Lessons from My Mother’s Village Kitchen

Schools, fresh foods, and memories from India. Madhu Suri Prakash reflects on the culinary traditions of her family.

YES! Photo by Doug Pibel.

I have been working on a book, collecting stories of a rapidly growing movement in the United States. Across the country, people are working to connect students with real food—grown themselves in school gardens or bought from local food producers. The aim is to break the chains of fast-food addiction and reawaken our connection to food as both physical and spiritual sustenance.

As I watch children, and the adults who teach them, relearn the joys of local food, I am reminded of my own experience growing up in India. Our home shifted every three years as my military father was shunted back and forth across the subcontinent. But in the face of that dislocation, my mother, Rajinder, stayed grounded in our indigenous food traditions. For a taste of her common sense, I invite you to enter our home, and explore with me its center—my mother’s kitchen, her rasoi.

Rajinder’s Remarkable Rasoi

Rasoi comes from the Hindi word “rasa,” a word almost untranslatable, as are most of the core words referring to the sacred—the divine—that is the heart of Hindu culture and traditions. Yet, without rasa, it is impossible to say anything significant about the traditional Hindu arts and sciences, including the art of preparing and serving spicy, stunningly beautiful, aromatic foods that bring out the deepest pleasures of eating.

One of the many meanings of rasa is “juice”—the quintessential flow of flavors that comes only from slow, deliberate ripening that follows the organic rhythm of nature’s cycles. Rasoi literally means that sacred place in the home where these juices flow naturally, and therefore produce profound pleasure—for the palate, the eyes, and the soul.

True artists in every field of creativity, including the art of living, bring forth diverse and unique kinds of rasa. Excellence of technique is necessary. But rasa only emerges when people combine the technical expertise that comes from the head, with habits of deepening the heart—connecting head and heart to the slow, deep workings of the soul. Only when we prepare food with love, reverence, and respect do we become adept in the art of bringing out the juices, the rasa, of all the vegetables, fruits, and other ingredients that go into the sublime and sacred preparation of food.

The common peoples of the world, when left to live by the wisdom of their own traditions, culinary and other, do magnificently.

In the pre-dawn darkness, without electricity, Rajinder’s unassuming little kitchen, with only two tiny earthen stoves designed centuries before the Dark Ages of Europe, slowly got going with fired charcoal; ready to receive the milk lovingly released only moments before by the hands of the gwala (milkman) from the udders of our neighborhood black buffalo herd. Frothing forth straight from the udder into the steel pot in which it would soon be boiled, its cream was quickly collected for the fresh, soft, and white butter I learned to churn by hand at age eleven.

This was Rajinder’s remarkable rasoi, where for the first quarter century of my life, I saw one pot of milk, traveling no further than a block or two, yield generously to our yearning for buttered parathas, naan and super-hot chappatis—breads served so hot we had no recourse but to enjoy the pause as they cooled—long, soulful and necessary—awakening all the human senses without which the sacred and the sensuous cannot be headily and heartily enjoyed.

If all that came out of that pre-dawn pot of freshly drawn milk was butter, Rajinder’s rasoi would be impressive, perhaps, yet not remarkable. In reality, Rajinder’s deft fingers took that same pot of milk many miles beyond the wildest imaginations of “industrial eaters.” She created creamy soft cottage cheese within minutes of squeezing the juice of limes harvested just then from our kitchen garden. She produced yoghurt raitas to accompany every lunch and dinner, to cool palates tickled by tamarind chutneys and gingery garlic cilantro curries bringing out all the flavors—whether of potatoes or the roots of lotus flowers. She concocted soothing summer drinks—including lassis and chach flavored with black rock salt, mustard seeds and curry leaves—and kheer, phirni, rabri, gajar ka halwa, among others .

How can I do justice to the diverse dishes Rajinder created from the foods she bought in the local market? The twenty-five hues, textures, and tastes of lentils and beans, colorfully arraying her rasoi; constituting our subsistence, our staples. Or the 101 potato combinations concocted with coconuts, mints, fennel, spinach, tulsi, bitter gourd, brinjal, okra. Her thirty-four distinct ways of mixing a cup of basmati rice with whatever vegetables came out of the earth in abundance that particular morning—winter, spring, summer, or fall. During the thundering monsoons, the heady aromas of parched earth coming to life with long-awaited summer rain would mix and mingle with the aromas floating across the courtyard and wafting over the whole neighborhood from her earthen oven—the tandoor.

No time-saving machines, no labor-saving gizmos, no measuring cups and spoons, no fancy ovens, no Cuisinarts, no blenders, and no recipe books —apart from her carefully handwritten slender, little notebook of recipes, Oriental and Occidental, appreciatively learned from visiting neighbors or friends.

