoid.

We cooked Ottolenghi's eggs in a skillet (from his cookbook, Plenty) with a base of rainbow chard and omitting the yogurt sauce. To accompany the eggs, Keya sautéed potatoes, broccoli and portobello mushrooms in olive oil and we made chicken-apple sausages, because protein is really important! Chocolate covered strawberries were my gift to the girls.

My daughter packed up the goodies in her wicker picnic basket and wrapped her gifts. Then off we headed, Keya light of heart because she was finally going to see her BAE (for those of you not up on your teen slang, that is her "Before Anyone Else"!)

Car packed with goodies for the picnic

Char was waiting for us under the tree. Keya called out to her and she walked toward us. My daughter is very critical of my photography skills these days but she loved this picture I took of the two friends meeting at long last.

Keya & Charlotte meeting after months apart

Breakfast Time

Together Again

Sweets for her Sweet

And what did I do? you might ask. I have been sick as a dog all weekend and I wanted to give the girls their space for a few hours before I had to drive Keya to dance rehearsal. So I walked across to wait at Buster's my favorite little coffee shop which Melissa, one of my BAEs, introduced me to almost two decades ago. 

A hot cup of coffee and granola for my breakfast
Too weary to work or read, I enjoyed the sunlight and watched lovers coming in, the women wearing some shade of red or pink, families with their babies, enjoying ice cream on this hot California day, cyclists, walkers. No one was alone today and I felt content for them, having their loved ones for company.

My family moved so much when I was a child that I didn't have a 'best' friend till I was almost 18. I'm glad I could give Keya a less peripatetic life. When she complained to me years ago that she didn't have a best friend, I would say, "Your best friend is just around the corner. Once you find her, that's going to be it. You'll feel you've always had each other." 

So it has. In the last three years they have known each other, Keya and Char have been through tough times, injuries and setbacks, but their love and caring, their knowledge of each other's needs and desires is ever present and enviable. 

And I smiled as I pondered the things we do for love. How simple yet essential they are, and how they create beautiful moments that make our every day a special Valentine's Day. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Spices 101: Post #3: Cardamom -- The Vanilla of India

When I lived in India, one of my least favorite spices was cardamom, which might be considered India’s national spice if such a title were being handed out. Ubiquitous across the subcontinent, cardamom finds its way into everything from masala chai to Moghlai food, from desserts to paan. Most Indians seem to love it but I shudder every time I bite into a cardamom pod or even seed. The flavor of elaichi is so intense it makes my mouth numb, rather like Szechuan peppercorns do. 

Ironically, I learned to love its flavor only after I moved to North America. That was where I discovered it had another name too: Vanilla of India. How appropriate, I thought. The spice is native to my country but its sweetness is comparable to that of the vanilla bean, the most commonly used dessert flavoring in the West. 

Both cardamom's green and black varieties are supposed to have originated where I come from, the Western Ghats. According to the Indian Spices Board, cardamom is a “perennial, herbaceous, rhizatomous plant ... often referred to as the Queen of Spices” ( India is still one of the largest producers ... but Guatemala, Sri Lanka, and Burma also produce it as well.”

In The Essential Marathi Cookbook (New Delhi: Penguin India, 2009), I explain, “  aromatic black cardamom (Amomum subulatum) seeds are used in savory dishes [like pulao, meat stew, etc]; the better flavored green (Elettaria cardamomum) work for sweet and savory recipes  Green cardamom [also] has many benefits including enhancing appetite and relieving acidity  [and] is often also used as a mouth freshener.”

Elettaria cardamomum has long been used as a medicine in Ayurveda because it contains vitamins and minerals, aids digestion, clears throat problems, cures tooth and gum infections, and is a remedy for gastrointestinal disorders. When I was newly married, I once had an upset stomach and threw up uncontrollably. I remember being surprised when my Sindhi mother-in-law made me mung and rice khichadi flavored with ghee, salt and just two spices: whole black pepper and cardamom. “Isn’t elaichi for sweets?” I asked. 

"Yes, it is," she said but explained that Sindhis added it to this khichadi because both pepper and cardamom are good for stomach ailments. Sure enough, I recovered almost immediately after eating the nourishing and therapeutic dish.

According to, a website devoted to the spice, cardamom was used by the ancient Greeks in their cooking when Alexander the Great took the plant to Europe after his invasion of northwestern India in the 4th century BCE. The Romans followed suit and the spice made its way deep into Europe, becoming popular in continental kitchens from Sweden to Spain. 

In Indian cookery, I find that cardamom is too prevalent for my taste; it's rare to find a dessert that isn’t flavored with its aromatic sweetness, be it sevayachi kheer (vermicelli kheer) or gulab jamun (milk dumplings in a cardamom-rose water syrup)Then one day, a friend introduced me to a Swedish bakery in my small California town. There I discovered Semla (the singular is Semlor) cardamom-custard buns that were baked for Lent, the forty days of fasting before Easter.

