It is well known in my family that if we go out to a restaurant and the menu offers shrimp and grits, that is what I will inevitably order. And I do that not because I don't have a diverse palate, but because for several years I've been seeking the perfect bowl - which has been elusive, to say the least. In my quest, I've had some that were too 'fancy', some that were too bacon-heavy, some too sweet with tomatoes. I've had some sublimely delicious ones, including one that was a riff on South Indian upma and sambar, but still didn't satisfy what I was searching for.
And then yesterday, I had the perfect bowl: the grits retained some of their 'grit', but were creamy and unctuous, the shrimp plump and cooked to perfection, and then there was the sauce - briny and bayou-reminiscent, in the best possible way. It made me think of the slaves who were given the most meager rations, including the grittiest part of the corn kernel and expected to produce back-breaking labor. Grits that did not provide enough nutrition to thrive, but survive just long enough to return the investment made into their purchase, room and board. Through the years, when able to forage and fish, Creoles first made the grits not just palatable, but comfort-inducing, and then crave-worthy by adding shrimp poached in spices that were the only memory of home that they could recreate time and again.
You'll pardon my irritation then, when after consuming (notice I didn't say enjoying) a bowl at an acclaimed restaurant that touted its regionally sourced ingredients last year, I learned that the grits with a Gullah name didn't come from Gullah pedigree. That the ingredients were indeed fresh and local, and the dish prepared with technical precision, but it had no soul. That restaurant may be located in the land of haint blue porch ceilings, in a city built by black islanders, but the slave market still standing in the middle of town was no more than a building to them, not a place where ghosts still searched for their stolen children.
Now, more than ever, I would like to see diners in this country not just rave over 'ethnic' and 'soul' food with its nuanced and complex flavors, but see those same nuances and complexities in the people who cook, and serve it to them. I'm not just an immigrant with an accent. My children are not just bi-racial. Black people are not just black, they are descendants of dynasties, tribes and communities they cannot even trace. They give their children names that have dignified meanings in the old country, only to have them mocked by people who choose not to inquire about their origins. Oftentimes I have observed a black woman with queenly bearing and it makes me wonder what her life would be like now, if her ancestor hadn't been stolen from their kingdom.
It's lazy to look at someone and assign them an identity based on the color of their skin. Get to know someone first. Listen to their story. Think about the skills and grit it took for their ancestors to survive atrocity upon atrocity, and still possess the optimism to start a family. Compassion, kindness and humanity make for a society worth inhabiting, but grit - that ability to make it no matter what is thrown your way - that builds strong people and societies, and towns and cities. Please, allow people of color - black men especially - who carry this grit deep within their DNA - to live. Give them hope, and the room to grow while making mistakes. Stop killing them for those things, and in some cases for no reason at all. Let them breathe, as you've been able to.
On the cusp of the week when the world stopped, we hosted some chefs, and a couple of food enthusiasts for a pot luck meal, and chit chat. One of the chefs I had previously met, and had gone into rhapsodies over the Indian meal she had cooked. The other chef came with serious food chops, and a huge fan following for her sock-you-in-the-face flavors executed with finesse.
The night before our pot luck, I had cooked Jamaican jerk chicken, marinated in a jar of sauce that I was told was as authentic as it could get. The result was delicious, even though it probably took off a layer of skin from the roof my mouth with its incinerating heat. It was however, not the usual marinade that my husband had been expecting, so he opted for something else - leaving me with a large quantity of leftovers.
Of course I wanted to impress our guests the next day - how could I not? The bar had been set very high, and so I did the two things I normally do when stressed - I procrastinated, and I worked myself up into a frenzy. An hour and a half before our guests were expected, I had a set dining table, the house was clean-ish, and I still had no idea what I was serving. Standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open yielded nothing but jerk chicken leftovers, a sad bundle of cilantro, and a couple dozen eggs. This next part makes me cringe, but bear with me. I washed the marinade off the cooked chicken, charred some ginger, tied a bundle of cilantro stems together, and made congee. With water, not chicken stock. At the very end, with chopped up chicken thrown into the pot, and topped with jammy eggs, crisp garlic chips and ginger matchsticks, sautéed spinach and mushrooms, then finished with fragrant and nutty sesame oil, I set that congee on the table without even having tried a bite for seasoning.
There it sat, on a table groaning with some of the finest pork I've ever eaten, my first taste of esquite rice, a richly aromatic keema and hot buttered pavs, a delicious kohlrabi soup, and more. Finally, having relaxed, I confessed about the imposter congee.
