I’m at the stage in my life when the holiday traditions of my childhood are shifting. With three extended families and just a handful of holidays per year, it’s impossible to eat all of my favorite dishes with the people who make them best….
Welcome to the sixth entry in my Remembering India series, where I share recipes, meals and adventures from my 2008 studies abroad. Today I backtrack to my first 24 hours of sightseeing and exploring in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai.
It was Saturday night when we landed at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. Between our flight and a 9 1/2-hour time difference, my classmates and I were propelled almost 8,000 miles and a full day into the future.
We boarded a van, where I glued my eyes to the window—trying my best to get a clear picture of my new environment. I thought about my family back in New Jersey, who were probably eating lunch right now. Where am I and what have I gotten myself into?
The streets were dark, but peppered with glowing yellow light. I could make out a few kiosks, an occasional fire, and long rows of square dwellings standing shoulder to shoulder.
The van dropped us off at Hotel Supreme Heritage in Navi Mumbai. We received our room assignments for the next six weeks, where it was revealed that with an odd number of females on our trip, I would be assigned a single room. Later down the road, my friend Lauren and I would decide to become roommates. But for the first few weeks, my single room would become my sanctuary. I’d do laundry, watch music videos, and even cry in my single room—because adjusting to a new culture, climate and diet—all while working with children who’d never have the same opportunities as me—was guaranteed to overwhelm from time to time. I had a lot to learn, a lot of joys and frustrations to feel, and it would all begin as soon as I could see my new city in daylight.
On Sunday morning we met in the dining room to fuel a full day of sightseeing. There were eggs, Bombay potatoes, muesli, chicken sausages, uttapams, and pancakes served with honey. I tried a bit of everything, comparing the milder flavors of British/American breakfast to the punchy, spicy flavors of Indian breakfast.
We boarded a caravan of auto rickshaws to Vashi train station. We discovered that with the proper arrangement of butt sizes, we could fit as many as 3 passengers in the back seat (meaning we could split the fare three ways, instead of two). From there we hopped on a train to Mumbai’s CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), where about 7 1/2 million passengers ride each day. Butt sizes made no difference here, as I’d learn quickly….
Welcome to the fifth entry in my Remembering India series, where I share recipes, meals and adventures from my 2008 studies abroad. Today I talk about one of my favorite Indian comfort foods: paneer bhurji.
My first day of school was a blazingly hot and sunny one, just a few days before the monsoons were set to begin. My pale skin and ill-equipped body were feeling the heat, big time—as evidenced by my flushed red color and profuse sweating. It was the type of heat that eliminated any sense of hunger, thirst, or productivity (yet somehow, left my sense of drama completely intact).
Our class broke for lunch, so a few classmates (who would eventually become my friends) and I took a walk to a restaurant near campus. They ordered me a glass of buttermilk, which is said to be effective at cooling your body down. I sipped the salty-sour liquid, embarrassed, but also humbled that these people I hardly knew were trying to make me feel comfortable.
I really wanted the buttermilk to be a magical cure, if for no other reason than to prove that I was tough enough to handle the hot Indian sun—and the tall glass whose contents (in my opinion) were so remarkably unrefreshing.
So I sipped it anyway as I stared at the menu—realizing that not a single dish looked familiar to me. In a short while I was going to have to admit that I needed help ordering—which I was reluctant to do after being such a wimp already.
At some point I caved, receiving two recommendations: masala dosa, a paper-thin pancake stuffed with seasoned potatoes, onions and chilis; and paneer bhurji, a scramble of fresh cheese, tomatoes, onions and chilis….
Welcome to the fourth entry in my Remembering India series, where I share recipes, meals and adventures from my 2008 studies abroad. Today I share my recipe for chicken biryani, inspired by an unforgettable meal I ate on an overnight train from Mumbai to Goa.
You can find the story about this meal in the third installment of this series.
For 8 years I’ve been dreaming of a single serving of chicken biryani. I ate it from a tin on an overnight train—a setting I least expected for one of the best meals of my life.
Since that meal, I’ve eaten a lot of biryanis, hoping that I could relive those bites from the Konkan Kanya Express. Nothing has ever come close, so I’ve spent the last 6 months re-creating it at home.
Biryani is a special rice dish whose ingredients vary from region to region and family to family. There are lamb, chicken, vegetable and even fish biryanis—each one a distinct representation of the person in charge of making it. As someone from an Italian family, I have come to understand biryani the way I think about tomato sauce. Every cook has their own recipe, and they’re probably going to prefer the one they grew up eating.
Since I didn’t grow up eating biryani, my source of inspiration was this single dish from 8 years ago. I remembered that it was red-ish, juicy and unmixed—with bone-in chicken and flavorful white rice. As for the spices, I’d only recognize them by taste….
Welcome to the third entry in my Remembering India series, where I share recipes, meals and adventures from my 2008 studies abroad. Today I remember a delirious overnight train ride, along with the most satisfying dish of chicken biryani I have ever eaten.
You can find the recipe for my re-creation of this biryani in the fourth installment of this series.
Have you ever woken up from a dream that is so vivid but so hard to describe? You see snapshots in your mind, but you just can’t find the words to get them out of your head?
That’s the way I feel about a very special tin of chicken biryani. I ate it from my lap on an overnight train from Mumbai to Goa.
I didn’t expect it, but this biryani comforted me. The summer I went to India was one of the most vulnerable times of my life. I was healing from a broken heart and trying to start a new life with new friends and a new purpose. So after a night of living on a train with strangers—each with their own story and energy—my overloaded senses were ready for the familiar relief of a soothing, hot meal.
It was late at night when we boarded the Konkan Kanya Express. The outside world was pitch black and quiet, but our electric-blue train cars were brightly lit and full of noises.
My seat was in a car with only two of my classmates, along with a few other couples and families. I was a little nervous at first to have a slumber party with a bunch of people I didn’t know, but there was nothing I could do besides settle in and be happy that I could still visit with friends until bedtime. Sleeping in a car full of people I knew would have been fun, but it probably would have kept me from tuning into my environment….
Welcome to the second entry in my Remembering India series, where I share recipes, meals and adventures from my 2008 studies abroad. Today I share a recipe for ghee, which I first tasted after visiting with a group of kids on a construction site in Thane.
It took four weeks of studying in Mumbai for me to find myself face-to-face with a jar of ghee. I’m sure this had a lot to do with eating the majority of my meals in restaurants and my school cafeteria, where I never gave any thought to the fats and oils that cooked my food.
Instead I was busy familiarizing myself with bigger-picture items—like the names of breads, vegetables, spices and sweets. There was paneer, chicken, mutton, and lentils to be concerned with—all served with variations on the aforementioned breads, vegetables, spices and sweets. The possibilities were endless, leaving my brain about as full as my belly—with hardly any room to consider one of the simplest combinations of all: rice and ghee.
In the four weeks leading up to that revelatory dish of rice, I had no idea that a gentle flame and 30 minutes were all it took to transform sweet and creamy butter into a nutty, toasty and more mature version of itself. I also had no idea that this delicious staple was so widely used—both for cooking and for healing.
This all changed one hot June afternoon, thanks to a comforting home-cooked meal with my friends Aarti and Apurva. We were refueling after spending the morning with an unforgettable group of kids at a creche in Thane.