My Favorite Indian Foods

If you have ever tried Indian food, you notices that it has some major differences from American food. It is usually served with rice that the serving of each dish is mixed with to the right consistency. It generally has a higher number of spices, more liquid (gravy) in dishes, and generally a larger number of individual dishes are served per meal. Also, Indians at home tend to use their hand to eat and dishes are served in the order based on which dish has the least complex flavors to the dish that has the most complex flavors. It’s all very interesting to me and the food is some of the best I’ve ever had.

Side note: Indian food has become my absolute favorite type of food. As you know, we cook Indian/Bengali food at home about 75% of the time, which is strange for someone who had never even tried Indian food prior to the last couple of years of college. Eating Indian food, specifically the homemade type, usually prepared with less oil than in restaurants, has really awakened my taste buds, helped regulate my digestive system, and made me love food even more. These days, if I go a few days with no Indian food, my body craves it like nothing else. Something about the spices makes me feel so good! It is no wonder that ancient cultures have used spices not only for their taste, but also their medicinal qualities. I am the luckiest girl to be married to an Bengali man who enjoys cooking with me.

I want to share a list of my favorite Indian/Bengali foods/dishes I’ve had so far. And if this list makes you hungry, go to your nearest Indian restaurant for lunch!

#1: Dal (Lentils)

There are so many types of dal in Indian cuisine. I had never really had a dish that was primarily dal here in the US. I had eaten dishes where some dal was thrown in, like in soups, but they never were the main character in the dish. We cook dal at home very regularly, mostly moong and masoor varieties. Something about those little beans packed with healthy things makes such a satisfying dish. B even says that dal is what they eat when they are feeling sick, much like we here eat chicken noodle soup or something like that. My favorite way of cooking and eating dal is very simple with toasted cumin seeds, turmeric, and salt. I also like it when vegetables have been boiled with the dal and when other types of dal are used. It is such a flavorful, comforting dish that has many options when choosing how to prepare it.

#2: Ma’s Cucumber & Potato Curry

This is a strange sounding dish to us Americans. We tend to think that cucumber can only be eaten raw. We imagine that if you try to cook cucumber that it will be terribly watery and unpleasant to eat. But let me tell you, this is one of the best dishes I’ve ever had. B cooks this dish according to a recipe his mom gave him and I think he probably cooks it really close to what it would taste like when Ma makes it. This dish manages to keep the freshness and bright “green” flavor of the cucumber and combines it with the comfort of potatoes and fragrant spices. It is amazing.

#3: Aloo Methi

We just had this dish a couple nights ago. Aloo is potato. Methi is this fragrant plant that has small oval shaped leaves. I can’t remember if there is an English name for it… But it has a slightly smoky, earthy flavor in addition to it’s green, fresh flavor which makes for a very tasty combination. We boil the potatoes (but you can add other vegetables), add the spices from Ma’s recipe, then throw in the methi leaves almost at the end. Once they are wilted, the dish is ready to eat. It usually disappears pretty quickly in our house.

#4: Samosas

Ah, samosas. These are usually not a dish that is made at home because they are a little complicated. These babies are similar to the fried pies served here in the US, but with much more complex and spicy fillings. They are also shaped like pyramids almost. The best ones we get around here come from the Indian grocery store. We love the Indian grocery here! It always smells so wonderful when you step in and they serve freshly fried samosas and sometimes biryani and sweets. Their samosas are filled with a potato and green pea mixture, fried fresh to a golden crisp, with the flakiest of flaky crusts. Every time we go there, we at least order four. Oh, and they are only a dollar!

#5: Shondesh

This is another strange sounding dish to us Americans. Shondesh is a famous Bengali dessert that is made from paneer, which is like a homemade ricotta or farmers cheese. It is very simple to make at home and I have made it a few different times. Basically you boil milk, add lemon juice to separate the curds from the whey, strain the now paneer/chana, rinse the lemon flavor from the chana, press to remove excess moisture, then add your sweetener of choice and cardamom powder, knead, cook, shape into bite sized pieces, and finally chill. It sounds like a complicated process, but it goes much quicker than it sounds like. Once chilled, these morsels are sweet, creamy, chewy, and very satisfying. It only takes about two of these until your sweet tooth is satisfied. Yum.

