First came the onions. I peeled, sliced and fried them all morning long--mounds of onions filling three large aluminum stockpots. I sprinkled in some spices--sparsely--and stirred. Then I took three shrimp, sliced them up the middle, laid them on a plate and ladled the onion mixture on top. I announced to a waiter: “Ebi no kare.” Shrimp curry.
Voila: With a half-day’s training, I had become a chef at an Indian restaurant in Tokyo.
I had never cooked in my life except on camping trips. And yet here I was, in the world’s most bustling city, churning out shrimp curry, chicken and mutton curry, eggplant curry, fish curry, pumpkin curry, not to mention several side dishes.
The restaurant where I worked was called Indoya, meaning “India Shop” in Japanese. It was located in a small lane in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s busiest commercial districts. Indoya’s staff was pulled to its kitchen by the mighty Japanese yen--this was in 1993, when it was a lot stronger than it is today.
All of us were illegal workers from South Asia. I was an oddball: an undercover journalist from India interested in the lives of such workers. Actually, maybe I wasn’t such an oddball. Tahir, a Pakistani, came to the restaurant from a nickel factory. Musa, a Burmese, was a former tanner. None of us had worked in a kitchen before.
I started out washing dishes. One day, one of the chefs quit. Javed, the restaurant’s Pakistani manager, asked me if I’d take the chef’s job. I said I couldn’t: I didn’t know how to cook. Javed laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. “All you need is humility and guts to be successful in Japan,” he said. Minutes later, I found myself in the kitchen, clad in the special chef’s apron.
My day began with onion duty. After peeling and slicing a small mountain of onions, I stirred them in stockpots over a high flame for 90 minutes without burning. The implement used was a paddle large enough to propel a canoe. Grabbing the paddle with both hands, I attacked the onions, squashing and smashing them until they had lost some of their fight.
Then I added oil, tomatoes, ginger, garlic cloves and some classical spices. Then the grunting and squashing and pulping resumed until all that was left of the onions was what Indians call a masala, the culinary equivalent of “sauce” in Europe, and the secret behind many a dish.
To my great surprise, making masala every morning eventually ignited in me a love for cooking. There are few things I enjoy more than mashing onions on a grinding stone and stirring them in a frying pan with a dollop of homemade clarified butter. Curious as it might sound, I get a deep, almost therapeutic satisfaction from frying onions until they turn a soft, golden-brown, like the color of autumn leaves. The lower the heat, the more delicious the onions--and, therefore, the more appetizing the dish they’re meant for. By far the tastiest onions in the world--and I challenge anyone to prove otherwise--are those allowed to gently simmer in an earthenware pot placed atop dying embers of wood.
Since my Indoya days, I have come to see myself as something of an amateur masalchi, or masala-maker. There’s more to that than meets the eye. Just as good winemakers know their grapes or cheese makers their milk and cultures, a good Indian cook must literally know his onions.
This aggravating vegetable, however, is not easy to master, especially in large quantities. At Indoya, I dealt with 25 pounds of onions every day. Although they were cut in a cabbage-slicing machine, the onions still had to be peeled manually beforehand with a knife. This caused rivers of tears to flow from my eyes, forcing me to stop work every five or 10 minutes.
Javed rescued me from my daily distress by teaching me what he called the “potato trick.” It involves peeling or slicing onions barefoot with an inch-thick slice of raw potato pressed directly under one or both of the big toes. At first I thought this was some kind of perverse subcontinental joke or a superstition. I was mistaken. I don’t know whether the effect is at least partly psychological, but the potato trick certainly saved me and my co-workers a lot of tears. I heartily recommend it to anyone who has mountains of onions to peel or cut.
Another tearless onion-chopping technique: Take a whole peeled onion and start slicing it from the root end. Believe it or not, no matter how close your eyes may be to the cutting board, not a tear will flow.
Even at this low level of cooking, I was making people happy. You could read it on the faces of Tokyo’s artists, musicians and office workers who came to Indoya to eat on a budget. When my visa expired after the usual three months, I returned to India with plenty of journalistic material, not to mention a tidy sum of money I had made working 13-hour days. But I also returned with something much more important and enduring: a sense of pride in cooking.
Not many men in India cook, and in families with a martial tradition, such as the one I come from, only womenfolk and servants visit the kitchen. My family and friends, for example, considered my job in Tokyo ignominious. So they were a bit shocked to note that I had developed an interest in cooking.
I began paying close attention to the food being cooked at my home in New Delhi and in the streets. On journalistic assignments in other cities, I made it a point to track down local delicacies--chana pindi (chickpea curry) from Amritsar, sarson ka saag (spicy spinach-mustard) from Bikaner, malai kofta (vegetable dumplings in a creamy sauce) from Lucknow. Since most Indian cities offer something unique to eat, hunting for famous foods was seldom a problem. The problem was cajoling cooks and street vendors to part with their recipes, which are often unrecorded, closely guarded secrets passed down through generations by word of mouth.
Sometimes, I got lucky. A few years ago, during a visit to the city of Ranchi in Bihar, a largely rural eastern state comparable to Texas, I visited a father-and-son duo known for making an obscure local dish called littay. Made of baked whole-wheat dough stuffed with spicy potatoes, this butter-soaked patty-like concoction is one of the earthiest of Indian foods. It was night, and a long queue of customers waited patiently for what was clearly their dinner. People stood around the vendors’ pushcart, delightedly eating off paper plates.
After devouring several of the patties, which were served with a tangy, tomato-based sauce, I complimented the vendor. Then I asked him how he made the delicious dish. When he refused to divulge details, I told him a story I had read in the newspaper a year or two earlier. Evidently, then-President Bill Clinton, on a tour of the Midwestern U.S., had relished a dish of littay at a hotel where he was staying.
The vendor was astounded by the news (as was I), because few people outside his state have heard of littay, let alone tasted it. He was pleased to hear that the most powerful man on earth partook of the humble littay. I came away with a full recipe.
Over the years, I have collected recipes from an array of expert cooks, including not a few relatives and the mothers of friends. By constantly trying out some of the recipes, initially in India and later in Hong Kong, where my journalism career took me, I have been able to cook well enough to invite people to savor mouth-watering dishes at home. My experiments never cease to amuse my Chinese American wife. Once, she walked into the kitchen to find me standing in front of the gas stove, four large, deep-purple eggplants roasting on the burners. How else was I supposed to begin baigan ka bhartha?
A year ago I settled in Los Angeles, my wife’s hometown. Her large family has an insatiable collective appetite for curries, which gives me many opportunities to try out my hand at the different recipes in my notebook. Whenever my wife and I stay with friends, we repay their hospitality by cooking Indian food for them, which they love. My mattar paneer (cheese-and-peas) and baigan ka bhartha (roasted eggplant) could give any restaurant in L.A. a run for its money.
And I can confidently say that you will not find anything in town like my arhar ki daal (yellow lentil curry)--a simple, relatively cheap, high-protein staple that restaurants outside India notoriously and inexplicably treat with disdain.