As luck would have it, the congee worked. Somehow, the spice of Scotch bonnets was tempered by the creaminess of broken down grains of jasmine rice, the acidity from the citrus in the jerk marinade absorbed and yet lingering. It was comfort at its finest, and the company in which it was consumed couldn't have mirrored it better. A farmer's daughter from Boston, a soft-spoken Indian who speaks loudly with the flavors in her cooking, a voluble Brazilian who had cooked some incredible Puerto Rican pork, and me. We sat around that table and ate, and talked and then ate some more. About the unfamiliar landscape whose devastating consequences we were yet to discover. About our roots, and where we chose to transplant them. About food, and how we were going to help get it to people who were sure to need it in the upcoming weeks.
And I will reiterate what I say time and again - food people are the best people. In kitchens both professional and at home, with high-profile chefs who are just as vulnerable as you and me, whether they are providing meals for a thousand people or sharing hard-to-find ingredients with the community, food people show up, time and again. So when they talk, I urge you to listen. They know what's coming before you do. They feared for their staff and the interruption in supply chains before the thought occurred to any journalist. They've been caring for, and feeding people quietly, and sometimes loudly, so you will listen while enjoying your uninterrupted income. When they petition to save restaurants, join them. They are talking about saving farmers, and delivery drivers and commissioned salespeople, not just their own dining rooms. Step out of your boxes, and do something that is not comfortable, to make life possible for someone else. Who knows, you might even like it, being part of the bigger picture. Just like you would enjoy some Jamaican congee, as out of the box as it was. Heck call me, and I'll even make you some. Because nobody shares like food people do.
What will we remember of this time, when the world came to a standstill? Will we remember that it felt like a summer vacation in our backyards, or that we were paralyzed with fear, not knowing if our children would have a backyard to play in come next month? Were we cooking up delicacies, or waiting for a hastily slapped-together jelly sandwich from an overworked volunteer? Were we prettying up our homes with paint, or pacing the hallway while on hold with the unemployment office for the second straight hour? Were we playing Scrabble with our families, or staring blank-eyed at the television screen?
Guilt, grief, isolation, peace, gratitude, anxiety, uncertainty, helplessness - we've all been riding a rollercoaster no matter which of the questions above describe our situation. But, grief feels very different depending on which of the questions above applies to you. Is this where the divisiveness of our responses to this situation comes from? Because we are only seeking answers to the questions that apply to us?
Time has opened up for us, been handed to us whether we asked for it or not. Is it a welcome respite from mad-dash commutes, or has it opened up a chasm into which you find yourself falling? An unwelcome gift, that you would gladly return, if it meant returning to a bustling Saturday night at the restaurant that was your pride and joy, or the Senior Prom which will never be a reality now?
I have no answers, only thoughts. All we have is here, and now. The past, whether glorious or merely tolerable, can simply not be recreated. The future is covered with a haze, that of the unknown, no matter how longed for. What we can do, is learn from generations past. Try not to repeat the mistakes of our forefathers, but take a step forward, and then another after that. Be mindful of the place we have in this inter-connected web of life, and preserve a space for the next person. Share, not hoard. Understand, not condemn. And hope that someone will extend the same to us. Not because we deserve it, but because they care enough.
As I sit here by the window watching the skies open up, I feel a giggle bubbling up at the sight of well-dressed people scurrying to shelter. But then, not everyone loves the rain like I do.
The older I get, the more my heart remembers the monsoons of my childhood and youth. Six year old me being allowed to join my cousins in the inner, open courtyard of my aunt's house in Delhi to squeal and play for hours in a sudden downpour.
Making paper boats and filling them with whispered hopes and wishes, then floating them down flooded Madras streets hoping they would make it all the way to the ocean.
Getting soaked in my blue uniform tunic while walking home from the bus stop, knowing Rani would be making chili-dusted fried potatoes for my afternoon snack.
A steaming hot cup of chai in an auto rickshaw while sheltering from a raging storm.
Swimming in the ocean during a heavy downpour.
Returning from a Valentine's party in my early twenties, wearing a red dress and heels when my favorite song played over the radio, and I kicked off my heels, jumped out of the car and danced with abandon in the pouring rain.
The view out my window is different now, and the rain is cold, not warm. But I still refuse to carry an umbrella, and hot chai is still my preferred drink on a rainy day. My love of rain has never changed, and I hope that when I am an old lady I will still turn my face up to the first drops falling from the sky, and still give my whole self up to dancing in the rain.
Two Hindus (I assume), one Muslim, and one Christian (I think) walk into a coffee shop owned by a Sikh (mostly). This could be the start of a corny joke, or since true life is better than fiction sometimes, a scenario that actually happened yesterday.