Swedish Semla at Berolina Bakery, Montrose, CA

I fell in love with the delicate dough, almond paste filling and light whipped cream. And what was that floral aroma? I wondered. I was surprised to learn that it was cardamom because it was so delicate compared to what I was used to. What was different? 

It took several years of eating and baking northern European buns and pastries like Semla and the Scandinavian Julekake (Christmas cake) for me to understand. In India, cardamom is often used whole or coarsely ground. Even when ground fine, it remains in the forefront of a dish where it can get between the teeth. On the other hand, European baked goods use a fine cardamom powder and something about mixing the spice into a dough mutes its intensity. I prefer this delicate, nuanced taste. 

I started making my own version of cardamom cookies every winter. I call them Vanilla of India shortbread. They are buttery, almond flour cookies flavored with a good measure of powdered cardamom. For a pretty Indian hue, I add Calvert’s rose syrup which turns them a delicate pink. 

Since many people in India may not have an oven in which to bake cookies, I adapted the recipe into an easy milkshake. IF you would like to try making the cookies, however, please email me at and I will gladly share the recipe. You can also try making the milkshake below. Let me know how it turns out.

Vanilla of India Milkshake

This easy recipe is a great, on-the-go breakfast or after-school drink for kids. The sweet perfume of roses pairs beautifully with cardamom for a sweetly refreshing sip.

8 oz milk
1 ripe banana, peeled
11/2 teaspoons sugar 
1/4 cup ground almonds
3/4 teaspoon powdered cardamom
1 teaspoon rose syrup (optional)
1/2 cup crushed ice

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and whip till smooth and liquefied. Pour into two to three tall glasses and garnish with a pinch of powdered cardamom.

Friday, November 13, 2015

SPICES 101: Post 2: Vadouvan, Vadagam, Vadakam, Vadavam, by any name is still a spice blend!

Do you know of any culinary connection between Tamil cooking and French? 

Seems rather unlikely, doesn’t it? I discovered the intersection of the two cultures in the story of colonialism in India and one French sounding word -- vadouvan. This spice blend has been a trendy ingredient in the Western world of haute cuisine for the last few years, with gastronomic celebrities adding it to everything from chicken to stews and from grains to salads. However, both the spice and the word originated in Southern India, as did many other popular spices and the infamous spice blend called curry powder. Vadouvan is often referred to as French curry powder or in the French language as “qu-ree.” 

The French, on a smaller scale than the English, had colonial territories on the Indian subcontinent and administered them for over three centuries under the auspices of the French East India Company. Arriving in India in the mid-seventeenth century, they established factories as far west as Surat and as far south as Masulipatnam. These were taken over by the British less than a century later. There was only one territory on the Indian subcontinent that the French held onto for a considerable period of time. This was Pondicherry in eastern Tamil Nadu, which they acquired in 1673 and occupied till the middle of the twentieth century.

And the Pondicherry region was the birthplace of vadouvan. Known in Tamil as vadakam, vadagam or vadavam, this unique blend was made annually during the hot, dry summer. Vadakam consists of whole mustard seed, cumin seed, crushed fenugreek seed and udad dal (split black gram lentils) to which garlic, onion, salt, and sometimes curry leaves, were added. What was really unusual was that unlike spice blends in other parts of India, this was made of dehydrated ingredients and shaped into a ball for easy storage and distribution amongst family members. The ball was an easy, quick way of adding flavor to dishes when garlic and onions were not always easily on hand. 

To use, a ball of the spice was broken into the desired portion, added to hot oil to allow the mustard seed to pop and then used as a base for other ingredients like chicken or vegetables. 

The French version, vadouvan, varies somewhat. Rather than sun drying the ingredients, they are dehydrated in a hot oven. The recipe diverges from its pungent, savory roots with the addition of chili powder, cardamom, cloves, fennel seed and nutmeg. Lastly, the blend is not made into balls but left as a powder. And that is how I first discovered it at a farmers’ market in Versailles, just outside Paris.

Here is a recipe for the traditional Tamilian version. Add it to your favorite ingredients to give them a new burst of flavor. 

Vadouvan Spice

Urad dal (split black gram lentils), 175 grams
Fenugreek seeds, 1 teaspoon
Onion, 0.75 kg
Garlic, 125 grams
Bengal gram, 1/2 tablespoons
Mustard seeds, 125 grams
Cumin seeds, 1/2 tablespoons
Turmeric, 1 teaspoons
Salt, 125 grams
Edible castor oil as needed

Rinse 25 grams udad dal well. Soak it and the fenugreek seeds in water for 60 minutes. Then grind them into a coarse paste. Set aside.

