Updated: Dec 18, 2018
Indira's father Ramaswami loved wholesome, comforting food. That's why Pongal, a South Indian dish with the perfect combination of carbohydrate, fat, protein, and spice (along with a healthy serving of ghee, of course) was the perfect dish to cook in honor of him.
Indira is a phenomenal cook. I have had the honor of indulging in her dishes since I became friends with her daughter, Sharanya, in 8th grade. Indira has always welcomed me into her home with warmth and kindness, and I have never left hungry. In fact, she keeps a large drawer of to-go containers, specifically for guests to take her dishes home. (I know I'm set for the week if I have dinner at her house) Cooking aside, her compassion and understanding comforted me when my mother passed, and I will always be thankful to her for that.
Indira shares these traits with her father, Ramaswami, who passed away two years ago. His welcoming nature and love of hosting company inspires her own sense of hospitality for those she loves.
CFSYL: Can you tell me about the dish you prepared?
IK: The dish I made is called Pongal. It's a very special dish made during a festival season in India in January that celebrates our harvest; we have warm season in South India, so we actually have a harvest season in January. We grow certain crops during the winter months, and rice is one of the staples that we grow in India. We harvest it in January and we celebrate the harvest of the rice, and then we worship our cow, because the cow used to help us plow the fields before we got machinery. It’s a very sacred animal to us, so we celebrate it during Sankaranthi. Pongal is essentially made at that time because we get the harvest of rice, the lentils, so you make the porridge out of the rice and lentils, and you flavor it with ghee, which is just clarified butter, and then you put cumin, black pepper, and curry leaves to flavor it.
CFSYL: And who are you cooking in honor of?
IK: This is an honor of my dad who passed away a couple of years ago. He was very healthy eater and was 90 when he passed away. Pongal is a very wholesome food; it's got the carbohydrates from the rice, the protein from the lentils, the fat from the ghee, and the seasoning; the black pepper and the cumin help with digestion, and so do the curry leaves. So we give pongal to kids when they're young because you don't need anything else- it's a meal by itself. It has the combination of all the main ingredients- and then you add the nuts, cashew nuts, or peanuts, but you add the nuts to give it a crunchy flavor and good fat.
A lot of things that we make have history behind it, and we try to make most of the things wholesome. My father always loved ghee. Looking at him you wouldn’t know, he was only 127 pounds, but he loved ghee. In India it’s very good for digestion, and it’s a good fat if you clarify the butter. It helps soothe stomach ulcers and it's actually very good for overall health. Its great for kids, and even after pregnancy when you're recovering from your delivery, people give you a lot of ghee because it heals. My dad just loved the flavor of ghee and this was one of his favorite dishes because the more ghee you put in the pongal, it becomes more aromatic.
CFSYL: Can you share some more about your father?
IK: I'm the youngest of three children for my mom and dad, and I came four years after my brothers and my sister, so my dad always had a fondness for me because I was always the baby of the family, no matter what age I was. He always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do. He traveled all the world over because he worked for the Indian telecommunications industry; he worked for several companies, he partnered with the AT&T, Bell Labs, and he came to the US quite a bit, among traveling to other countries like Australia and UK. He always said you have to expand your horizon; you got to go see places and see how other people live, what they do. He always encouraged all my siblings to go try things out. My brother lived in Egypt for a couple of years.
He was very proud of our home. When visitors came to India from United States or Australia, he didn't mind that our house was small, (we lived in Mumbai, which is like Manhattan), we had one bedroom, the living room and the kitchen, but he didn't care, he said that's what we have. He brought visitors home, he said we're their home away from home. He believed that just as we are curious about other peoples culture, he wanted them to know how we live and how our culture truly is. He believed in showing them that this is how we are, and they (the visitors) always came home and enjoyed a home cooked meal by my mom, who is a wonderful cook. He was really proud of India and Indian culture and he wanted to share that as much as possible.
