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.
I know, I know - that's supposed to be 2019. But I will gladly give 2018 that title. When I was younger, I could think of no better life than eating my way through the world. How this might be accomplished never crossed my mind, only that I oh-so-badly wanted to pick destinations based solely on the cuisine, travel there and pig out, all while never gaining an ounce, of course.
Then came marriage, and two baby carriages, one after the other. My husband, as much as he enjoys food, prefers it served at his own kitchen table. Decades passed, children grew, the schedule became a little more flexible, all without my really having realized it.
This summer, my brand-new eighteen year old and I embarked on a cross-country drive, based on carefully researched restaurants along the way. We dined sumptuously in some places, while some days we chose to forego a meal because we couldn't bring ourselves to stop for the available options. From a bacchanal of twelve courses one day to searingly spicy hot chicken the next, re-visiting an iconic childhood ice cream shop to coffee so bad that I couldn't drink it even though I desperately needed the caffeine, we sampled a lot on that road trip.
Then came an unexpected two-day trip to Providence, Rhode Island. How could I possibly have forgotten the existence of a world-class culinary school housed there, that churns out sorcerers who have opened restaurants, which fed me some of the finest meals I have consumed stateside?? And y'all, we live in Raleigh, where we already have access to some fantastic restaurants, am I right?
Then came my mother's sudden stroke, and I flew to my hometown in South India as soon as I could. Turns out, only being allowed to see her for 30 minutes, twice a day left a whole lot of time in-between. So what did we do? Why, we ate, of course. From the comfort of home cooking to street-side food vendors, fine dining restaurants to finger-licking chaat, I ate it all. Food is my old friend for distraction and comfort.
A week after returning, off we went to Spain for a pre-planned and pre-paid trip. Once again, from Madrid to Barcelona, we ate. And ate. An encounter with strangers at the next table led to them insisting that we share their bottle of Rioja, beginning a correspondence that still has a healthy amount of back-and-forth. Food halls and marketplaces, fine restaurants, veritable institutions in chocolate and churros, centuries-old bakeries. We devoured them all, and were amazed that we simply couldn't get enough of the simple, but crave-worthy flavors of Spain. Salmorejo was a revelation. I sampled my first sea urchin. And the list continues.
According to the Chinese, 2019 is the Year of the Pig. But if you've made it through this post, you'll agree that I was quite the piggy in 2018. And I wouldn't change a thing.
If your house looks like a Hallmark card, perfectly decorated and with the family in coordinated outfits wearing Colgate smiles, I don't think we can be friends.
Maybe because I was once that person. Forget Christmas, I decorated the house for EVERY holiday. I even had a generic-looking gold metallic tree that came with different sets of ornaments, one for every major holiday. Oh, and a two foot tall Mama Goose, who had a wardrobe of jackets and hats, one for every month of the year. All I can think now is that I must have been very sleep-deprived as a mother of young children, to think that these were the last word in holiday decorating.
In recent years, the boxes of holiday decorations have almost become the decorations, as they sit around in our front room for weeks, waiting to be opened. If we are expecting guests for the holiday, it becomes a mad dash of put-up-the-bare-minimum-that-you-can, before having to frantically-stash-boxes-out-of-sight ten minutes before our company arrives.
I'll admit that it makes me sad. To not see my girls' eyes light up when they came home from school to a fully decorated house. To not anticipate the first day of December because that was the day we put our everyday dishes away, and only used our gingerbread patterned dishes with red snowflake mugs for the rest of the month. Too many more little intangibles to recount here.
But I didn't realize that joy can suddenly erupt when you are not expecting it. At 11:50 a.m. today, I realized that my youngest was only ten minutes away from getting out of school for winter break, and I remembered how that felt as a child. All of a sudden, I was excited - it was the start of Christmas break! The end of the work week for my husband, and our last Farmer's Market of the year tomorrow. After Sunday, I don't have to fulfill any orders, nor rush through readying the house for company. I can stay in pajamas for three days straight, and have a Christmas movie marathon. And I like it. It may not look like Christmases past, but I'll have what I didn't even two years ago - time with my family. I'll put a bow on that.
You know it as yellow, neatly wrapped in a package. The generation before us bought into the marketing that 'couldn't believe it wasn't butter'. Because it was, y'know, yellow. And vaguely reminiscent of the real thing.
I also grew up with yellow butter, that came in a package claiming it was 'utterly, butterly delicious'. And my goodness, it really was. But when I dream of butter, it is soft, fluffy and white. The kind that most people have never tasted in their lives, unless they grew up on a farm. Or, like us, had a buffalo living on the back patio.
I come from sturdy farming stock, although after my father moved to India from his ancestral village at the time of the India-Pakistan partition he joined the army, and became a businessman thereafter. But, he always craved the taste of fresh milk, butter and yogurt, and what could be fresher than milking the cow or buffalo yourself twice a day?
As a very young child, my mother bought me my own child-sized butter churn. The satisfaction of churning fresh, cold milk over ice for what felt like hours until you could hear the milk make a different sound. Less slosh, and more resistance as the cream separated and formed into clouds of butter on the surface. Scooping a handful right out of the pot and burying my face in the fragrant butter is a feeling and taste I almost cannot describe.
Whether scooped onto a hot griddle flatbread called parantha, or sprinkling a little raw sugar on it and eating it with a spoon, that butter tasted luxurious, with a sweetness and slight tang that is missing in it's commercially produced, salted counterpart.
To this day, I feel immense satisfaction in just looking at butter. Hearing it sizzle in a hot pan just before I add the next ingredient. Watching it get creamy and fluffy when mixed with sugar at high speed in my giant mixer. Melting a pound of it in the double boiler with dark chocolate so it forms a shiny river of decadence.
But my favorite thing of all is when I end up with some butter on my hands, and don't wash it off. Instead, I find myself massaging it into my dry, over-washed hands while hearing my grandmother's voice in my ear telling me how good it is for my skin. She passed forty years ago, and yet I still hear her voice. And no surprise, she always smelled like fresh-churned butter.
My mother forgot my name today. And no, not in the way I forget my children's names sometimes, by listing all three dogs first, and then both children's names in birth order.
Let me backtrack. In early October this year, my mother suffered strokes on both sides of her brain. She lost her ability to speak, to breathe on her own, to swallow, to walk and to do the things most of us take for granted every single day. Heck, she almost lost her life in the first few weeks of being in the hospital. Several times, in fact.
Through it all, any time that she was even vaguely cognizant, all she said was "let's go", in our native tongue. All she wanted was to go home, and feel comfort in the familiar. More than a month in the Intensive Care Unit later, she was able to come home, much against her doctor's advise. Her recovery since then has been nothing short of miraculous.
Now that she is able to speak again, she talks without pause, and demands a 24 hour audience. My controlled, proud mother to whom appearances were everything appears to have left some of her inhibitions in the hospital, and now gleefully berates anyone she feels like. Shouts when she wants to. Melts into a puddle of smiles and love when she sees and talks about her grandchildren and some members of the family. And she forgets names.
On a video call with me this morning, recognition sparked when she saw my face, but she could not summon my name to her lips. Instead, I was called the word for spinach in Punjabi, which apparently has been her go-to word when she can't remember names. No matter. I will gladly be called any kind of vegetable if it means I still get to see love in her old eyes, which so mirror my own.
Turns out emotions need no names anyway, just so long as they can be felt.
Wife, mother, baker, jam maker, hug dispenser, reader.