When I think of Indian Aunties, I think slightly overweight, always dressed in saris or floor length night gowns from the eighties, and most importantly amazing cooks. As a kid, I was surrounded by this image and extremely well fed. Depending on which aunty’s house I was to eat dinner, my meal had a slightly different flare–a south Indian Daal is very different from the punjabi one or the chapati vs. a paranta. So I chose my Indian friends wisely–Punjabi, Telugu, etc. The thing about Indian Aunties is that it doesn’t matter what time of day it is or if you just came from eating a meal, when you enter their house you will eat a warm meal. The best ones are warm meals made fresh while you sit at the kitchen counter joking away.
I resisted learning to cook because I had so many aunties in my life who fed me well into adulthood. To make a meal worthy of theirs intimidated me to no end. I resisted until I couldn’t anymore–when I finally left home for graduate school. That’s right I was 24 years old, before I attempted my first Indian dish which turned out to be quite a disaster. Two years later, I moved to Nashville from New York and again forced to make my own Indian meals. No more were there corner Indian restaurants for me to stop by and get my almost Aunty-worthy meals like I had in New York. When I moved to Nashville in 2006, there was only one Indian restaurant that we had access to. So, I began by forcing my mom to give me her recipes which by way are only passed down by word of mouth. She has no recipe written down. I started making chapatis and daal and egg curry. When she visited, I learned to make her ginger chicken fry. I had a few go-tos under my belt and was young and ambitious, so I cooked often. Then we moved to Boston.
In Boston, between N’s busy residency life and my busy school life cooking became quick and easy meals only. We adapted to the eating out more with loads of bread, chowder, and seafood. After all we needed to insulate our bodies for the Boston winters and oh did we ever.
Recently, as an effort to be healthier, N and I decided to attempt vegetarian dinners during the week. Now, being a vegetarian to me means that I eat mostly Indian food. The variety for vegetarians is endless in Indian cuisine. I began by making one-two dishes from my childhood: Fried Moong Daal, Aloo Chole, Indian Eggplant and potato curry, Aloo Gobi. At first I’d make it with Quinoa instead of rice. Then two weeks before we left for India, I began making chapatis with these meals. A fresh chapati is home to me. When I was younger, before my mom was a single mom and working two jobs at the same time, she used to cook dinner nightly. It was always a vegetarian dish usually baggie (greens) and fresh chapatis. While she used her rolling pin with precision, I would stand next to her with my kid version of a chapati block and rolling pin ready. She’d hand me a small ball of dough and I would roll and roll and roll to make my baby chapatis which I ate with such pride.
Needless to say, they have a soft place in my heart. I learned how to make a chapati before I was eight years old. Better than that, I learned it standing next to my mom. So last month when I started making chapatis, I slid back into that meditative state that kind that happens when you are creating without thinking. Then when they were all ready, I couldn’t wait till N came home!
The second I heard keys in the door, I turned into an Indian aunty. Serving him, asking him if it was good, making sure he had more than he wanted or even could eat. The satisfaction was surprising at first, but then how could I avoid my destiny. It is all I knew and I can’t say that I’m not proud of it. The thing is food is memory. Every time I make or eat a chapati, I am standing next to mom rolling out my own baby ones that are just too cute to eat. Every time I eat bringal (Indian eggplant) and potatoes, I am sitting at the dinning table in Kharmunghat in that room where the window covers were mere black boards.
It’s true I’m an Aunty now–thanks to all my friends and cousins who made it so. I used to avoid this title for a long time because I thought it represented old age and being out of style. But, becoming an Indian Aunty takes not just age and not just mu-mu’s, no it takes the ability to give the kids of your peers memories. More than that food memories that they can pass on to the next generation as each of them become Aunties themselves. It’s pretty prestigious, actually.