Peel the onion and garlic. Crush them coarsely in a mortar and pestle or pulse in a food processor to break them into pieces. Do not crush them so that they release their juices. 

Place the onions and garlic in a large mixing bowl or platter. Add the remaining udad dal, Bengal gram, mustard seed and cumin seed and mix well. Stir in the ground dal paste, turmeric and salt. 

Rest the mixture covered for one day. On the second day, uncover and rest it in the sunlight. On day three, stir the mixture well and shape it into balls, using castor oil to bind them. This oil acts as a preservative so the vadakam lasts for a year. 

Dry the balls in bright sunlight for ten days till completely dehydrated. Alternatively, use a warm oven to slowly dry out (but NOT bake) the balls (200 degrees Fahrenheit for 4-5 hours). You can also dry out the powder in an oven, at the above temperature, stirring it  occasionally so it drys evenly. Cool and store the powder or balls in an airtight jar. 

Chicken, Vegetables Or Dal with Vadouvan Spice

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 kg chicken, cut into serving sized pieces OR 1/4 kg vegetables (carrots, peas, potatoes, beans, etc.) OR 1 cup too dal, cooked
1/3 ball or 1.5 tablespoons vadouvan or vadakam
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
lime juice
salt to taste
cilantro leaves for garnish

Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the vadouvan and let the mustard seeds pop. Stir the ball to break it into small pieces. Add a touch of red chili powder, if you like. Sauté well for 1-3 minutes. 

Add the chicken, vegetables or dal to the pan. Stir to mix with the spices and cook till tender, adding water if needed. Mix in lime juice if needed and add salt to taste. 

Serve hot garnished with cilantro.

Try the recipe and tell me how it turns out. You can reach me at

Monday, September 14, 2015

Spices 101; Post 1: Aji Amarillo

I was recently asked by a friend and colleague in India to write a column about spices for an Indian newspaper. She wanted me to give some background and history about spices and also offer recipes that Indian cooks might not be familiar with.

I looked up the broadsheet and realized that it was a Hindi-language publication, which threw me for a loop! I studied Hindi for exactly one year in tenth grade. While I did surprisingly well, there was no way I could today write about food eloquently in Hindi. Then I realized I had an ace in my back pocket. My mother is fluent in many Indian languages and grew up speaking and writing Hindi. So I asked her to translate my piece and she did a fabulous job. Here is the first piece that appeared in Dainik Bhaskar (my English version, of course!). Look out for more over the next few months. 

Aji Amarillo

I am amused by the fact that non-Indians automatically associate chilies and heat with Indian food. I teach Indian cooking in California and my students are astonished when I say that our food is not always spicy-hot and did not use chilies from time immemorial! And yet how well an ingredient can be incorporated into a culture and indigenized is epitomized by the chili in its adopted land of India. 

For millennia, Indians gave their food heat with cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and ginger. The chili is a new entrant on its culinary scene. Christopher Columbus may have been the first European explorer to taste the chili in the Americas, and Spanish and Portuguese sailors brought plants back to Europe where they were an exotic novelty, grown in monasteries. The monks experimented with the fruit’s culinary and medicinal properties and found that it was a less expensive alternative than the exorbitant black peppercorns that were brought from India. 

Though the chili came to Asia with sixteenth century Portuguese explorers, it quickly proliferated all over India, which is thought to be “the world's foremost consumer of chiles,” using “hundreds of varieties representing a huge range of tastes and heat,” (Saveur magazine). From the non-spicy chilies of Kashmir to the fiery red ones of Andhra Pradesh, the chili pepper is there to stay. Indians use it fresh and dried, whole and ground up, on its own and mixed into spice blends.

But its history is far older than its association with Indian cuisine. There is evidence of chiles having been part of the human diet in their native lands, Central and South America since 7,500 BC. and they are said to have been domesticated in Mexico about 6,000 years ago. 

The word chili itself refers to the berry or fruit of a plant belonging to the genus Capsicum. The word pepper was added to its name to describe the hot taste of the fruit. Today, chilies are a huge component of South and East Asian cuisines like Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and, of course, Indian. 

Five domesticated species are used all over the world. Capsicum annuum includes bell peppers, cayenne and jalapenos. In the Capsicum frutescens variety are the Portuguese piri piri, Thai chilies and Malawian Kambuzi peppers. Notoriously fiery chilies like the habanero, Scotch bonnet and Naga chili from northeast India fall under the species Capsicum chinense. The last two varieties are Capsicum pubescens and Capsicum baccatum, not commonly seen or known outside South America.

