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The Perfect Recipe

January, 2008

My husband and I fell in love in the spring of 2004. We were taking quick cover from an outburst of afternoon rain on Devon Avenue in Chicago. It is ironic that we fell in love on this particular street. Devon Avenue mixes our heritages and demonstrates the inevitability of change in a fast-paced modern world. My father grew up on Devon when it was largely a Jewish Orthodox community. Today, most Jewish-owned businesses have been replaced by Indian-owned shops and restaurants.

spices

Whenever I go to Devon, I remember falling in love with my husband. I also feel strangely at home in one place where both of our cultures meet. This is where my husband introduced me to dosas, giant Indian style crepes filled with potatoes and exotic spices. In return for his introduction to the dosa, I took my husband to one of the few remaining Jewish-owned bakeries on the street. There, we buy mildly sweet mandel bread dipped in kosher chocolate by the pound. The spicy aftertaste of a delicious dosa swiftly fades with one bite into a chewy piece of mandel bread.

While we could not negotiate the uncontrollable nature of love, we could communicate through food. Food is an integral part of both Jewish and Nepali culture. For me, the thought of potato latkes frying in a pool of oil or a salty mound of gefilte fish accompanied by spicy red horseradish conjures up a million memories. For my husband, the sweet fragrance of Darjeeling tea brewing and fluffy white grains of basmati rice steaming does the same thing. We can only understand the depth and meaning of one another's memories by sharing the myriad tastes each of our cultures has to offer. Sharing these experiences also leads us to create new shared tastes and memories.

Shortly after I started dating my husband, he invited me over to his apartment. At the time, his roommate's mother was visiting from Bangladesh. She dutifully cooked each meal for my husband and his roommate every day. I remember how the smell of Indian cooking overwhelmed me as I walked to his apartment. It was pungent enough to transport me to the streets of India, where I imagined the sun hovering over millions of people all breathing in the mixture of turmeric, curry and pepper.

After an awkward introduction at his apartment, in which I felt like a foreigner, my eyes scanned the luxurious spread. There were multi-colored morsels of saffron briyani rice, tender bits of curry lamb, yellow dusted turmeric grilled chicken, soft naan bread the length of one of my outstretched arms, and stir-fried golden potatoes mixed with bits of black spices I had never seen or smelled before. Although daunting, I managed to finish everything on my plate. Afterward, we all went to a movie and I remember smelling a strong and distinctly Indian odor in our row at the theater. I felt strange to discover that it was me who smelled differently. Curry attacked every one of my pores, emerging for everyone around me to discover.

That evening marked the beginning of my journey to understand my husband and his culture. To impress him and to signal that I was serious about learning his culture, I bought the most important book of our relationship. It was not about the history of Nepal or a study of his language. It is a 1,000-page Indian/Nepalese cookbook. I was determined to master how to prepare the dishes that reminded him of home.

Learning how to cook Indian and Nepali food took a great amount of effort and a serious investment in spices. I made frequent trips to Devon Avenue to shop exclusively in Indian grocery stores. While I thought I was taking a journey to discover my husband, I also learned a great deal about myself. I had to adjust to a smell in my house that seemed foreign to my own upbringing. I also sacrificed some of the dishes I was raised with to prepare a new style of dishes for my husband. Yet, as I was discovering the sweet and sour essence of mango pickle relish on my basmati rice, my husband was traveling to the suburbs of Chicago to begin his own culinary journey.

As the autumn leaves fell during the first September of our relationship, he feasted on granny's matzah ball soup. It pleasantly warmed his stomach with comfort. Unfortunately, his taste buds rejected the tough texture of meaty brisket. He also found sweet noodle kugel to be an oddity as a side dish. He could only commit to eating it as a dessert. As the snow dusted the slippery streets of Chicago in December, he feasted on latkes, which were a little too heavily fried for his taste. As the flowers bloomed again in the spring, my husband sampled deli trays and Sunday morning lox and bagels. He, too, had learned to appreciate the tastes of another culture.

As I step off the slow elevator each night after work, I find myself impatient to reach the door to my apartment. As I fumble with my keys, my anticipation builds to see my husband and to begin our nightly cooking ritual. As I turn the round key to our apartment door, the fragrance of daal, a type of Indian/Nepali lentil soup, mysteriously mixes its exotic scent with the lonely hallway. Once safely inside our apartment, I lovingly marry white jasmine rice to a roasted chicken, the same kind of chicken that bubby, my great-grandmother, might have tenderly prepared.

While we both eat the same food, we have different ways of eating. My husband eats with his hands when we incorporate any Nepali food into our dinner. I often drink spicy chai, or milk tea, with dinner and he always drinks it afterward. He still eats his Jewish kugel as a dessert and I eat mine as a sweet side dish. We are able to successfully retain the customs and traditions we were raised with by layering the past with our current values: common understanding, mutual respect, and honor.

As our relationship has matured, so has our ability to be proud of who we are independently with an added appreciation of the unique entity we form together. Tolerance and acceptance are not unlike experimentation. While I love Jewish food, I am also inspired by mixing it with my husband's Nepalese dishes. Combining our cultures has shown me that change and new formations of ritual do not have to negate heritage or tradition. Sometimes, as in my case, the combination of different experiences equals the perfect recipe.

Yiddish for "stuffed fish," a patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. A popular dish on Passover, sometimes served on Shabbat and other holidays as well. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Yiddish for "grandmother." Yiddish word for a savory or sweet pudding made from either noodles, potatoes or matzah.
Heather Subba

Heather Subba lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children. She works in the field of educational publishing.

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