Bombay has no real winter to speak of. It juts into the Arabian Sea, bent-over palm trees line its seafront, and in the cooler months, the temperature rarely dips below 66 F.
My family has lived in Bombay for three generations now; the last people to grow up outside of the city were my great-grandparents. They came from Gujarat, a dusty, arid state on India’s west coast, and they brought their food and traditions with them. They lived in communal tenements in inner city Bombay and ate the sweet, spice-laden food that their state has since become famous for. In Gujarat, they had real seasons. In the searingly hot summer, they cooked gourds and sucked on mangoes; in cold, dry winter, they slow-roasted root vegetables, yams and leafy greens.
Last fall, when the New York sky began to darken and the leaves brightened, I thought of everything I’d left behind in Bombay.
Over the years, we’ve forgotten some rituals and tried to hold on to others. I remember my grandmother simulating her ancestral winter by making undhiyu, whose name means, in Gujarati, that-which-has-been-turned-upside-down. She would layer yams, bananas, beans and dumplings in a mud pot, turning it over onto the fire. In Bombay, where winter afternoons mean blazing sun and baby blue sky, undhiyu signifies an upending of another kind—eating wintry foods in perpetual summer to remind you of everything you’ve left behind. We gathered—sometimes 20 of us, sometimes 30—at an aunt or uncle’s home, celebrating a winter that we’d experienced only as passed-down memory.
Last fall, when the New York sky began to darken and the leaves brightened, I thought of everything I’d left behind in Bombay. Diwali, the festival of lights, threatened to pass by unnoticed, just like Holi, the festival of color, had in the spring. I found hundreds of Halloween pumpkins at my local grocery but what I really wanted were the heart-shaped taro leaves that my grandmother used to make patra, another dish of our winters. Patra—taro leaves cooked with sweetened chickpea batter—is a staple on my family’s table during the months of November and December, mild and moist, just like the weather outside.
Taro leaves are beloved in India, and also in the Philippines, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. But in the States, they suffer from a PR problem. Jeffrey Steingarten, the respected food writer, once wrote of them, “uncooked taro leaves are little more than hideous, microscopic, poison-creation-and-delivery systems.” To make patra, I needed to find fresh taro leaves but my search was frustrated by dead-ends.
I was making spirals of another kind, but the fiery amber sky seemed fitting.
A Filipino chef who serves them said, vaguely, “We get them from somewhere in Jersey.” The receptionist of an Indian restaurant in the Village sheepishly admitted that they used the frozen variety. Online forums led me to Caribbean stores with no exact address. My last hope was Patel Brothers grocery, in Jackson Heights, Queens.
A phone call later – taro leaves confirmed – I was on the 7 train heading east. A sprawling store on 74th Street—renamed Kalpana Chawla Way after a heroic Indian astronaut—Patel Brothers is a something of a mecca for Indian immigrants on the East Coast. Its 10 aisles are stocked with everything a person torn from the motherland might need. You can find, among other things, two kinds of Indian toothpaste, Indian mosquito repellant, 21 different Indian lentils, innumerable stacks of frozen meals, four dozen spices and five types of pappadums.
Being a South Asian in the United States can be unsettling. There are so few of us that I can sometimes go days without seeing another coffee-colored face, but there are also just enough that in certain pockets of the country, we become the colonizers instead of the colonizee. Jackson Heights is such a neighborhood. Just outside the subway stop, there is a six-lane intersecting grid packed with subcontinental restaurants, groceries, jewelry and garment shops and DVD rental libraries. In Jackson Heights, I experience the shock of familiarity. Here, people speak my language and share my melanin count. Bollywood songs fill the streets, and animal-headed gods line store shelves. But, somehow, on that trip for taro leaves, this imitation of home made me lonelier than ever. The loud music and bright colors felt almost like a mockery—a poor substitute for the ceaseless sensual assault that is India. I felt a fear: I could cook all the taro leaves I wanted, but perhaps they would taste, too, like a pale approximation of my childhood.
We gathered, celebrating a winter that we’d experienced only as passed-down memory.
Back home, after having purchased 12 giant taro leaves, I began preparing the batter, a combination of chickpea, tamarind, spices and jaggery sugar. My mother and grandmother had given me an approximate recipe, but the Internet was proving to be a better guide.
I was alone at home and the sky outside was an autumnal orange. I used my fingers to spread the batter on the leaves before they are layered, rolled and steamed. With each long, languid stroke, I thought about all the women in my family who had toiled over taro leaves like this. I remembered that it was Dussehra, the first day of Diwali, the day that the god Ram killed the demon Ravana and rescued his wife. In India, people would gather in open fields and cheer as a giant effigy of a mustachioed, red-faced Ravana bursts into flames. Then, we would eat jalebis, sweet yellow coils of deep-fried batter soaked in sugar syrup. I was making spirals of another kind, but the fiery amber sky seemed fitting.
Two hours and a few missteps later, I took off the lid of pressure cooker and saw success. Miraculously, the rolls looked much like they did when my grandmother made them. After letting them cool, I cut each roll into quarter-inch pieces and fried the resulting pancakes with mustard seeds.
That night, my husband and I celebrated our own Manhattan Dussehra. I cheered for the reclamation of my history.
I realize now, though, that if I still lived in India, I probably wouldn’t have learned how to make patra. Instead, I’d be learning how to make pasta at a fancy Italian cooking class. I had to travel 7,809 miles to recreate something that has always existed in my family.
I had to travel 7,809 miles to recreate something that has always existed in my family.
Back in India, my friends don’t care about their ancestral foods. As we inch toward our collective dream of economic superpowerdom, we are globalized individuals who are as comfortable in Prague as in Pune. We’d rather be acquainted with gnocchi than with gathiya. We forsake our pasts for a bright new future.
But, for me, being away from India, there was the sudden recognition of an identity I’d always taken for granted. Indian. Gujarati. This is not a new experience, this immigrant desire to repossess roots that you are now physically divorced from, this inexplicable delight in replicating the recipes of your old home. That’s why Indians living abroad are often more Indian than the Indians living in India. It’s a recursion—the further you live from India, the closer you become to an idealized Indian. It’s the reason my grandparents ate undhiyu in the Bombay heat. When I made patra on a burnished fall evening in New York, I closed the circle.