I was speaking to my Peruvian friend Ana recently about Indian food which fascinates her. Then I asked her how chilies were used in her native country and that is how I learned about the Aji Amarillo (pronounced Ah-hee Ama-riyo) chili which I had never known about before. Named for its distinctive yellow color (amarillo means yellow in Spanish), this medium-hot, flavorful and thick-fleshed pepper belongs to the Capsicum baccatum species. As Max Falkowitz, the editor of the website Serious Eats New York (, says, “If there was a chile to taste like sunshine, this would be it.”

Sunshine colored aji amarillo paste

The Peruvians’ beloved Aji Amarillo is commonly used across the nation and Ana says that her countrymen often have it growing as a hedge in their gardens. The pepper,  which turns a gorgeous orange as it ripens, can be used fresh but is also dried, which renders it sweeter like sun-dried tomatoes. It is available fresh and canned, as well as in paste form, blended with salt and garlic. 

Aji amarillo paste, pretty & spicy

The Aji Amarillo chili finds its way into many classic Peruvian dishes like Causa Rellena,  a mix of other native South American ingredients like potatoes and avocados with imported ones like chicken, lime and garlic. Blended Aji Amarillo is also made into a chili-garlic sauce seen on tables at Peruvian restaurants, the way cilantro chutney is found in Indian ones. 

However, the dish that Ana waxed eloquent about was Papas a la Huancaina (potatoes made and named after the style of the city of Huancayo in the Peruvian Highlands). Since Aji Amarillo or paste might be hard to find, try using one yellow or orange bell pepper instead, adding a green chili or one teaspoon red chili powder. If you have sun-dried tomatoes around, add a few of those for texture and sweetness too. Add more or less chili powder, to taste.

PAPAS A LA HUANCAINA (Peruvian Potatoes with Aji Amarillo)


4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
3-4 yellow aji amarillo chile peppers or 1/2 cup jarred aji amarillo paste
2 cloves garlic, mashed
2 cups white farmers’ cheese (queso fresco) OR fresh paneer
4 saltine crackers OR Ritz crackers
3/4 cup evaporated milk
Salt and pepper to taste


8 white or yellow potatoes
Lettuce leaves
3 hard boiled eggs (optional)
10 black olives (optional)


Remove seeds from yellow chili peppers and chop into 1-inch pieces. 

Sauté onion, garlic, and chilis or paste in the oil until softened, 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. 

Place onion-chili mixture in a food processor or blender. Add evaporated milk and blend till smooth. Add cheese and crackers and blend till the sauce is thick and silky. 

If needed, thicken the sauce with more crackers or thin it out with milk. Season with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature or chilled.


Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the potatoes and cook about 20 minutes until tender when pierced with a fork. Drain well and cool. 

To serve, arrange lettuce leaves on a platter. Slice potatoes and place on top of the lettuce. Pour the huancaina sauce over the potatoes, and garnish with slices of hard-boiled eggs and black olive halves.

Write me at about how the recipe turned out and what you thought of the Aji Amarillo, or what ingredient you substituted for it.

All pix by Kaumudi Marathe

Saturday, March 8, 2014

My First Marathon

I am running my first Marathon tomorrow, March 9, 2014. I will join 24,999 other runners and walkers at Dodger Stadium for the 29th Annual Los Angeles Marathon. I’m excited, nervous, and extremely unsure of whether I will make it to the finish line. After all, I am no Phidippides. 

He ran the first Marathon from the town by the same name to the city of Athens in 490 BC. He was carrying a message from the battlefield where the Greeks had defeated the Persians. “Nike (victory)!” he is said to have famously shouted at the end of a 24.85 mile run. Then he lay down and died. 

Phidippides was a soldier, probably not more than 20 years old, and ran like the wind because, of course, no one could send a text back then. “Hey, we won! Break out the champagne, LOL!” He ran like his life depended on it and alas, it did.

I am old enough, at 45, to be Phidippides' mother! As many of my friends have seen fit to inform me over the last six weeks there is absolutely no reason for me to be running the modern equivalent of his race, 26.2 miles, and worrying about fueling, hydration, long runs, hills, chafed arms, sore muscles, horrendous blisters and blood in my urine. No reason at all. Until very recently I have never even been tempted. Marathons are for other people. Times, PRS (personal records), speed intervals mean nothing to me. I just run because I like it. 

Let me backtrack a bit. As a child I tried to escape exercise. I would rather have read about the history of marathons than contemplate running one. And yet, when I had to run for Phys Ed class, I was quite fast. I could have been a sprinter. But I was not. I was a couch explorer, traveling to new worlds and living other people’s lives until I was about 21 and decided to start exercising, first taking a step aerobics class, then swimming laps every morning with my husband before we diverged to our separate work days. 

I discovered chi gung and cardio kick boxing when I was 28. Chi gung was dance like and the way it grounded me to the earth gave me an energy I could feel coursing through my body, unlike my native yoga which left me cold. 

