YADAHALLI, India — It is barely dawn in my home village and the cowherd has already brought fresh milk into the kitchen (cows and water buffalo are pastured in the surrounding forests). The cook, Umesh Madalgi, is preparing upit, a savory cream of wheat dish that we eat for breakfast, and three women are kneading millet dough for rotis, thin tortilla-like rounds that we have at lunch and dinner.
My fondest childhood memories are in this kitchen, filled with aromas of spices and smoke, a happy place where lighthearted banter, teasing, and innocuous gossip play out. As a child, I begged the women to teach me how to make rotis and they indulged me as I lagged hopelessly behind their quick hands patting lime-size balls of dough into rounds. Sitting cross-legged on small wooden stools with inch-high legs, they made about 100 a day.
I was raised in this 250-year-old house, 350 kilometers east of Goa on the Arabian Sea, where my family has lived for 18 generations. It belonged to my father’s parents, who continued to live here when my parents married. My father is a physician, wildlife photographer, and community leader, and he and my mother support many local social causes, including sanitation, conservation, and education.
When I was growing up, my mother and grandmother hardly stepped into the kitchen except to supervise the preparation of a special dish, particularly for guests. Umesh plans the daily menu, the women help him, and an errand boy is always available for last-minute runs to the market 2 miles away. It isn’t unusual for the cook to find he is missing something, like a spice, dried chiles, or the ingredients for a dish he decided to make at the last minute. The kitchen will decline very briefly into chaos if it is before a big party. Umesh, who is typically calm, instructs the young man to take his bicycle to the market “as fast as the wind.”
The large room is 31-by-13-feet, with 15-foot-high ceilings. Soot from constantly burning wood fires in three hearths has blackened 2-foot-thick white-washed walls. Eight windows close to the ceiling let the sunlight in and keep the heat out. At the far corner, a wooden staircase leads to a loft, where earthen pots and extra brass vessels are stored. A door with two shutters opens from the kitchen into a lush courtyard where jasmine, hibiscus, holy basil, and nerium grow, and a storeroom off the courtyard is used to house rice, flour, grains, jars of homemade pickles, and ghee, the clarified cow’s milk butter that is integral to our cooking.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that my family kitchen is the heart of the village. More than 50 meals are prepared and served daily — to family, household staff, and field hands. It is considered rude to not offer visitors a cup of tea, at the very least, and even vendors, who go door-to-door selling everything from fresh produce to glass bangles, are offered food. This is in stark contrast to my home in Newton, where I do all the planning, shopping, and cooking and I know exactly how many people will be at my table every day.
My village is in Karnataka State and its cuisine are loosely termed North Karnataka. The food is vegetarian and has been influenced by the dynasties that ruled here — the Muslim Sultanate of Bijapur who brought rich, spicy gravies, and the more recent Hindu Peshwas of Pune who added chutneys, roti, and sprouts.
A typical dinner might be a first course of two curries — whole mung bean, eggplant, cucumber, or wild greens — and roti, eaten with yogurt and an array of chutneys made with peanuts, flaxseed, green tomatoes, or raw mangoes. The second course is always plain rice and a thin lentil soup, called saar, and lime or mango pickle.
Unexpected, extended power outages make it impossible to rely on kitchen appliances. Lack of dependable refrigeration means that all fresh food comes in daily. Refrigerators are useless; I have seen them used to store pots and pans. Most cooks grind spices with a stone mortar and pestle. Our cooks go to market every week, returning home on a bus, laden with cloth bags filled with vegetables and fruit. Produce is stored in cane baskets in a cooler part of the kitchen. Produce that will go bad quickly, such as greens, is cooked early in the week. Other vegetables — eggplant, okra, and beans — are fine for four days; same with fruit. If lots of cooked food is uneaten, it is never stored, but rather given to the workers and neighbors.
On this drizzly monsoon mid-morning (it rains from June to September), Umesh is supervising preparations for lunch. I have arrived with my husband and children days before and we are all jet-lagged. I’m not up for company, so I ask him how many will be at what he has called our “small” party.
He replies in Kannada: “Forty to 50 guests.”
“A small party is six to eight,” I say.
One of the women laughs. “That isn’t a party at all,” she says. “In this house, we can feed six guests at any time.”
Today’s menu includes eggplant — picked from the black volcanic soil along the river bank below — which will be stuffed with a spice blend the women make (my husband dubbed it “Desai spices”). The eggplants are split with their stalks intact, stuffed, then cooked over the fire, which gives them a lovely smoky flavor. Another dish will be made from wild greens that taste like arugula, and are typically sauteed with onions, garlic, and chiles.
“Hurry up, there is a lot to do,” Umesh chides the women good-naturedly. He has been with us for over 40 years. Two of the women, Rangawwa Managuli and Shekawwa Kategeri, came shortly after I was born. Umawwa, in her late 30s, a childhood playmate of mine, is the daughter of Rangawwa, who lives with my parents; Shekawwa and Umawwa live nearby. I cannot imagine coming home without seeing them.
My 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter wander in with five local children looking for treats. Umesh gives each a banana and a laddoo, a doughnut-size ball of roasted flour, sugar, and ghee. It delights me that my children remember their friends a year later. There are so many places for them all to play and no one worries.
With the first course of eggplant and greens will come mung bean curry, rotis, yogurt, and several chutneys. The second course today is not the usual plain rice and lentil soup but a special rice dish, a fragrant pulao with cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, shredded carrots, and roasted cashews, eaten with cold coconut soup (the cooks begin with coconuts from our trees, and to my great disappointment, the soup isn’t the same with canned milk). Dessert is a fruit salad with freshly picked mangoes mixed with sweet lime and pomegranate seeds. There is also kheer, a thick, sweet soup made by simmering cow’s milk for an hour with cardamom and saffron and garnishing it with pistachios and raisins.
A little after noon, guests arrive and two large tables in the living room are covered with the feast. My children are picked up, kissed, passed from one set of hands to the next, one lap to the next. Umesh announces lunch and we all serve ourselves. Some guests eat with their fingers and some with a spoon, sitting on chairs and sofas, or on jute mats.
An aunt tears off a piece of roti and uses it to pick up some curry and feed my daughter. I never do this at home, but feeding a child here is an act of love and tenderness and I don’t protest.
After the last guests leave, I thank Umesh for a wonderful meal. Over the years, he has shared many recipes with me, but no dish I make tastes like his. I tell him this and he laughs.
“Take me to America with you,” he says. “And you can have a party every week.
“Every day if you like.”