Vantage point

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Home Cooking Tips for Indian Grad Students Abroad: An Introduction

A cousin of mine recently came from India for grad school. She was talking to me about the thinking and effort involved in cooking "wholesome" Indian food regularly at home when living in the US. I said, I hear ya sister. I was in, and fresh off the, same boat over a decade ago when I started my PhD. And I started sharing some tips and tricks about cooking I have learned over that period.

And I realized, damn, I have a lot of wisdom to share. Not just cooking, but even shopping for desi ingredients, and suchlike. Instead of leaving it all confined to a whatsapp chat with her, I thought of starting a series of posts summarizing my main learnings.

Most people who come from India to the US, either for grad school or to work, have never cooked at home regularly. Many have never cooked at all, and learn the basics before coming. This is because you either live with your parents and eat from their kitchen. Or you can very easily hire a cook to come home everyday. Or you can subscribe to a tiffin/dabba service.

Then you come to the US and it's a completely different world. And there are many issues. Obviously, you cannot afford a cook here on your income. Except for a couple of rare exceptions like New Jersey, Bay Area, and maybe Dallas, Indian tiffin services are either unavailable, or expensive. And of course, grad students and most professionals have a time crunch. So the time left for cooking is very limited.

Then there is the problem of sourcing or shopping. You may not have easy access to an Indian grocery store at all. Even if you do, its selections might be limited. Even if there are big well-stocked desi stores nearby, maybe you don't have a car. So on and so forth.

Even if you do manage to do the basics at home like dal, rice, veggies, chicken curries etc, sometimes you have hankering for specific dishes that you grew up with. But which you won't get the in the typical Tikka-Masala-Garlic-Naan or Idli-Dosai-Bisibelebath restaurant nearby. For me, coming from Maharashtra, it ranged from vadapav to Marathi fish like surmai/pomfret to matki usal to dadpe pohey to manchow soup.

This series of posts is going to be me describing my learnings and my experiences, as a Maharashtra-raised guy who has spent 13 years in the US and is the primary cook in our household. Some of it will be more general. Some of it might be specific to the Pune-Bombay palate and cravings. It will be very open-ended.

Just so you know where I am coming from, cooking-wise, here is my initial story of dealing with these issues when I moved to the US. It includes details of my background and tastes. It will provide a better context for my posts.

Firstly, I have been cooking since I was something like 11 or 12 years old. My father taught it to me and I had a couple of childhood guy friends who also loved it. From then till age 26, I cooked on and off. Either alone or with friends. But it was mostly like a hobby. It was recreational. And it was usually something "special" or "unusual", the kind of stuff you would think of as a feast - biryani, kheema, paneer makhni, stuffed parathas, pizzas, burgers, get the idea.

I had never really cooked daily "wholesome" food (which in my community means mostly vegetarian and non-heavy meals). I lived at home till I was 22, so it was mostly mom who cooked. 22-24 I was in MBA school so it was the campus mess. 24-26, as a newly earning professional in Bangalore and Bombay, it was a LOT of eating out. And at home, either a cook or a tiffin.

Secondly, I love all kinds of foods and all kinds of meats and other animal proteins. No food restrictions whatsoever plus an adventurous spirit to boot.

So for the first 6-8 months in the US, I was happy to eat out at "budget" type places. It was all new and exotic for me. For a few weeks, my daily lunch was a BLT sandwich in the school cafeteria, because this was my first exposure to quality bacon. Even when I cooked at the home I shared with other grad students, I got all kinds of exotic (for me) meats and seafood from the nearby store and cooked them. So much beef many much tandoori turkey leg....and again so so very much bacon, you won't believe it.

It was only after I had gotten all that exploring and experimenting and bingeing out of my system that I started craving the simple pleasures of what for me was simple daily "wholesome" food. I put that word in quotes because what is wholesome for you might not be wholesome for me. But it will have a lot of commonalities across the pan-Indian palate. 

So, this is my series sharing the lessons I learned as a cash-strapped and time-strapped grad student. Many of these lessons took years to learn. I hope it is useful to people.