I still kick box once a week but when I was about 38, I discovered an exercise I could do on my own, with very little equipment and no gym membership required. I started running short distances on the tread mill and I can still remember the morning I completed ONE mile. That was exciting. 

Of course, being a journalist, I try not to approach anything sketchily informed. So I borrowed books on running from the library and my friend Alexis, who had competed in several triathlons, gave me a book which I read and took to heart. Danny Dreyer's Chi Running appealed to me and has enabled me to run injury free for years. 

Still, the longest distance I attempted was a 5-K run in honor of my friend Stacy's mother-in-law who died of pancreatic cancer. I do the pancreatic cancer run every year (see pic below), sometimes running a 5-K, sometimes a 10. 

Then the year I was going to turn 40, 2008, I thought that a half marathon might be a good challenge. I still thought marathons were too much so 13.2 miles was a good distance to progress from a 10-K. I trained with a team for four months and ran the Surf City down in Huntington Beach early that February.

It rained from 2 am and I was a squelching cold mess right from the start line! I was amused when the wind and rain lashed at me, as I ran along the shore, that the elite runners were passing me on their way to the marathon finish line and I was only halfway through the half! Still, at the end of it all, with Sanjiv, my friend Irene, and Keya to cheer me on, I felt like I had accomplished something. And I felt that if I could run in that weather, I could run in anything!

And then I went back to my regular runs, two-three miles, with an occasional longer run thrown in. But this January thinking about my cousin, Pramodan who was diagnosed with ALS and could no longer walk, let alone run, I decided to run for him. So I signed up for the LA Marathon. 

I have questioned my decision endlessly, especially when I look at a course map and it strikes me that I will be running past all the parts of town I usually must drive to reach: downtown LA where I take Keya to dance class; Hollywood where her school is; Beverly Hills where some of my clients live; and Santa Monica which is as far west as one can go in LA County and somewhere I try to avoid going because it is so far to drive. 

My friend, Anita, a world class swimmer, said to me, "Training is a full time job." I get it but I haven't been able to treat it as such this time around. What I have done is my best to eat well, read my Runner's World magazine, run some hills even though I abhor them, and be regular about my exercise. 

I smiled when my daughter naively asked me if I would medal. The only medal I will get is the satisfaction of having met a challenge. With that, I am content. 

I get to run through my beautiful city and admire the skies, the weather, the energy, the happiness everywhere. And knowing that people I love are cheering me on, with notes and phone calls from all over the world (from my parents and Sanjiv to Sameera, Libby, Carrie and Aimee and my whole Facebook community), offers of acupuncture (Stacy) and playlists (Vanessa), the belief that I can do it (too many dear ones to list by name), and an actual presence at the finish line (Keya & Irene again along with Julien, Manon & Dean), I feel like I have the best training team ever. Thank you all! Whether I run 24.85 like Phidippides or 26.2 like modern runners, whether I decide to stop off and get coffee in WeHo or run to the finish line on Ocean Ave, I am happy to be alive and in this race. 

Pramodan died in early February at age 45. I am running tomorrow because I still can, because my legs work and because life is short to waste.

Here's to Pramodan, to Toni, and to everyone who has met a challenge head on. 

More after tomorrow….. I plan to keep mental notes!

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Meal of a Lifetime

This post is in honor of my cousin, Pramodan Marathe who was born the same year as me and has the same smiling eyes as his father, my uncle Padmakar.

Brothers & Cousins

L to R, back row: Sudhakar (my father) with my brother, Sameer; Shrikant with Mukund; Padmakar with Sudarshan
Middle row: Pramodan
L to R, front row: Ashwini, me, Madhuri, Niranjan

I cooked the most meaningful meal of my career as a chef on November 21, 2013. Sometimes it takes time and distance to have a realization of this magnitude, to look back on an event and swallow and digest its significance. But this time, there was instant gratification. Since 2007 I have cooked for clients who are mostly people like me, foodies who want to explore interesting and delicious food. My catering business has led to all kinds of adventures. 

I’ve cooked in kitchens that have been featured in architectural magazines and I’ve cooked under unusual or tough circumstances, even building an impromptu kitchen where none existed. Living in Los Angeles, I’ve cooked for my fair share of celebrities too: Tim Olyphant, Judge Alex Kuzinski, Martha de Laurentiis. This spring, even Steven Page, lead singer of The Bare Naked Ladies came to dinner at my house, documenting an Un-Curry pop up for his new show, The Illegal Eater

Toni moved me like no other has. 

The Saturday before the job, I had received email from a man asking about Un-Curry’s catering services. Gary wrote that his girlfriend, Toni was turning 61 on Wednesday and had requested Indian food for a small dinner party. Toni has ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) or what is known in the USA as Lou Gehrig’s Disease after the legendary baseball player who suffered from it. In the rest of the world the disorder is known as MND (Motor Neuron Disorder). 