It was a busy day at Cheeni, but these two couples who arrived were particularly delightful. Both women have been friends since they were four years old, and have stayed friends throughout their lives. While chit-chatting, we discovered that we shared a hometown. A couple more questions later, we realized that we had actually attended the very same school that I went to from pre-school through fourth grade. In my twenty three years here in the U.S., I have never met anyone from Ewart's school in Madras, and neither had they since they've lived here. More shared connections followed with college. From that point on we could all hardly get a word in, and the memories flew from the three of us in rapid-fire succession, with their husbands and my daughter unable to get a word in sideways.
We didn't start off declaring our respective religions, it came up very casually while we were sharing our memories, and also talking about food. And boy, did we have a lot to say on the subject of fantastic food - where to find it, the lengths to which we would all go in search of it, plans to meet up in the future so we could all enjoy it together etc., etc. Only later did it occur to me that if we listened to people in positions of leadership, whether in politics or religion - both in the U.S. and in our home country - we would not all be sitting at the same table.
The world over, it's what is on our tables that nourishes our bodies, while who we share the table with? Those people nourish our souls, tantalize our palates with new flavors and foods and make us hungry for more. And I do want more. More food, for sure, which is a constant state of being for me anyway. More people who will share their stories with me. More travel, to brush the cobwebs from my (sometimes) stagnant brain. More meaningful experiences and encounters. And more jokes too, the kind I remember my cousins sharing, the ones that made me hold my sides and roll on the floor from laughing so hard.
Here's to the new year, and decade. Wishing you more of everything you want, and the energy and means to make it happen. Cheers!
New Year's Eve, 1987. I was fifteen, with the fizziness of possibilities that evening might bring bubbling up inside me like so much champagne. My brothers were letting me tag along with them to a discotheque that was THE place to be, and had only told me that afternoon. Along with the anticipation, came the realization that I had nothing to wear that possibly matched the occasion.
My mother sent me out on some errands, and when I returned, she had a surprise for me - she had turned one of her saris into a dress for me to wear. Now, this was not a typical Indian sari - it was white tulle, with pale blue abstract flowers printed on it, and the fabric was shot through with silver thread - in other words, more suited to the kind of dress my mother had made. The fitted bodice with a wide (but modest) sweetheart neckline ballooned out into a full skirt that hit mid-calf. I put it on, and immediately felt like Cinderella.
Looking back, I want to laugh at how hopelessly un-cool I must have looked. Walking into a discotheque dressed like I was going to a middle school dance earned me some snickers by the glamorous women in their early twenties with teased hair, giant plastic hoops and chunky bracelets to match their neon spandex outfits. But I floated on that cloud of tulle feeling like the prettiest girl there.
That unconscious ability - to ignore what was around me, and just lead with how I felt - has both got me in sticky situations, and got me out of them. It has caused me to make some really stupid decisions, and yet not regret them when all was said and done. There is no moral to this story, no sage advice to offer.
Just gratitude. For the stars in that silly fifteen year old's eyes that reflected off the silver in her dress. For my mother, who showed love by sewing me pretty things. For an adolescent love that broke me and forced me to learn how to put myself back together. For a resilience and sense of adventure that carried me across oceans and continents to this imperfect country that finally rooted me. For my husband, who remains my knight in slightly tarnished armor. For my children, who aren't afraid to challenge me. For a deeply ingrained need to feed people, thereby making them happy for at least the five minutes it takes them to eat a cookie. For the people who buy the food I make, which makes me happy to have aching feet at the end of the day. For every incredible meal I have consumed that makes me want to learn more. For a family wedding that brought every member of our family together for the first time. For every opportunity in 2019 that has taught me, stretched me, and reinforced old lessons.
Wishing everyone a very happy New Year, see you in 2020.
Sugar gets a bad rap these days. To be fair, we take issue with the processed white stuff as well, which is why we only use raw cane sugar in all of our baking.
A little sugar, however, makes the day a little sweeter.
Cheeni, the Hindi word for sugar, is what we decided to name our brand new little spot in downtown Raleigh. Other than the fact that we borrowed the word from our existing brand of Sugar & Spice Kitchen, the space itself is so darned sweet. Tiny, but mighty, we're using it as an outlet to replicate our beloved and missed snack shops in India. These little shops dot the landscape with steaming hot cups of chai, frothy cups of South Indian filter coffee, and tangy snacks that pair perfectly with chai and coffee. Of course we had to offer cookies and baked goods as well.
Apparently, the word spread quickly - streams of Indians working downtown visited us last week. Watching them walk up to the doors, skepticism writ large on their faces - could it be possible that real chai and filter coffee were available just across the corner from their place of work? Of course we offered samples - one taste, and the smile that followed - that's all we needed to make our day that much sweeter.
