If the word 'spice' conjures up a dusty bazaar, where a vendor stands behind his open-air stall with jewel-hued ground spices arrayed in fragrant mounds before him, you would be accurately describing a scene from my childhood. There was one vendor at the market a stone's throw away (literally) from my aunt's house, whose spices tickled your nose even before you spotted his stall. Whatever you needed was carefully weighed out on a tiny brass weighing scale, before being handed to you in a twist of day-old newspaper.
Spices and silk as currency shaped our world, and its history. That's what Magellan and Columbus were in search of, and one of them stumbled upon the treasure of this new world that became the United States of America. The spice route stretched from the Far East to India, touched points along the Middle East, and ran along the eastern coast of Africa before rounding the Cape of Good Hope and making its way to Europe and the Americas.
While my childhood dream of traveling the world as a professional eater alas did not come true, now more than ever I find myself craving the foods from lands far away. Enter Spice Route Kitchens: what if, for one week at a time you could enjoy the foods of a home kitchen along the spice route? Vietnam one week, and Brazil the next? South Indian home cooking and Thai street food? Salmorejo and bitter gourd?
As we reopen in the upcoming week, we see an opportunity to bring you food from places you can't travel to, made by people who haven't had access to a licensed kitchen in which to cook it, until now. Historically, men have traveled the world, plundering nations for their treasures - whether those were lumber, spices, precious stones, or people. We propose healing the world one plate at a time, with food cooked by women of all nationalities and ethnicities. In India, we grow up with an entire community of 'Aunties', none of whom are related to us by blood - they are part of the village it took to raise us. For the next several weeks, we have Aunties from North and South India, Brazil, China, and Vietnam cooking up their specialties for sale at Cheeni. Follow along on social media for updates, menus and more. The Army of Aunties is looking forward to serving you.
The majority of my great childhood memories were made in Delhi, where my maternal uncles, their wives, and my five cousins lived together. At the beginning of summer vacation, we would take the train from Madras to Delhi, and make the thirty six hour journey in what for me, was pure bliss. The entire train ride passed with food, snacks and more food, all while reading to my heart's content - the one time my mother did not object to my nose being buried in a book. Each station that we pulled into along the way marked the transition from one state to the other, as we eagerly waited to buy Nagpur's famed oranges and aam paapad (mango fruit leather) from Vijayawada, with transactions taking place between the bars of the train window.
Delhi, with its delectable street food, hot fudge sundaes from Nirula's, the best pakoras on the planet just one short flight of steps down from my uncle's apartment, and the most delicious food cooked by my mamiji at home had me anticipating our vacation months in advance.
The highlight of each week however, was Budh Bazaar. Every Wednesday (Budh short for Budhvaar, which is Wednesday in both Hindi and Punjabi), there was a street market in the main bazaar, with vendors selling everything from brightly colored glass bangles to 'imported' rubber flip flops; red and gold wedding scarves to discarded (or stolen) flatware with the Air India logo stamped on it. On a trip to India last year, it made to laugh to still see a lone spoon with this logo in the drawer. The real prize for me was at the end, when we got to buy a cold, creamy popsicle of kulfi from the street vendor.
We've been very happy with the response from customers with our presence at Moore Square market, an outdoor event held every Wednesday in downtown Raleigh. This past week, we arrived late, and didn't bring a tent. Just as we had finished setting up our baked goods, jams and ice creams, we heard the thunder, and watched as the dark storm clouds rolled in. Moving quickly as fat raindrops hit, we opened the back of our SUV, which was thankfully parked just behind us, and set up shop. Although we didn't have too many pedestrians braving the downpour to come shop at market, we had pre-sold all of the ice cream we brought with us - the first time we were introducing our mango kulfi and coffee ice cream.
It didn't hit me until we were returning from market: here I was, decades later, in a completely different country, participating in my own Budh Bazaar, selling kulfi. The world has spent years building enormous malls, and fancy buildings, then filling them with boutique shops selling spices, gourmet street food, and produce procured from local farmers. Now, ironically, those spaces sit like ghost ships under water, while farmers, bakers, butchers, and kulfi makers sit in open outdoor spaces selling their wares. The pandemic has deemed markets essential, and safer than supermarkets and grocery stores. Social media was our escape from people, and now we seek people after too much time being forced to look at screens. Polite smiles used to mask our feelings about certain people, and now masks force us to look in a person's eyes, and there's nowhere to hide.
Having come almost full circle, we would like to make the case for more old-fashioned shopping. Meet the people who grow, and prepare the food you buy. Give them the opportunity to sell their goods where they can actually see the benefit in their profit margin, without handing it over to middlemen and high rent. Know who you are supporting. I'd like to make the case for all things Indian to be accepted into the mainstream, just as you've accepted samosas and chicken tikka masala. Well, maybe not all things - we're trying to unlearn behaviors from the time we were colonized too, plus the economic disparity is just shameful.
But, all the good things, like India's legendary hospitality and the ability to make something out of nothing. Like holding one's elders close, and taking care of them like they once cared for us. The importance of an education. Markets where the people who went out fishing at dawn are the ones selling you the fish that very morning. As for us, the hands that made the food will always be the ones to serve you, whether at Cheeni, Midtown Market, or our American Budh Bazaar.
Wife, mother, baker, jam maker, hug dispenser, reader.