#6: Ma’s Fried Eggplant

I must admit that I have so far been unable to re-create this dish to be close to as tasty as Ma’s. Also, I was never a fan of eggplant until I started having it in Indian/Bengali dishes. Nowadays it is one of my favorite veggie dishes. I can’t tell you how Ma cooks her’s, but I can tell you how tasty it is. There are pretty thick slices of eggplant, with spices and turmeric rubbed generously on both sides, the slices are then fried/sauteed, most likely in mustard oil until they are cooked through, but somehow they maintain their structure and integrity of shape. These slices are packed with flavor and comfort. When mixed with rice, they are lovely. And they are lovely when eaten with roti/flat bread. I will look forward to having these next time we visit India.

#7: Okra & Potato Curry

This dish we also had very recently, and that will also sound strange to at least us Southerners who like to eat okra only if it’s battered and fried. Okra and potato curry is another comforting dish that is pretty simple, but so satisfying. We cook this at home when the okra looks especially good at the grocery store. We chop the okra and potatoes, garlic, and green chilies. If you want the okra to keep its round shape, stir-fry the potatoes for a bit first, then add the okra. Fry, stirring continuously until they begin to soften. Add salt and turmeric (and any other spices you want, we just keep this one simple), then add a little water, cover and boil until cooked through. This is good served with rice or bread. As long as your okra dish is not too oily, it will be very tasty.

As I typed this, I realized that these dishes are not necessarily listed in any particular order. I guess it just depends on the mood I’m in as to which is my favorite. If you have been too afraid to try Indian food, please consider it. You could be missing out on something you would love and your body could thank you for. Step out of your comfort zone, ask your Indian friends to share a dish with you; they would probably be proud to share some of their rich, spicy heritage with you!

P.S. Spellcheck did NOT like these non-English words, ya’ll.

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Women Wear Suits of Armor: Part 1

This post comes in two parts because I think it is too long for one. This is part one, part two is coming soon!

A suit of armor can be worn literally or figuratively. In this case, I am obviously talking about the figurative sense… Recently I have been thinking about women and their similarities/differences from culture to culture. I am of the opinion that women in many cultures are very very similar. I think the inner nature of women is relatively universal but the way this inner nature presents itself outwardly is what varies from house to house, city to city, state to state, country to country, etc.  Much like a vanilla flavored cake is still a vanilla flavored cake whether the frosting is red or blue, thin or thick, simple or fancy.

The purpose of a suit of armor is to protect one’s vulnerabilities from one’s enemies. One can appear strong and impervious while wearing a suit of armor. One can put on the air of confidence in a suit of armor. One can hide one’s weaknesses behind a suit of armor. A warrior heading into battle obviously needs the armor for many reasons. His enemies cannot see that his right arm is wounded from yesterday’s fight, or that he has a few cracked ribs that never healed properly. His enemies only see the strong, well-polished, ready-for-battle warrior that he wants them to see.

Women are a lot like this warrior. We have our various vulnerabilities and weaknesses that we try diligently to hide from the people we come into contact with every day. Maybe these people aren’t quite “enemies” necessarily, but we do often see them as people we must guard ourselves against because they have the potential to harm us. They have the potential to harm us, if not physically, then emotionally. In all honesty, maybe this applies to all people, not only women. But since I am a woman, I will only share my thoughts on how my fellow women that I’ve seen cope with hiding their vulnerabilities.

Again, every woman and every situation is different. I am only sharing my view. If your view is different, please share it with me!

Example 1: My Grandmother and Her Makeup

This example is one about the same grandmother featured in my last post. She has been on my mind lately, and this is a classic example of a woman and her armor. I would spend the night with her frequently when I was growing up and we were very close. But one thing about my grandmother was that she never let anyone see her in the morning before she put on her makeup. The first thing she would do in the morning would be to close the door to the bathroom in the hall, sit on a chair in front of the mirror and apply her makeup. As soon as she was finished, she would come out and continue her morning schedule. We would read in the Bible together and talk about the daily devotional from the book “Streams in the Desert” and then head out to Hardee’s or a locally owned restaurant for breakfast. But never, ever could we accomplish these things without her putting on her makeup. Today, I can only speculate as to if she felt the need to hide anything, if she simply needed the confidence boost, or if it had just become her habit.