Rajinder’s rasoi revealed the remarkable genius that was far from hers alone. She was but one lovely expression of her people’s well-honed common sense, born of a commons of shared food and shared knowledge. This common sense daily demonstrates that most of the common peoples of the world, when left to live by the wisdom of their own traditions, culinary and other, do magnificently. They have hundreds of generations of elders to turn to for insights and guidance who have for centuries upon centuries accumulated knowledge of their place, through trial and error, creating forms of abundance and riches that respect the slow cycles of seasons from seed to plate, learning lessons taught in quiet conversations with Mother Nature.

With her indigenous Punjabi eyes kept wide open through habits of inventive frugality honed in slow time, she could clearly see what her children and grandchildren with advanced university degrees in economics, business, and marketing remain blind to, even today. In her heart, guts, and bones, and not in her head alone, she knew well all the reasons why out-of-season, long-distance-traveling refrigerated milk and other foods systematically destroy the delicate, intricate web of local relationships between tiny rasois and well-rooted, humble, small local businesses—like those of the gwala and the sabzi-wala (vegetable man) peddling fruits and vegetables from a handdrawn cart, singing his song from home to home.

From Fast Food Nation to a New Rasoi

A few generations ago, Rajinder’s rasoi would not have seemed so foreign to most Americans. A different set of spices, perhaps. But the American kitchen would have held food from vendors not so different from the walas Rajinder bought from. The advent of fast food quickly changed that picture. By 1970 Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2000 they spent more than $110 billion. According to Eric Schlosser, “Americans now spend more on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars; more than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music combined.”

Is there any hope for regenerating the affection, the care, and the other virtues sung about and savored in the age of slow food? In schools and campuses across the country, a new American Dream is bringing together school lunches, families, family farms, gourmet chefs, and community-supported farmers in fresh, new, radical (that is, rooted) ways. Revolutionaries are rising up to reclaim the rasa we have so easily surrendered. I cannot hope to honor them all in this little space. I can only give a taste of what is underway.

“Not since the launch of Sputnik has U.S. education seemed so ripe for reform.”

Alice Waters , of Berkeley’s “Chez Panisse,” is spearheading a “Delicious Revolution” in Berkeley. Her philosophy of Slow Food Education is based on the pleasure of food. Freshly picked produce is tastier than that which has lingered in cold storage, inspiring kids to choose an apple over a Snapple. The Edible Schoolyard project at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley models Waters’ vision of how we can return to producing much of our own food. Starting in 1995, students, teachers, and parents began the transformation of an acre of parking lot into what is now an organic garden supplying food for student lunches. Waters points out that about 20 percent of Americans are in school at any given time. “If all these students were eating lunch together, consuming local, organic food,” she says, “agriculture would change overnight to meet the demand. Our domestic food culture would change as well, as people again grew up learning how to cook affordable, wholesome, and delicious food.” There are now programs similar to the Edible Schoolyard in 400 school districts in 22 states.

With her own unique flair and genius, Judy Wicks of the White Dog Café in Philadelphia is making similar connections between the community-supported agriculture movement and her gorgeous restaurant. She is educating people from all walks of life about the pleasures of slow food, creating new links between communities, students and real food—grown organically and preferably locally on small family farms.

Catherine Sneed is demonstrating that “hardened criminals” who learn to grow Swiss chard and broccoli are less likely to grab old ladies’ purses for a few bucks than men raised on drugs, speed, and fast food.

From the Common Roots program at the Barnet School in Vermont to students picking scallions and cilantro from their own garden at Evergreen Elementary School in West Sacramento, California, this grassroots movement across the United States and beyond now includes urban as well as rural schools. In California alone, some 3,000 schools have campus gardens.

In Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, where I live, Kimber Mitchell, Laura Silver, and other bioneers set up “Pizza Gardens” as well as perennial plots at Radio Park Elementary School—fostering connections between Penn State University’s Center for Sustainability, local master gardeners Gene Bazan, Tania Slawecki, among others, and faculty drawn from different colleges, including engineering and education.

Will we rely on our common sense for regenerating the rasa of indigenous peoples, like Rajinder’s? Danny Heitman says it well: “Not since the launch of Sputnik has U.S. education seemed so ripe for reform.” Ripeness of reform for the rasa of teaching and learning, living and eating is here. The time has come to regenerate the classical concept of “school”—rooted in the Latin schole, or leisure. The tragedy of the loss of leisure from schooling because of industrial fast food (and more) can finally be put aside—the cruel, sickening, hard lessons of the twentieth century having been learned.

It is the most realizable dream of the twenty-first century: the dream of Slow Food education. Instead of McDonald’s or Burger King announcing the nine-billionth burger sold, we are building a world where schools and colleges announce the 250 millionth American savoring the nourishing Slow Food grown by local CSA farmers.

Come, let us go forward towards schooling that savors and enjoys the good life lived through nourishing, slow food. Starting with our children, we can all learn how to reclaim the rasa I enjoyed in Rajinder’s rasoi.

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