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y mother, Saraswathy Abhiraman, moved to Atlanta in 1981 in a multitasker’s flurry, receiving her doctorate and marrying my father while packing her bags for the New World. Both she and the city were very different back then; Atlanta was squat and gray in the winter, with Greek-style pizza and Tex-Mex considered international fare. Mom was in a similarly nascent condition, keen on exploring her new home but unsure where to begin. She and my father learned the city as newlyweds, discovering restaurants and hiking up nearby Stone Mountain to see the newly built suburbs stretch before them.

As strange as it seems to me (for I stoutly feel that my mother has always known her way around a kitchen), this period was her culinary gauntlet, when she jousted with strange produce in alien grocery stores and triumphed over them both.

“I had to relearn how to cook in Atlanta, you know,” she says. “When I was in college, I was too busy to cook, and I forgot everything I’d learned from your grandmother when I was a little girl, because I ate at my hostel’s canteen every day. After I got married and came to the States, I remembered the tastes from my mother’s kitchen, and I missed them. You couldn’t find those mother’s-made tastes anywhere, and I was set on recovering them, even if I didn’t remember how to make them or know where to find authentic ingredients.”

She spies a flabby butternut squash and holds it in her other hand, looking back and forth at both vegetables, gaining strength. ‘I will conquer you,’ she thinks. ‘And you will taste good in sambar. Perhaps also in koottu. Now I will seek black mustard seeds by any means necessary.’

“Carda-mom and me”: The author with her mother.

Although she knew it was necessary to seize her agency, as the ethnologists say, the culinary landscape of 1980s-era America was less than helpful. No fresh coconut or pearly javvarisi vadaams burst forth from the grocery stores flanking her new neighborhood. Instead, she found the stores boxy and peculiar, featuring tubs of wan, pinkish hothouse tomatoes, colossal jars of Miracle Whip and pimento cheese, and an occasional “ethnic foods” aisle housing powdered teriyaki sauce, chop suey mixes and a lonely pair of taco kits.

I like to imagine her first solo grocery run this way: My mother walks into Piggly Wiggly, neatly dressed in a tan poplin coat that I’ve seen in old pictures. The store smells like Lemon Pledge, especially the produce section, where vegetables shiver under periodic sprays of icy water. She walks to the shelf that holds salad greens and rescues a thin bundle of unfamiliar-looking Savoy spinach. She spies a flabby butternut squash and holds it in her other hand, looking back and forth at both vegetables, gaining strength. I will conquer you, she thinks. And you will taste good in sambar. Perhaps also in koottu. Now I will seek black mustard seeds by any means necessary.

The truth wasn’t all that different from my flight of fancy, except that my mother had collaborators, fellow immigrant friends and fledgling cooks who joined her in proto-foodie hunts. While she found taro roots at the local farmers’ market and learned to mill her own rasam powder in a coffee grinder, a friend discovered that Kenya AA Roast from the same market approximated the molasses-thick decoction necessary to make Madras coffee. As she determined that Cream of Wheat made “rava” dosas as crispy and lacy as the original semolina batter intended, Punjabi girlfriends taught her where to find daikon and how to use it in mooli parathas.

As she experimented, her copy of the seminal Tamil cookbook, The Best of Samaithu Paar (Cook and See), grew lovingly, carefully well-thumbed. Ingredients and techniques unknown to Samaithu Paar or its author crept their way into her repertoire: sambar with Brussels sprouts, fluffy idlis made in an egg poacher, a revelatory cranberry chutney, Top Ramen noodles rendered highlighter-yellow from turmeric.

Talking to the parents of second-generation friends reveals the same improvisational spirit of the days before Whole Foods markets and ethnic grocery stores—pierogies wrapped in wonton skins, Greek yogurt constructed from a quart of Dannon and cheesecloth, yuzu swapped for lemons, maple syrup subbed for palm sugar.

But for its significance to me, the story isn’t exceptional. Talking to the parents of second-generation friends reveals the same improvisational spirit of the days before Whole Foods markets and ethnic grocery stores—pierogies wrapped in wonton skins, Greek yogurt constructed from a quart of Dannon and cheesecloth, yuzu swapped for lemons, maple syrup subbed for palm sugar. Familiar American foods became imbued with a second significance in this process; a facsimile of taste shadowing what was beloved and known back home.