Example 2: An Indian Lady and Her Sari

This example is one I only know about because of my trip to India. I already knew that a lot of women in India wear saris, as you can read in this post, but I had not really seen the sari “in its natural habitat” until our trip. I saw so many saris in B’s hometown and in the city of Kolkata. Women wore them basically in one style of draping where we went, but utilized them in many different ways. A sari, surprisingly to some, is a great multipurpose garment. As I saw, many women wear a sari and only a sari on a day to day basis. B’s mother wears a sari to cook, to clean, to eat, to do laundry, to go shopping, to sleep, to do everything! I was amazed. When B’s mother and aunt wrapped me in my first sari, I couldn’t believe that these women can handle the layers of fabric and the pleats all day long, during so many different tasks so gracefully. I realized that a sari can be considered a suit of armor for these women because, when worn in a conservative style, can cover a woman’s entire figure, shielding her from unwanted looks. It can be worn long to protect the legs and feet from those pesky, bird-sized mosquitoes. It can be worn over the head and neck to protect one from the sun and heat. It can be worn in a pressed, perfectly pleated way to keep one from being judged by other women. It can even be used to provide modesty to a new mother nursing her baby in a public place. I learned to respect the sari and the women who wear them everyday while I was in India. I’ll admit that I don’t wear my saris as often here in the US as I would like, but I am learning! I have worn my saris a few times and plan to be bold enough to wear them more frequently. Every time I am missing B’s family or have them on my mind, I wear a sari that day. It helps me feel connected to them a little bit extra that day. 🙂

Also, I will include the other popular style of Indian clothes in this armor. I also think that the salwar kameez suit with the dupatta can be utilized in many ways as well, but I just think the sari is more recognizably Indian.

 Phew, are you tired yet? Part 2 coming soon!

India was My “Fernweh”

I recently saw a page on Buzzfeed that resonated with me called “23 Charming Illustrations of Untranslatable Words from Other Languages.” I clicked on the link to the page because, being a visual person, I enjoy illustrations and, seeing as how I am married to a man whose first language/mother tongue is different from my own, word/expression meanings in different languages have recently become relevant to me.

The first word illustrated was “fernweh” which comes from German and means “feeling homesick for a place you have never been to” (according to the illustrator, I hope she was correct!). The list goes on and some of the illustrations are quite nice. If you didn’t click the link to the page, you should check it out. You might find a word that speaks to you like I did.

Back to why “fernweh” stood out to me… When I read the translation of what it means, I recognized that I had felt this exact feeling in my life many times. I can’t tell you where it came from, why it came, or anything other than I know without a doubt I felt this homesickness for India long before I ever had any Indian friends or even knew any Indian people. Maybe it manifested itself because I was always an avid reader in my childhood. Maybe it came because I read something about India or its people at a young age. Unfortunately I have no idea what this could have been or if it was anything like this in the first place.

What I do know is that in my elementary school, I learned to read a little earlier than most other children, I used reading as a means to escape reality (don’t take this the wrong way, my reality was quite good, I promise) and “travel” to many different places, and that I had a very vivid imagination. I enjoyed reading so much that in fifth grade, I read so many A.R. books and got so many points that I was the Top Reader and won $100. That’s a pretty big accomplishment for a 10-year-old! What I’m trying to get at is that it makes total sense to me that I could have learned about India while reading one of the many books I read during my early “travels”.

My earliest memory of being interested in India was when I was young, maybe 10-12 years old, and spending some time at my paternal grandmother’s house. This story requires a little background information, so hang on! My grandmother was one of my favorite people in the whole world, especially when I was young. She and her dog lived in a three bedroom brick house about fifteen minutes from my parents house. I would often spend Friday nights with her and we would do many crafty things together during these times. We would draw, color pictures, make jewelry, do embroidery, etc. because she enjoyed being creative and making things herself. I think (and my husband thinks) I got some of my character traits from her. She made one heck of a grandmother. I still get teary-eyed when I think about her and she has been gone for more than 7 years…

One thing she would do with me was take me to fabric stores and let me choose a fabric to make something out of when we got back home. She sewed various things for my brother and I growing up, like pillows, embroidered blankets, bags, you name it. She had a fancy embroidery machine that you could create your design on the computer and the machine would transfer it onto your fabric. I guess this was pretty fancy for the time, now that I think about it… Because she was always sewing and embroidering various projects, she always had some interesting fabric scraps. One of my favorite things to do when I was at her house was to play in the fabric. Literally. I would take out her neatly folded and organized fabrics, throw them around for who knows what reason, wrap myself up in them pretending to be somebody different, or wrap up her dog or my brother in them turning them into whatever characters suited my fancy that day. This is where my earliest memory of being interested in India came from.

