In the Kitchen: Arunaa's Spice Box
I think subconsciously I did it on purpose, eating only an orange all day before pulling up to the Atreyas’ house that drizzly evening. For a photo shoot involving food, arriving hungry is about as foolish as going to the grocery store on an empty stomach. Food prepped for a photo shoot is made to look good; that doesn’t always mean it tastes good. We might leave out seasonings, for instance, because you, dear reader, can’t taste what’s on the page. And sometimes there’s just no time to eat, anyway. But by the time I hopped in my car later that night, take-home bag in hand, I was glad to have been so hungry.
The first time I spoke with the Atreyas was over the phone. Sunil, who teaches at the hospitality college at Johnson and Wales, co-hosts classes for the school’s Chef ’s Choice program with his wife, Arunaa. I hung up the phone after an energetic, twenty-minute conversation. I knew this was going to be a great story, and I hadn’t even tried the food yet.
The Atreyas love to cook. They make food from all over the world, but they specialize in South Indian fare. Many of us have been exposed to North Indian cuisine, which includes popular dishes like tikka masala, butter chicken, dal makhni, and that delicious little pocket of happiness, the samosa. South Indian cuisine has much to offer, too, including its own set of delicious snacks, like the dosa, a crispy pancake wrapped around a variety of fillings (or served as a side, similar to the more-familiar naan). South Indian dishes feature lots of curry sauces, coconut in every form, fresh and dried chilies, vegetables, and rice.
North and south is a fairly basic breakdown of a large country’s cuisine, a division which in reality is much more complex and driven by factors like climate, geography, religion, proximity to other countries, and its colonial history. As an analogy, consider barbecue: in the States, we draw a hard line between styles of barbecue—Carolina is not Memphis is not Texas. Now multiply the influences over thousands of years instead of hundreds.
I was happily lost in what I didn’t know. As we ate, Sunil and Arunaa went back and forth on the differences in food hailing from various regions and sub-regions: Chettinad, Hyderabadi, Punjabi, Kerala. I listened intently while sopping up any leftover trace of curry sauce from my plate with the dosa. Seeing my empty plate, Arunaa insisted I have more. I obliged, eventually taking second helpings of everything. Who knew when I was going to get to eat like this again?
Arunaa had mentioned the family recipes during that first conversation on the phone, a little embarrassed about their condition. Sunil pulled them out while the fish and chicken curries still bubbled in pots and the dosas each took their turn crisping in the pan. Some of the recipes were handwritten in hardbound books whose bindings were, in their old age, struggling to do their job. These once belonged to Sunil’s mother. Some were scribbled on loose leaf paper, folded in half and stored in plastic bags, or in a spiral notebook kept by Arunaa.
Arunaa did not start cooking until she was almost an adult. Her childhood home had two kitchens, a formal one run by her grandmother in which she was not permitted, a casual one reserved for preparing snacks and tea.
I’m guessing she was a quick study.
The Atreyas shared other stories about life in India as we stood around the kitchen, sipping on Sunil’s version of the classic gin and tonic, which they jokingly referred to as a “relic of the Raj.” (I thought this was merely a name he’d ascribed to his tasty beverage, made with sweetened lime juice and Bombay Sapphire; turns out, it’s a common phrase used to reference the vestiges of British rule. “Relic of the Raj” should still be the name of a drink, though.) Sunil explained a traditional South Indian dinner to me, one where banana leaves take the place of plates and eating with your hands is the norm. The banana leaves are sturdy and don’t impart any flavor to the food. After the meal ends, the leaves are scooped up and discarded. Easy to clean up. Eco-friendly. It’s too bad they don’t sell banana leaves next to the fruit at the grocery.
The lively conversation continued through dinner and over a comforting cup of chai tea afterward. My visit with the Atreyas was five hours long. They sent me home with a bag full of leftovers. Arunaa had prepared so many dishes for the shoot, we did not even sample them all. She tossed in some bhindi, a savory vegetarian dish that all okra-loving Southerners should discover, if they haven’t already. Sunil and Arunaa are clearly used to throwing parties: they keep a huge bin in the garage filled with a myriad assortment of storage containers, saved for the express purpose of sending friends home with food. It is no surprise that he teaches hospitality.
Also no surprise: less than two days later, all of the leftovers were gone.
Recommended reading: If you are new to Indian cooking and want to learn more, the Atreyas recommend Dakshin: Vegetarian Cuisine from South India, by Chandra Padmanabhan.
SOME TERMS TO KNOW
• Asafoetida is a member of the Apiaceae family (see page 34) and a common ingredient in vegetarian Indian cooking. Do not be dissuaded by its rather unpleasant smell in the bottle. It adds a rich, savory depth to dishes once it is cooked, similar to leeks.
• Bengal gram dal is a type of yellow lentil.
• Curry leaves refer to the edible leaves of the curry leaf plant (Murraya koenigii). They are unrelated to the curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) and also to curry powder. They can be purchased at Indian grocers and are recommended over dried ones.
• Dal is the Hindi word for a legume, typically a lentil, bean, or pea.
• Ghee is clarified butter and is commonly used in Indian cooking, often to temper spices.
• Masala is a term used for various blends of spices in Indian cooking.
• Tempering is a common Indian cooking technique in which whole spices and other ingredients (like chilies) are briefly fried in a fat, such as ghee, before being added (fat and all) to a dish. This important step makes the spices more fragrant and flavorful.
• Urad dal, also called black gram or black lentil, is related to the mung bean.