Toni had just had surgery to put in a feeding tube and she would not be able to eat solid food for much longer. Gary wanted to make her birthday dinner a meal she would always remember. I responded right away, saying I would love to cook for her. I was moved by the request and it hit closer to home than I would have liked. “Let’s talk tomorrow,” I suggested to Gary. 

Sure enough he called on Sunday and had the speaker on so Toni could hear me. I heard her trying to call out hello. “Hi Toni,” I replied, “I’m happy to meet you.” Gary gave me a list of dishes she wanted at her birthday dinner. He also asked if I could come in a little early that day and teach him how to cook some of them so he could make them again on his own. “I looked up several Indian caterers but I liked your story best,” he said. “I didn’t even bother calling anyone else after that. Just you.”

Gary and Toni’s menu was full of Indian restaurant favorites, read North Indian dishes like tandoori chicken and paneer (farmers’ cheese); saag paneer (braised, spiced spinach with farmer’s cheese), choley (stewed chickpeas), naan (tandoor-baked bread), pulao (spiced rice), sautéed potatoes, dal (spiced lentils) and cucumber raita, the very dishes I don’t usually cook because Indian restaurants make them well enough and because my goal at Un-Curry is to introduce Southern Californians to the regional richness that is India: food from places that are usually not represented in Indian restaurants anywhere. 

In initial conversations with prospective clients, I usually suggest some of my specialties. They are likely not to have heard about them before: tomato-coconut soup; carrot slaw with mustard seed and curry leaves; pomegranate lamb; coconut-jaggery custard, but my clients have never been disappointed. I also create menus tailored to their tastes and the occasion. If they are of Indian extraction or traveling to India, I offer menu suggestions based on their region of origin or travel destination. This time, however, I was silent, simply noting down what Gary requested. “Sure, I can make everything you want,” I said. This was not a time for debate, this was not a party to be fretted over by client and caterer. I just needed to make what Toni was familiar with and what she was craving. “I want to give you a meal you will enjoy and remember,” I told Gary. “And may I bake Toni a cake?” 

We emailed back and forth a few times over the next two days to discuss time, locations, address, etc. We agreed that I should prepare most of the food at my kitchen and bring the ingredients for potatoes, pulao and raita to Gary and Toni’s home for a brief lesson. In one email, I wrote that I was honored to cook for Toni and that the job was particularly poignant because I was grappling with the latest news I had received about one of my cousins. Pramodan is just a few months older than me and was diagnosed with MND exactly one year ago. In the space of 12 months he has lost all mobility in his arms and legs and he can no longer speak. No one seems to know how long he will live like this. All that I know for sure is that there is no cure for this disease. My parents visited Pramodan recently and though his physical state was extremely painful for them to witness, they were staggered by his cheerful outlook on life and the constant and loving care his uncomplaining wife gave him. 

As I cooked all day Wednesday making sure the food was not too highly spiced, that all the ingredients would be as easy to chew, swallow, and digest as I could make them, and that there was flavor and love in every mouthful, I kept Toni and Pramodan in my heart. Palak paneer, check, choley, check. As I cooked, I wondered if my cousin’s father, my uncle Padmakar had also had undiagnosed ALS/MND and what prior knowledge of this could have done to help him and later, his son. Taking the soft, light, vanilla cake out of the oven, whipping fresh cream with rose essence for the frosting, I despaired over a disease that left your brain healthy while stopping your muscles from moving, trapping you in your own body. 

ALS patients go from being able to walk and run to having no movement whatsoever. There comes a time they cannot lift their arms or legs, scratch an itch, pick up a pen and write, feed themselves, touch their toes or touch a loved one. Finally they cannot swallow or breathe or have a heartbeat. ALS allows them to be spectators as it slowly destroys them. 

Cooking Toni’s birthday dinner moved me because it reinforced many notions I have held for a long time: that life is short and precious, that every moment is meant to be lived to its fullest. Toni taught me that you could do everything right, as she did, eat vegetarian and healthy; be fit, run marathons, even work as a personal trainer at a gym, and still end up with a debilitating disease which imprisoned an active mind, generous heart, and loving spirit inside a body that refused to do its brain’s bidding. 

It was an honor to meet her and see her enjoy my food. When we were leaving, I told her how much it had meant to me to cook for her. “I’m going to give you a kiss now,” I said, bending down to her cheek. She had tears in her eyes.

The day after the dinner party, Gary wrote: 


First Toni was happy last night and happy again tonight tasting the wonderful flavors of the food you prepared. My fav and a great addition to our diet is your Raita…so good. Please reinforce to me that recipe. Our neighbors Marlene and Dr. Bruce were also delighted from what I could tell... Your food and discourse on regional Indian cooking was fascinating.”