I found myself doing the same the year I lived in Seoul, trying shiso leaf in an eggplant curry, or using Korean sweet potatoes to bulk up aviyal—feeling directly, viscerally, a connection to my mother and grandmothers, and also part of a constellation of home cooks in too-small kitchens, stirring their way to an understanding of culinary legacies.

In keeping with these legacies, new foods used in old ways, and old foods reborn, here is a Mother’s Day menu featuring two of the most versatile ingredients in the South Asian spice rack. Chili and cardamom, specifically dried red chili (Capsicum) and whole green cardamom (E. subulatum), play savory and sweet in these three dishes, the blunt warmth of the former countered by the clarity and perfumed sweetness of the latter.

The chili, roasted with cumin seeds and fresh ginger, spikes a tartly complex daal studded with tomatoes and cilantro. Cardamom scents a curry of new green peas, mustard seeds and toasted coconut. The two spices unite for dessert, in a flourless chocolate cake with chili ganache and cardamom-flavored cream.

It’s a balance of flavors not just a mother could love.


Masoor Daal with Tomatoes and Chilies

Tip: Serve with white rice, either sticky or basmati. If you’d like to pair the meal with wine, a chilled white Burgundy such as the 2004 Mâcon-Fuissé would work nicely.

1 cup dry red lentils (masoor daal)
4 cups water
½ t turmeric powder
1 T butter or vegetable oil
1 one-inch piece ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 shallot, thinly sliced
2 cups grape tomatoes, halved

6 dried red chilies
1 T cumin seeds
Zest and juice of one lemon, or to taste
¼ cup cilantro, finely chopped
1 t salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper

Rinse lentils in a colander. Combine with turmeric and 3 cups water in a saucepan over medium heat, and simmer, stirring every 2-3 minutes, until lentils are soft and falling apart, about 15 minutes. If daal thickens too quickly, add remaining cup water.

As daal simmers, heat butter or oil in a skillet on medium-high. Test temperature by flicking in a cumin seed; if seed begins to gently sizzle, the heat is at the proper level. Add remaining cumin seeds, and roast for about 20 seconds before adding ginger, shallot, chilies, and lemon zest. Roast, stirring frequently, for another 20 seconds.

Remove skillet from heat, and add contents to daal. Add tomatoes, reduce heat to low, and season daal with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. When tomatoes have softened, stir in cilantro and serve immediately. Serves 4.


New Peas Curry with Cardamom and Coconut

Tip: Save yourself some time by using frozen peas. Also, be sure to carefully follow the instructions for roasting mustard seeds. They are fierce, and they will attack. No one wants to be maimed.

10 ounces baby peas, frozen or fresh
2 T butter or vegetable oil
1 t black mustard seeds

10 green cardamom pods
1 cup unsweetened coconut shavings
1 t salt, or to taste

If using frozen peas, thaw according to instructions on package. Crush cardamom pods using the flat of a knife, and set aside.

Heat butter or oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. When surface begins to shimmer slightly (do not allow butter or oil to burn), add mustard seeds, and quickly cover skillet with lid.

Mustard seeds will pop rapidly as they roast. When popping sound slows, immediately reduce heat to low, shift lid to expose half of skillet, and add all remaining ingredients except salt. Stir well, raise heat to medium, and sauté for 3-4 minutes, until coconut begins to crisp and peas are warmed through. Remove from heat and serve immediately. Serves 4.


Flourless Chocolate Cake with Chili-Chocolate Ganache and Whipped Cardamom Cream

Tip: The cake and its accompaniments can be made ahead of time. Try serving with fresh fruit, such as mango or blackberries.

½ cup heavy whipping cream
6 oz. good-quality milk chocolate, finely chopped
4 dried red chilies, lightly crushed, or 1 T red chili powder

½ cup heavy whipping cream
5 whole green cardamom pods
1 T confectioners’ sugar, or to taste

6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
7 T unsalted butter, cut in small pieces
3 large eggs, separated
6 T dark brown sugar, divided
1 t vanilla extract
2 t ground cinnamon

Make ganache:
Simmer cream and chilies or chili powder over medium-high heat in saucepan until steam rises from surface of cream, taking care not to boil. Remove from heat (strain if using whole chilies) and pour heated cream over chocolate. Whisk together cream and softened chocolate. Cool in fridge until ready to use. If ganache is too stiff to spread, warm ganache bowl in a larger bowl filled with hot water until suitably softened.