He was very disciplined, he wrote down everything, he had a list for everything, and every day he wrote a diary. My mom said he would actually remind her about upcoming birthdays, and in the beginning of the year he would write down everybody's dates. He would always send a birthday card with a handwritten note, right up to two years before he passed. He didn’t just email or texted, he still did the old-fashioned way of writing a card, writing a message in his handwriting. He was the most caring person and both my parents are absolutely wonderful and I thank them every day that they were our parents.
Speaking of trying new things, he learned driving at the age of 62 in British Virgin Islands which has three mountains, so he had to learn in a stick shift car, but the car would roll back. (laughs) But he rose to the challenge! He learned golf at the age of 62 too, so he could enjoy his stay at the island. He always wanted to try new things and nothing was beyond him. He was an avid reader and loved books, my sister’s taken after that. He was a person who always expanded his knowledge no matter what source it came from. We’ve taken some of that and try to incorporate it into ourselves and our children.
CFSYL: From what I know about you, I feel you definitely embody some of your father's characteristics; when you talked about him welcoming people in his home, you do that, and that's beautiful to be able to take on the traits that you admire in your parents
IK: Thank you, I am lucky to have that trait. My mother is also very caring and giving. We always kid that we only got 10% of their traits, but that's one thing that we are very proud of. We don't think twice about doing it [welcoming people into our home], but we just we know that we love people like he did. If he had the money to give, he would give, no matter what his circumstances were. He helped a lot of family members build their homes and support their education. It was a big deal for him.
CFSYL: That’s beautiful. So you talked a little bit about you know you chose pongal because it had everything, all of the nutritional and energy needs. Is this particularly why it reminds you of him or is there anything else tied to it?
IK: My dad enjoyed wholesome food, and that’s what always reminded me of him. He actually loved pizza (laughs) with all of the vegetables on it. He would love to make pizza in India when I went there. So anything that's wholesome and has a lot of ingredients in it to bring it all together. That's kind of why I picked this dish, because again it's healthy, and that's what he liked, also the sauce that goes with it, the tamarind and vegetables sauce, is very flavorful and just reminded me of my dad. He was a great guy and was loved by everyone.
CFSYL: You mentioned earlier that you cook every day, so why do you, personally, cook?
IK: I really believe in healthy eating and I love cooking because it's a distraction for me, it’s stress relief, enjoying how everyone enjoys the final product! My kids cook too, and they are great cooks. Bringing all of it together, in food, it’s a God-given gift, it's nature. It's just nice to spend a little bit of time and bring healthy dishes together. When people enjoy what you cook, you take joy in their joy. One of the things I look for is when people eat my food that they really like it and enjoy it, that brings contentment. Cooking is working with nature, and it’s amazing what nature can produce.
My mom loved cooking and so did my grandma, and I still ask my mom for recipes even now. So some of it is that hereditary trait, but for me cooking is just wonderful. When my kids were young, even when I came back from work at 5:30 in the evening, tired, I would still make fresh food for them. I just think that you have energy when you eat fresh food, and you're not lethargic. The kids deserve good food, fresh food. It’s not a lot of effort if you do it right but the benefits are amazing. When I came to this country I didn't know any of the cuisine but developed an interest in all of the cuisines. So we incorporate variety in our cooking, and it brings our family together now. When the kids were young it was different, but now during Thanksgiving and many of our Indian Festivals, we’ll actually all cook together. So I think that’s another way of having everybody around you, a family bonding time.
CFSYL: If someone wanted to show you that they loved you what would they cook for you?
IK: Couple of things; I would say I love a good pizza now, but I did not like pizza when it came to this country, because cheese was not very common in India in the 80’s. I finally acquired a taste for it...and now, I enjoy it! (laughs). I also like Indian snacks, like the samosas, bhel puri, which is made from puffed rice, and those kind of things. I like certain rice based dishes, and but I am a more snack-y kind of person (laughs).
CFSYL: So, the key to your heart is snacks?
IK: (laughs) Yes!