One day I told my grandmother that I wanted to wear a sari. I don’t even know how much I knew about them or how in the world I came to know about them, but I knew that they were beautiful pieces of fabric beautiful ladies were wrapped up in, and I wanted one. Spending the whole day dressed in a pretty fabric sounded perfect to me. And in my grandmother’s quest to be the best grandmother she could be, she made it happen. (Perhaps I was a spoiled child…) She found (I don’t know where) a print-out of how to wrap a sari and how much fabric one needed to do all the wrapping and pleating. She also calculated that since I was a child, I would need less yardage than a full-grown woman. We came to the decision that we would go to the fabric store and find four yards of the fabric for my sari. I still can picture the blue fabric in my head to this day. It was a polyester, flowing blue fabric with sky, royal, and navy shades and a large paisley block-style print. When we made it back to her house, we followed the directions as best we could, and I was happily in our version of a sari. That’s all I remember about it.

As time went by, I learned more about the world, not just India. It was on my radar just like any other country halfway across the globe would be to a girl born in 1990 in the U.S. When I would come across products imported from India, I was drawn to them because of the various colors and patterns that were different than the norm here. Other than that, I didn’t really have any tangible reason to be interested in a country that was so foreign to me. Fleeting thoughts here and there told me I wanted to go there, but I had no reason to believe it would actually happen! This was my “fernweh” kicking in.

I met my first Indian friends in college. I liked so many things about these people: their food (of course!), their clothes (surprise…), their friendliness to guests, and the way they were excited to share their culture with a white American Southerner who despite all the stereotypes surrounding her, was not, in fact, as closed-minded as she thought she was. And as those of you who already know us know, one thing led to another, and through mutual friends, I met the Indian man who became my husband.

Almost five months after our wedding, we traveled to India to meet B’s parents. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that it was a big deal for me especially because this trip was full of firsts. My first plane ride, my first time out of the U.S., my first time traveling with B for more than a small trip, my first time meeting his family face-to-face, my first time finding out what I am really made of! To read more about this trip, click here or here. I experienced so many things on this trip. I won’t list them here because it’s just too much.

December 2013 and January 2014 was the time my “fernweh” was satiated. Now when I feel homesick for India, Nabagram, B’s Mom’s cooking, Bengali mishti, etc., it’s just plain old longing instead of the fancy word “fernweh” because I’ve been there now. The bottom line is that I knew I felt something, but was never able to describe it in words. While I don’t know that all (or even half) of the things on Buzzfeed are worth the time it takes to skim them, this page was worth it because it made me connect things in my life I hadn’t connected yet.

Do you have a place that you feel “fernweh” for? If so, try and make it there someday! I bet you won’t regret it.

Travel: Experience vs. Documentation

Many of you who know me personally know that I am a freelance photographer and I’ve had some pretty nice jobs in the last couple of years. I also like photography as a hobby, and like to document the places I go and working on new things.

On our trip to Dubai and India, of course I took my camera and took a LOT of photos. But I have to say, I did not take as many photos as I could have. I knew before the trip that I needed to pack lightly and sensibly so I didn’t take my whole kit. I took only my camera body and the standard kit lens. I packed it in my carry-on bag so I knew it would always be with me and prepared myself for the idea that there would be some photo opportunities I would miss out on. The trade-off for me in this situation was that if something were to happen to me or my small bag, all I would lose would be the one camera body and lens instead of my whole kit. Some peace of mind was worth more to me than having the absolute best photos. I knew that my one lens would be able to capture the memories just fine.

When we were in Dubai, I took more photos than I did in India. I realized this as the trip was coming to an end and for a bit I felt a little guilty. I wasn’t sure why I had documented more of Dubai, but I soon realized why. I was not pushed out of my comfort zone in Dubai much compared to India. In Dubai, things were a lot like home here in the US. There were the obvious differences, of course (those will be in a later post…), but in general, things were not that different. Especially when I realized that I was comfortable staying with my sister-in-law and her family, I felt pretty much normal.