Even more wonderful was a note that came from Toni the next day. She typed it on her Tobi:

“Thank you so much again. Gary echoed all thoughts and words i could say. Eating food is getting harder so eating delicious food keeps me motivated to keep eating. Please let your cousin know to reach out to me. Not many people can relate to what we go through having ALS. I want to help any way i can. 
With love and gratitude, toni” 

Two weeks later, Keya’s class started a unit on genetics in science class. Keya came home excited about her next assigned project. “We have to make a medical brochure about a genetic disease. ALS was not on the list the teacher handed out but I asked her if I could choose it because of Toni and your cousin and Stephan (her math tutor who is only 25), and she said yes. Could you please tell Toni about me so I can interview her?”

I connected her with Toni and although they have not yet had a chance to meet, she emailed her the questions she wanted to ask. “Keya, this will be a project for Toni,” I told her, “ a lot of hard work.” And indeed, Toni spent a day using her Tobi computer to write Keya an email about how she had been diagnosed with ALS and how it had made her feel. She sent my daughter a long email typed using her eyes to click on letters and words on her computer screen. It was a labor of love. 

Here is an excerpt from her letter as she wrote it (I have not changed capitalization or punctuation):


In looking back before my actual diagnosis, i had symptoms that i didn't realize were symptoms. It is said by experts that the disease begins before there are symptoms.

Yes the disease affects me mentaly and psychologicaly. I am often in dispair and feel numb. I am very sad that i have this disease. 

With this disease you need to prepare for the future because as you go through the stages you can do less for your self. 

I would also add to keep busy. I worked for 2 years after my diagnosis. Support groups work for some people but i did not do that. Read up on the latest research and try to get in to a clinical trial. Try to fundraise for the ALS support association's. They have fundraising walks. 

When Keya wrote to thank her, Toni replied: 

Hi keya, it was my pleasure. I am so happy that you chose me and ALS as your Assignment. Many people don't know about the disease so  any way we can raise awareness is wonderful! 
Have a wonderful holiday and i look forward to seeing you :-) love toni 

Last night, Keya finished her assignment. As she was putting it together, we talked about how the disease in its advanced stages affects the lungs and heart. “I hope that does not happen to Toni,” Keya said. “Or Stephan. Or your cousin.”

This morning as I drove Keya to school, my brother called to tell me that Pramodan has been admitted to the hospital. His lungs have collapsed and he has chest pain. Luckily his mother and brothers are with him, as are his wonderful and loving wife and son. 

Things always happen for a reason. 

Although I don’t know if we will meet again on this earth, Pampu, I am glad that we reconnected this month and that I have a better understanding of what you are going through, 10,000 miles away. I am in awe of your strength and courage and I see your dancing eyes and smiling face as they were the last time we met over a decade ago. 

I hope sharing yours and Toni’s story here brings more people an understanding of your fight and your victory over an incomprehensible and powerful foe.


ALS Association:
Augie’s Quest: 
Tobi Computer Information:

Sunday, May 12, 2013


As Mother's Day loomed, I pondered what to give my mother, Meera who is 10, 000 miles away and has just sold her 3-bedroom apartment to downsize and move with my father to his hometown of Poona, after 40-odd years of traveling the world.

For the foreseeable future, my parents will now be living in a one bedroom apartment which is too tiny to hold their possessions. They certainly don't need more books, furniture, computers, cameras, and the like. I am too far away to whisk her off to brunch, take her to the spa as my daughter took me today, or pick her a bouquet of wildflowers. So what could I give Mom that I had not already given her? 

And then suddenly last night, it struck me. I wondered why it had not occurred to me before. What should a writer give her mother? I have written about my friends, my grandparents, my daughter, my work, my food. But never have I sat down to write about the woman who gave me life, who has sustained me ever since, and at whose shared table I learned to love and cook and grow and give. Why? 

Being a mother myself now, I understand that it is because she is so embedded in my soul, my every pore, that she is inextricable from my self. I would have to dig out bits of me to write about her. And yet it seems like the worst negligence that, while I have dedicated a book to her, I have never really sat down and delved into my relationship with her at any length on paper. "OK," I thought. "I will write a blog post about her and post it on Mother's Day." 

A day later, I admitted this was easier said than done. Mom has always been my biggest admirer, my most ardent fan, my most vociferous supporter. In her eyes, Bunny can do no wrong. Do you know how empowering such love is? The more I live, the more deeply I understand the preciousness of her gift of unconditional love and the strength it has given me to glide through life's turbulent waters. The more I see broken or twisted relationships, the more I am filled with gratitude that she always treated me like a rational creature, worthy of respect and gave me the freedom to be independent, simultaneously shielding me gently from life's sorrows and harshnesses. Her cocoon gave me the time and space I needed to gain the maturity, courage and self-confidence required to handle the pressures of adult life. 