Make cream:
Gently heat cream in saucepan over medium-low heat. After 2-3 minutes, crush cardamom pods with the flat of a knife, and add to cream. Raise heat to medium-high and bring cream to a simmer, stirring and muddling cardamom pods occasionally. Strain cream into a container, cover surface with plastic wrap, and chill thoroughly, about 1 hour. When chilled, add sugar and whip until soft peaks form. Serve immediately with cake.

Make cake:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 8 ½” x 4 ½” x 2 ¾” loaf pan with foil, and butter foil lightly. Stir chocolate and butter in medium saucepan on very low heat until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and cool until tepid, stirring often.

Using an electric mixer (or, for masochists, a whisk and a strong arm—but you’ll be sorry), beat egg whites in a bowl until whites have thickened. Add 3 tablespoons sugar, and whip until mixture forms medium-to-firm peaks. Using cleaned beaters, beat egg yolks and 3 tablespoons sugar in a large bowl until mixture is very thick and has paled visibly, about 3 minutes. Fold cooled chocolate mixture into yolk mixture, then fold in vanilla extract and cinnamon. Fold whites into chocolate-yolk mixture in 3 batches. Pour batter gently into prepared pan.

Bake until top forms cracks, about 40 minutes. Remove pan and allow cake to cool.
When cool, invert onto serving dish, ice with ganache, and serve with cream. Serves 6-10.n

Nalini Abhiraman lives in New York. Recently, she discovered that her inherited kitchenware was made by Paul Revere’s company. She has since then been known to yelp “The redcoats are coming!” when she tosses tomatoes into the sauté pan.
Published on May 7, 2007.
Photography: Vikram Tank for Nirali Magazine.
Comments are closed.
  1. May 7, 2007, 9:20 am Roxy

    Nalini – I LOVE the way you write! Your article made me want to run out to the grocery store and bring forth my own latent culinary genius! Here in Toronto where minorities make up 50% of the population, it is no trouble finding true ethnic ingredients. But I might play around with some unique flavours, just to make up some unusual recipes to hand down to my children.

  2. May 7, 2007, 12:29 pm janki

    beautifully written.

  3. May 9, 2007, 1:29 pm Meghan

    I agree with the other posters – you have a great style.

    I throughly enjoyed reading the article and thanks to you am now quite hungry.

    I’m always on the lookout for new dishes to try and I can’t wait to make the masoor daal!

  4. May 14, 2007, 12:35 pm samantha

    Great article — a poignant (and delicous!) Mother’s Day tribute.

  5. May 15, 2007, 9:20 am hammad

    Congratulations to your mother for rescuing that poor spinach from Piggly Wiggly! I can’t think of anything more upltifting than wilting leaves being redeemed by a benevolent Auntie.

  6. May 15, 2007, 10:47 am okatz

    This is a wonderful, touching article written expertly and sincerely. Great work!

  7. May 23, 2007, 9:20 am Annapoorni

    a thoughtful, affectionate acknowledgement; very well written too.

  8. May 25, 2007, 11:05 am Manjeet Chinnan

    Hey Nalini:

    Are you exploring your skills as a writer or as a chef? Probably both. Enjoyed reading the article. All the best.

    Manjeet uncle

  9. May 30, 2007, 10:15 pm Sangeetha Sugavanam

    Hi Nalini,
    I really enjoyed reading your article. It was beautifully written. Great Work!

    Sangeetha Sugavanam

  10. May 31, 2007, 6:41 pm Ganesh

    Hi Nalini,

    well written – made saras proud of you.


  11. January 12, 2008, 10:01 pm Anandhi Bharadwaj

    Hi Nalini,
    wonderfully written – the part about samaithu paar brought back a flood of memories – no self respecting tambram girl was allowed to leave the shores of chennai without her copies of the samaithu paar series carefully packed!

  12. January 13, 2008, 8:21 pm Karthik Nathan

    Hey Nalini,

    My mom (Anu aunty) forwarded me this article and I think it’s amazingly well written. Thanks for the recipes, I’ll need them when my mom kicks me out.