So I was able to just carry my camera around (or pawn it off on my husband when I didn’t feel like carrying it, thanks B…) and simply document the scenery, buildings, desert, family, etc. to my heart’s content. But unexpectedly for me, things were a little different when we were in B’s hometown near Kolkata. For the first few days, I really had some culture shock. Everything was so different from home. Some things were different in a good way, some in a bad way. It was just very different.

I chose to experience India more than document it. It was more important for me to experience the place where my husband grew up, see the people in the area, eat his mom’s mouth-watering food, absorb the beautiful colors and patterns of the saris the women wore, breathe in the smells of the local market, get pooped on by a bird while getting groceries, spend time actually talking with his (and my new) family members, etc. than to photograph it all constantly. Don’t get me wrong, I did document a lot of things and experiences in India.

When we (finally) made it back to the US, I felt a lot of different things when I looked back through all of my photos. I did wish that I had taken more photos while we were in India and with his parents and sister, but I now understand the importance of experiencing a place more than simply documenting it. It’s very easy to use your camera as a barrier between yourself and others or between yourself and a situation. I think in some situations it is better to remove that metal, plastic, and glass barrier and BE somewhere. I don’t feel guilty anymore for taking fewer photos in India than in Dubai. I placed more emphasis on experiencing than documenting, and I am not ashamed of that.

Instant Family

B (my husband) and I recently made it back to the States from our first big trip together. It was a very big trip, full of a lot of “firsts” for me. It was my first time on an airplane, my first time out of the States, and my first time really travelling with my husband, and my first time meeting my in-laws in person. I think all of those things make this trip a pretty big deal.

Our trip went like this:

  1. Charlotte, NC
  2. New York City, NY
  3. Moscow, Russia
  4. Dubai, UAE
  5. Stayed in Dubai for over a week
  6. Delhi, India
  7. Kolkata, India
  8. Stayed in Kolkata for around two weeks
  9. Accidental stay in Delhi for four days
  10. London, England
  11. Newark, NJ
  12. New York City, NY
  13. Charlotte, NC
  14. Home Finally!

It was a whirlwind! We stayed with B’s sister and her family while we were in Dubai and at his parents’ house while we were in India. Before the trip, I was a little anxious to see what it would be like to stay with two families I had never spent time with before. I also felt a little pressure to make a good impression because B and I got married in the US without me meeting his family in person. Also, knowing we would be staying with these people for a week or more, not just a few days, made things even more interesting. There were a million things going through my mind while we were planning the trip and as the journey began.

Luckily for me, Skype exists! If it wasn’t for Skype, I think our first few days at each destination would have been very awkward and strained. I am very thankful for this service, and it’s free (if you don’t use it to call phones)! While B and I were only dating, I “met” all of his family members via Skype. Sometimes the language barrier made conversations a little difficult, but we were able to interact with each other to a certain extent. When we told his family we were going to get married, they were happy for us (and happy to have there 30+ year old son finally married…) and things were as good as they could be, given the half-a-world-away distance. Since we have been married, we’ve tried to Skype with his parents at least weekend or every other one. Obviously, there are limitations to this type of communication, but sometimes you just have to take what you can get. So, we waited for our trip where we could meet instead of “meet”.

When we came out of the airport in Dubai, B’s sister, her husband, and a family friend were waiting for us. I was so excited to physically be in their presence. It felt like I had been waiting forever to meet this tiny lady who had influenced B so much. We all hugged and B began talking with them (in Bengali, of course) and we loaded up in her car. As the next couple of days came, the thing that surprised me the most was that I instantly felt like I was with family. I think I unknowingly expected to feel like an outsider, at least to some extent. But I didn’t. I felt like I was a part of a family and that I belonged with them. The hospitality, late night beers and conversations, and time spent together talking about real things felt like family. We didn’t have to spend the first few days awkwardly asking the typical “get-to-know-you” questions. The same thing happened when we made it to India and met B’s dad, mom, and other sister. We immediately were able to spend time together as a family, not as a family with an extra white girl hanging out. It was such a relief, I can’t even explain it all.

The whole experience didn’t feel like a “Oh, it’s nice to meet you” thing, but a “Oh, it’s nice to see you again” thing. It was so refreshing to feel like I was actually with family while I was in brand new countries. I could not have asked for it to have been better.