** This story has appeared in NPR’s Kitchen Window ***
Mussels cooked in a saffron coconut stew, shrimp fritters with just the right crispness, chicken kebabs laced with brandy — these are dishes I tell my dad about all the time. They are my passion, my creations as a food writer. He often advises me on the recipes, telling me what to add, what to change, what to increase and what to substitute. I listen, because my dad is one of the best home cooks I know.
Just a few months ago, he and I were discussing our favorite chicken curry recipe that shines with flavors of green and black cardamom. I love the way he makes it, and we were discussing changing the texture of the onions. He is in Delhi and I am in Washington, D.C., and these discussions form the crux of our conversations. Yet, in our last talk something was different. Dad kept asking when I was going to cook all these dishes for him.
Strangely, I rarely cook for my parents. It isn’t because I am afraid to, feel that they won’t like my dishes, that they will complain or that my dishes won’t be up to their standards. That isn’t it at all.
I grew up nourished in spirit by my father’s travel stories involving food and my mother’s unerring, mouthwatering dishes. His stories evoked a world of Irish pubs, French bistros, Indian curry houses, Swiss chalets, Austrian pensions that I had never seen, and my mother’s hand created perfectly spiced dishes without ever holding a measuring cup, spoon or bowl. She practiced the art of what I call andza cooking, estimation cooking — always adding a little of this and a little of that — and always created a memorable dish. My sister and I would take turns doing dinner chores. We would spend time around the dinner table talking about our day, about life in general, about the cost of okra, but always together.
I left home when I was 17 and wandered the world: college, marriage, babies, careers. I grew up in the Middle East, my parents settled in India, and I settled in the U.S. When I visited them, I just wanted them to cook for me. I longed for my mother’s crisp fried okra, my dad’s cardamom-scented oatmeal, or the best dish — having both of them in the kitchen discussing and making a mutton curry. I love that they have been married for more than 40 years and possibly making that same curry for that long, and yet they always discuss how to make it and what to do.
Rarely, I will volunteer to cook my creations for them. I tell them about my food, they cook from my cookbooks, but when I am there with them in their home, I don’t cook for them. I was raised on their food — it is the memory and the home of my childhood. While they may miss my chicken kebabs, I know they don’t long for it as I do for my father’s butter chicken.
I cook for my own children in the hope that I create similar memories. I cook for my kids in the hope that when they go off into the big wide world, the memory of their mother’s chicken curry, the scent of her caramelized onions with garlic, the whiff of her cinnamon-scented rice pudding will tug at their heart and bring them back home — just like my parents’ cooking does for me.
(featured photo are my parents on their 25th wedding anniversary)
Saffron Mussel StewWhen I was first testing this dish for my new book, I kept thinking it was missing something. One conversation on the phone with my dad, and he picked up on it instantly: add saffron, he said. It will give it depth and aroma. He was, of course, as always, right. This is a super simple dish to make, perfect for a fall evening when the weather is getting cold and you feel like something warm and spicy to comfort and soothe you. Buy a nice loaf of crusty bread to mop up this curry. The recipe is from my book Modern Spice, Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster 2009).