Celebrating spring, southern Indian style
Five minutes after I met her, I wanted to bring her home with me.
Jaya Dwarkanath doesn’t look a thing like my late, sorely missed grandmother.
Nana was not overweight, but her German ancestry showed in her sturdy frame. Her prim and proper mother always bought or made Nana’s dresses a size too large because she “had long arms.” She laughingly told me, “I’d been married for years before I realized my arms weren’t especially long — mother did that because my bust was big.” Dwarkanath, in contrast, is tiny. A braid of silvery grey hair hangs down her back. She’s swathed in a beautiful silk sari that Nana would have thought both strange and intriguing. Like many other Hindu Brahmins, Dwarkanath is a vegetarian, a concept foreign to my grandmother. Dwarkanath was a disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (probably most famous in the west as the Beatles’ guru in the ’60s) and spent four months at one of his Transcendental Meditation centers 30-plus years ago before emigrating to the United States.
Why did she remind me of Nana? Maybe it was the independence. “I am 84 years old and I live by myself,” Dwarkanath told me proudly. (“But only a few minutes away from me,” her daughter, Aruna Weberg, added). Maybe it was the beaming smile of a fulfilled woman at peace with herself and the world.
“Home cooking is best,” she told me more than once. “Old recipes — family recipes, handed down from generation to generation.” That was it. That was the connection.
I’m not the only one to feel a connection with Dwarkanath. She and her daughter have come to seem almost like family to Charles and Loneth Soares, owners of the Gateway to India restaurant. At first they were just frequent, enthusiastic patrons of the restaurant. “Charles makes the best biryanis [an elaborate rice dish that can be made with or without meat or seafood] I’ve ever had,” Weberg told me. I agreed. Although I’ve never been to India, I’ve eaten at Indian restaurants in San Francisco, New York and London. I’ve eaten frequently at numerous restaurants in Chicago’s Indian neighborhood surrounding Devon Avenue, especially when my daughter lived just minutes away. Because I love Gateway to India’s biryanis, I’ve ordered them elsewhere many times but never yet found one that’s equaled Soares’. Incidentally, biryanis are a good first dish to try for those unacquainted with Indian cooking.
To many Americans, “Indian cuisine” means curry. But “curry” in India merely denotes different combinations of spices and flavorings, and,
in fact, the term is rarely used there in the context we think of it. The
yellow spice powder most westerners think of as curry, and dishes made with it,
are actually as much British as Indian, adopted by colonists in the days of the
British Raj. It’s only the merest fraction of the flavors, ingredients and preparation methods
of “Indian cuisine.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise. The Indian subcontinent is home to a vast panoply of peoples
with multitudinous religions, languages, customs and ethnic influences. And
though there are common elements in Indian cooking, the diversity of the people
and India’s equally diverse topography and climate give “Indian cuisine” an infinite number of preparations and an even larger number of variations. “The same dish can be really different in places just a few miles apart, or even
from family to family,” says Soares. To which Weberg adds, with a smile at her mother, “Sometimes even within the same family!”
Soares comes from a culinary background — his father was also a chef — and he skillfully prepares a wide range of regional Indian dishes. But when Dwarkanath offered to show Soares how to make some of her favorite dishes, he happily accepted, eager to discover yet another facet of Indian cooking.
Dwarkanath and Weberg come from Bangalore, a city in southern India. Situated almost dead center between the coasts, Bangalore is sometimes referred to as the “Silicon Valley” of India, despite the fact that it’s in a mountainous region and 3,000 feet above sea level. The reference is because it’s the center of India’s high-tech industry. Even before high-tech’s explosive growth in India, it was known as a center for science. The India Institute of Science (that country’s equivalent of MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to Weberg) is located on a lush 300-acre campus there.
It’s also the coolest, most temperate Indian city, though hardly frigid: with
temperatures that rarely dip below the 60s. The pleasant climate makes it
possible to grow an unusually wide variety of fruits and vegetables, from
tropical bananas and coconuts, to cabbages and beans.
Because Bangalore has been a center of learning, it has always had a cosmopolitan feel about it, and its food, more than in other areas of the country, has been pan-Indian. But it was less influenced than other regions of India by British or European colonists, primarily, Dwarkanath says, because of a benevolent maharajah.
On April 19, Dwarkanath and Weberg will be teaming up with the Soares to put on a special Southern Indian Dinner to celebrate spring and the New Year according to the Hindu lunar calendar. The celebratory feast will follow a long-held Southern Indian Hindu tradition.
Called Ugadi (the literal translation is “new era”), the Hindu New Year has many rituals and customs. Homes are cleaned
completely. Doorways are festooned with ropings made of mango leaves. Designs
made of colored chalk powders are created in front of entryway steps. New
clothes are worn. There’s even a traditional method of conditioning the hair with oil, then washing it
with a special soap. “We’re welcoming the spring,” says Dwarkanath, “and hoping for good health and good crops.”
Nothing is more traditional than the feast, which is held within nine days of
Ugadi in honor of Ramanavami, the birthday of the Hindu Lord Rama. A variety of
items are served on a large banana leaf, placed in a strict order to aid
digestion as well as complementing each other. The meal symbolizes the goal of
having a balanced life in the new year, so each preparation has a distinctive
feature that’s one component of that balance: bitter, sweet, sour, hot, etc. “Can’t we just get rid of the bitter one?” asked Loneth Soares. “No!” Dwarkanath and Weberg replied in unison. “It has to be balanced.”
The menu was long, and as I sat with Dwarkanath, Weberg and the Soares, there was talk of needing to eliminate something. They finally decided they could eliminate the plain rice, but as the discussion continued, other things kept getting added. Clearly no one will leave hungry.
Gateway to India’s Ugadi spring feast will adhere to tradition as much as possible. There will be chalk powder designs on the tables. Dwarkanath will be displaying her best southern Indian saris (I was surprised to learn that there are differences between northern and southern saris), some of which are made of a type of silk that’s no longer made because it became too expensive to produce. Probably the biggest difference will be that the banana leaves will be on tables rather than the floor.
The meal will be vegetarian, but if the samples I tried are any indication, even the most dedicated carnivores will be satisfied with the rich variety of flavors and textures.
The South Indian Spring Celebration Dinner offers a chance to try a unique cuisine and cultural experience. But best of all, perhaps, is the opportunity to get to know Jaya Dwarkanath.
Contact Julianne Glatz and firstname.lastname@example.org
The cost for the Southern Indian Spring Celebration Dinner is $22/person, and
seats must be reserved in advance. Call Gateway to India at 726-6890 for more
information or to make a reservation.