Food & dining

She reconstructs the tastes of an Indian childhood

Rukmini Srinivas, 88, can re-create dishes from her childhood.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Rukmini Srinivas, 88, can re-create dishes from her childhood.

ARLINGTON — Rukmini Srinivas, 88, is an instinctive cook. She can recall a dish from her childhood and re-create it seven decades later almost to the letter.

To that end, the India-born former geography professor and author of “Tiffin: Memories and Recipes of Indian Vegetarian Food,” offers the light afternoon snack dishes along with anecdotes about her own mother and the family she left behind when she moved to Arlington more than a dozen years ago to be closer to her daughters.

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After her husband passed away, Srinivas came here and alternates between daughters Lakshmi, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and her sister, Tulasi, an anthropologist at Emerson College, who live within walking distance.

Standing in a checked blue, maroon, and green sari in the kitchen of the house where Tulasi and her husband, Popsi Narasimhan, live, Srinivas begins a snack called mysore pak, an Indian-style fudge that uses ghee. To make it, she melts butter in a small saucepan. “The ghee is done when the popping stops,” she explains, then she strains the frothing butter into a bowl, leaving the impurities in the pan. She is a natural teacher, who taught at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education for years and also hosted a cooking show on an Arlington television channel.

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Then she heats water with sugar, adds chickpea flour and ghee slowly, a generous amount of almond powder (which is really just ground almonds), and a dash of cardamom. She lets the mixture bubble “like lava,” then pours it into a shallow pan and sprinkles it with crushed saffron threads. “In India we leave the windows open and let the breeze cool things,” Srinivas says, reluctantly turning on a switch. “We don’t use fans.”

Tulasi’s house doesn’t feel different from a bustling Indian household. The air is heavy with the aromas of coriander, cumin, chiles, and curry leaves. In the background is the constant chatter of two parrots — Carnie, an African grey, and Monster, a green-cheeked conure. “They say, ‘Good morning gwanny,’ when I wake up,” Srinivas says. “They sing while I cook and say, ‘What’s cooking? Let’s go cooking.’ ”

There were no parrots in Srinivas’s childhood home. In her British-accented English, a legacy of the convent schools she attended, she explains that hers was a “gypsy family,” moving all over India as her government-employed father assumed different posts. As a result, she and her seven sisters and brother were exposed to 30-plus regional Indian cuisines.

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Her parents were more focused on getting their daughters an education, so the girls weren’t schooled in household matters like others at the time. She taught herself to cook after she married and realized she had a talent for it. That and her love of geography came together in “Tiffin.”

Her mother, says Tulasi, “can deconstruct a dish into its ingredients and reconstruct it.”

“I don’t use cups and measurements,” Srinivas says. “Indian recipes are never the written word. They are all in the head.”

The book began more than 20 years ago when Srinivas’s daughters came to the United States for college. Srinivas would send them recipes for quick tiffin dishes and, with each, a story, like how her mother made sticky coconut toffee for Diwali, and that an uncle in rural India cooked the best masala vadai, the spicy lentil fritters, she ever had. At her daughters’ urging, she turned the letters into the book, told against the backdrop of a constantly changing India.

Srinivas’s second tiffin dish is a steamed, savory chickpea flour cake called khaman dhokla, made with a batter of flour, turmeric, chile powder, and ginger paste. As she works, you can hear a single gold bangle knocking against the bowl, making a tinkle sound.

“Now, this step you have to be really quick,” she instructs, adding a teaspoon of Eno Fruit Salt, a mixture of baking soda and citric acid that many Indian cooks use to lighten baked goods. “See how the salt makes the batter fluffy and bleaches the yellow of the batter?”

The batter is cooked for five minutes in a flat, circular, steel stainless dish that goes into a large, covered makeshift steamer. Srinivas, not bothering with pot holders, lifts out the dish and turns it upside down. She taps its hot bottom until a spongy, yellow cake flops out. For the final touch, she covers it with freshly grated coconut and a mixture of spices and curry leaves tempered in hot oil.

As she cuts the cake into squares, a parrot in the background asks, “What’s cooking?” and everyone in the room bursts out laughing.

Sena Desai Gopal can be reached at sena_desai@yahoo.com.
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