All this to say thank you. Thank you, Raleighites (both of Indian, and non-Indian origin). Thank you for the welcome, thank you for coming back several times in one week, and thank you for spreading the word. Life is sweet, thank you for allowing us at Cheeni to make your day a little sweeter for you.
,Who's there? Opportunity.
And what do you do when opportunity doesn't merely knock and ask permission, it just about smacks you in the face? In my experience there are two types of people - one type who will ask, 'Opportunity who?', and the other who will ask, 'Opportunity where?'. I happen to belong to the latter group, which tends to make my husband a little nervous. Age and experience have taught me to arm myself with as much information as possible however, so I like to think that I've left the follies of my youth behind me.
But there hangs a sign in our kitchen that reads, 'Risks well taken'. Every time I see it, I'm reminded that without the blind leaps of faith I've taken throughout my life, this moment right now would be non-existent, or belong to someone else. Fear fuels me, for without it how would I build tenacity?
All this to say, watch this page. And our social media pages. We're about to open a door, and something fragrant and delicious is waiting on the other side of it. Stay tuned.
Since the last time I blogged, which was - yikes! - seven months ago, the following things have happened:
We sent our first-born out of the country. By herself. For five whole weeks.
We put our house on the market.
We found a house.
We took our house off the market.
We rented our house.
We returned to our booth at the Midtown Farmer's Market every Saturday.
We moved into our new house.
We spent two months remodeling our new house.
We moved into new kitchen space (but first we had to remodel it).
We moved our first-born child into her freshman dorm.
All this while still baking for market and for orders, making jam, preparing to open our shared kitchen, and begin offering cooking classes.
Goodness - is it any wonder that I've been unable to sit down, gather my thoughts, and blog? Now that we have the reasons for my blogging absence out of the way, stay tuned for weekly blogs once again. I certainly have enough material stored up to talk about!
Most of us don't like generalizations. I, for one, don't like to be lumped into a category to which somebody thinks I belong. Following that line of thought, it's insulting to say that all women like shiny things. In my mother's case, it just happens to be a true statement. Just how true, and just how much of a motivator it is for her, I'll let you decide.
If you refer back to this post https://www.sugarandspicekit.com/chit-chat/whats-in-a-name, it gives you just a smidgen of an idea as to what my mother's brain and body have been put through since October of last year. It is miraculous that she has survived, although her brain and heart function will never recover to their former capabilities. We're now used to her substituting words and names at random, and are mostly able to understand her references.
I was able to spend two weeks this past month with my mom, and I'll forever be grateful for that time. As the time ticked away though, I was all too aware that the entire family was traveling for a wedding soon, and that those plans had originally included my mom. None of us felt right about leaving her behind, but didn't know if her health would permit travel. Each day, after all, came with different challenges. Her doctor gave her the green light to travel, and we kept broaching the subject with her. At first, it was an emphatic 'no'. Slowly, we read between the lines and realized that she, who was always the most well-dressed person wherever she went, was embarrassed to be seen by the extended family. She had only worn loose gowns for comfort since October, and was already giving away her clothes, etc., resigning herself to never wearing her crisp cottons and beautiful silks again.
The minute she hesitantly said 'yes' and we booked her ticket, we saw the most incredible transformation begin to take place. She asked for the keys to her closet, and slowly began to choose outfits for the many functions during the wedding celebration. As she did so, the light began to return to her eyes, with a barely perceptible excitement. The next day we brought her jewelry box to her, and my mother started to go through her earrings and rings as though she had never expected to see them again. When she picked up her favorite pearl earrings - that she had specially made 35 years ago - and put them on, the smile that lit up her face is one I will never forget.
My mother made it to the wedding, and was able to meet the entire family. She dressed in her silks, wore her favorite jewelry, and even wore make-up. Like a magpie, it may seem as though it was the shiny things that motivated my mother to make the almost superhuman effort it took. But we, her family, know. Jasbir Kaur was not going to miss the opportunity to meet her son-in-law and grandchildren traveling all the way from the United States. She was not going to stay home and let a party happen without her. And she was certainly not going to miss the opportunity to be where the people she loves most in the world were all gathered together in one place.
God's grace, the devotion of the immediate family caring for her everyday, her medical team and a nutritious diet are responsible for the miracle that is her recovery. But it is her own grit and iron will that caused her to push, and not give up. Her children and their children carry those genes, and I only hope that when we face challenges in our lives, we can meet them the way she has. Even if it was only so she could wear her shiny things again.
Wife, mother, baker, jam maker, hug dispenser, reader.