I don't believe in writer's block. But stalled I certainly was. For, the more I wracked my brain to recollect my first memories of my mother, the more distant and entangled they became. How could I write about her until I had done what I love to do as a journalist, get to the root of my subject?

The mother is the first remembrance any child must have, a sense of warmth in the womb, the sweetness of nursing at her breast, the sound of her voice cooing. I have to look at a photo like this one to "remember" all that.

Kaumudi with Meera, Poona, 1969
Perhaps this is because I am older and there are many years separating me from those memories now. Or is it because there are so many warm memories, they bounce around my head, saying, "Me, me, me first!"? Like the memory of Mom and a five year old me walking down to the end of Prabhat Road toward the bakery where she bought bread in those days. She would buy me my favorite treat, a cream horn, that I nibbled delicately all the way home. And, at a time and place where there was a limited selection of children's books in book shops, she still managed to bring home a new Enid Blyton story for me every so often, a special delight for  me.

Then there's the memory of her giving me some breast milk as she nursed my baby brother. I was jealous he was getting the good stuff so I got a squirt too. The thin, comforting sweetness stayed on my tongue till the moment I first nursed my daughter 30 years later.

Is it the sound of her saying my name, Bunny, a certain way that is my first consciousness of her? Is it the generosity with which she fed me, the patience with which she answered my questions? Or the way she wriggled and giggled when the toddler me slowly ran my fingers down her forearm in a rhythmic gesture that soothed me but tickled and tormented her.

My parents were only 23 when they had me. There were no parenting websites, no "What to Expect When You're Expecting" to guide them on their path. And yet they clearly had a vision of what they wanted to achieve as parents and how they wanted to do it. They must have made mistakes but we never knew about them. To us they were, and still remain, the most enlightened, broad minded, pro-active parents we have ever come across. They took the time to explain things to my brother and me, did the hard work of engaging us with conversations and books and soccer balls and funny songs and poems instead of plunking us down in front of TV sets or leaving us in the hands of ayahs.

We rode bicycles together to Gibbons Park, we swam at the University pool, we enjoyed Saturday Night at the Movies as a family, we baked apple pies, and we played Scrabble and Canasta in the living room, decades before the idea of Family Game Night gained popularity. 

Childhood is so fleeting, my mother believed in making it as delightful and memorable for us as she could. She played with us, laughed with us, entertained us. "Don't be in a hurry to grow up," she would say. "Enjoy being a child, you'll be grown up soon enough." If I craved sabudanyachi khichadi for breakfast, I only had to breathe the words and it appeared on the table, as if by magic. If I had a nightmare, I knew I could run from my room and leap into my parents' bed to be cuddled into comfortable slumber. And while Dad may not have been physically demonstrative, thanks to that Brahmanical upbringing, Mom was the most huggable mother. Her lap was always available for sitting on. I still sit on it when we are together, and she laughs indulgently and cuddles me. 

She sang us to sleep every night, everything from Trini Lopez' Lemon Tree and Bobby Darrin's Multiplication to Guru Dutt's Jaane Who Kaise, a song I now often find myself singing to Keya. 

Mom & Keya make cupcakes, Glendale, 2012

After the muddle of warm first memories, there are years and years  more of clear, wonderful ones. Our mother-daughter nights out in London, window shopping on a Thursday night, ending with hot chocolate and crisp chocolate wafers at the Woolworth's counter. Lying in bed, wriggling with laughter and excitement as Mom told us stories of her own precocious childhood. We stored up history and family lore through her, legends of cousins and second cousins and odd uncles and crazy aunts, for whom she came up with funny nicknames by which they are known to this day. We were rolling stones but she helped us grow roots that we learned to put down as and where needed. And we knew that wherever my brother, Sameer sailed, and whatever part of the world I lived in, we could, contrary to the old adage, always go home. 

Hard as it may be to believe, there was never a cross word, not once a sour look, no exclamation of exhaustion or impatience or condescension from Mom. Even if she disciplined us, it was always calmly. And if we had had a disagreement and I refused to back down or apologize, my mother would come forward and do so, showing me the meaning of generosity and forgiveness. She was always smiling. And she let us be children,  secure in our world, carefree, ignorant of the work and the pain and the stresses of an adulthood to come.

There is no card, no gift, not even this love letter, which can begin to thank Mom for everything she has given Sameer, Aditya and me. There can only be an acknowledgement of the riches we have received and a promise to be there for her when it is her turn to need us. 

Happy Mother's Day, Mom, and thank you, thank you, thank you. 

I will always be here when you need me.