Dinner: Success

April 21st, 2013

Country/Day:        India/76

Bikes Fixed:                  93

Bikes/Day Avg:               1.22

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I might try and do two blog posts today… we’ll see whether or not I can resist the urge to practice accordion all day instead. At the least, will have another one up on Tuesday (I’ve had a request).

In other news, before I begin, I did hit (and pass) the big 90! So India is dun. Time to party! Okay, not really. I’ve still got two more weeks of bike fixing glory. But it’s nice to have reached my goal.

– – –

So, down to business.

I’m a thank-you kind of guy. When someone does something nice, I say “thanks!” I mean, I am grateful, after all. This got me into trouble because Indians aren’t really “thank-you” people. It’s not that they’re not grateful, it’s just that they don’t always say it (note to my Indian friends: This isn’t a bad thing. Just stating facts). So the first few days I was here I always said “thank you for dinner,” etc. After a while my host, Prabhat, sat me down and said I didn’t need to say that anymore.

Anyways, I still wanted to do some sort of favor for these folks, so I decided to cook them dinner. This wasn’t an arbitrary decision or anything, I’m actually a pretty good chef, and I tend to think that good food is a great way to show appreciation. I figured they have Indian food every night, so I might spice things up a little (or not, the food here is already pretty spicy) and cook “American.”

In India it is common to have housekeeping. Minimum wage is $3/day, so it’s probably common because it’s affordable. Note: I’m not sure what housekeeping rates are — probably higher than $3/day. But even at two or three times that rate it’s still “affordable” compared to minimum wage in the States (about $8/hr); most housekeeping services charge at least $20/hr, I think. So in addition to myself, Prabhat, his wife Ambika, his son Nishith, and Prabhat’s parents living here, there’s also five housekeepers (three men, two of their wives) and they have four children between them. I set it upon myself to thank the housekeeping as well, meaning I was cooking for at least 15.

Nishith thought I should cook for the guard. I didn’t think I could portion anything in exact amounts over 10, so I just decided to cook “a lot.” In most cases this meant tripling the recipe.

The point is, I decided to cook dinner for 16 people.

– – –

I promised this dinner about a month ago but people were always out of town or busy (myself included), so it had been a long time in the making. This means I had a lot of time and advice to use in deciding what to make. When yesterday came around I had decided on a Greek salad, Mexican enchiladas with homemade corn tortillas, and apple pie for dessert.

“Wait! That’s not American!” you say (conceding the pie). You’re right… maybe. In my opinion, the only things that are really “American” are things like steak, hamburgers, french fries, etc. Most of our potato dishes are Irish, most of our pasta dishes are Italian, etc. Even most of our Southern dishes have heavy African influences. So when I say I wanted to cook “American,” I just mean “things that are commonly made in America” (and if you’re being proper, Mexico is in America… not the United States… but still. Linguistics, man).

So anyways, I spent Saturday morning finding recipes (to my dismay, my sister’s Cook’s Illustrated account had expired). I usually improv most of my dishes, but hadn’t cooked in a while, and didn’t want to be too adventurous on my first effort at impressing my host family. After finding recipes, I had to convert all the measurements from pounds to kilograms. Everything else (cups, tablespoons, etc) is the same here. Oh… except Fahrenheit. The ovens are in Celsius. So before putting the pies in I had to get Ambika to do some conversions for me on her phone (thanks!).

– – –

After doing the conversions I went to the grocery store. Nishith, for some reason, had enlisted himself to help me. I’m not complaining — he was instrumental in my (our?) success — but he ended up spending as much time as I did at the grocery story, and in the kitchen. So I want to shout out to him and thank him for his help!

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You’re awesome, buddy.

Anyways, the grocery store trip was surprisingly standard, and they had almost everything I needed. There was confusion in some cases. For instance, nobody knew what cilantro was, and Nishith didn’t know the Hindi word for it, so we were unable to find it (fortunately, Ambika had some in her pantry). Also, the Greek salad called for black-eyed peas, which are actually beans. The grocer took us to the dried pea section before I suggested they might be with the canned beans. And indeed, there on the can it said “Black-Eyed Beans.” Weird (but admittedly correct).

The only think I didn’t find enjoyable was some of the prices. I wanted to cook an “authentic” apple pie, which meant using Granny Smith apples. I was disappointed to find that the grocery store didn’t care too much about what kind of apples they sold — just about the color. “Red Apples” and “Green Apples” were all you could get (while I was disappointed, I wasn’t surprised; apples aren’t really a thing here).

Anyways, the green apples were imported from the US. I was really happy to see a little “USA” sticker on them. This also meant they were horrendously expensive — Rs 375/kg, or about $15/lb (compared to maybe a few dollars a pound in the States). By far they were the most expensive purchase, as I needed 7 lbs for the three pies I was making.

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U.S.A! U.S.A!

The cheese was also expensive, at about Rs. 550 ($10) for a standard size brick. The cheddar was good; I was skeptical about the feta, which didn’t crumble but had to be cubed. In the end it tasted okay though.

After a few questions one of the grocers just took our basket and guided us through the store. This is pretty common, I think — remember, labor is cheap! And there were about 15 grocers on duty in a fairly small size store — it was maybe only 8000 sq. ft. compared to the 30000 of a US store (these are guesstimates). Anyways, partway through I asked Nishith if it would be customary to tip him, to which Nishith concurred. He said about Rs 100 ($2) would be fine, but Ambika later corrected him to Rs. 10 ($0.20). I was told numerous times before coming to India that even Rs 50 ($1) was a monstrous tip, so I knew Nishith was kidding me (Ambika said her son was “being a true Indian, milking the clueles tourist for all he was worth.” Thanks…).

After we checked out our grocer tried to leave, but I waved him over with the intent of tipping him. He took it to mean we wanted help out, which I didn’t complain about. After getting to the car, I gave him 150 ($3). He smiled a huge smile, shook my hand, said “Thank you so much,” and stood and waited for me to tell him I was kidding. I wasn’t. I mean, for one of my only Indian grocery trips, and one of my only chances to tip a grocer (it’s uncommon to do so in the States), I was okay with being a little generous. I also figured $3 wasn’t a lot to me, and it would be a lot to him. Recall minimum wage is $3 per day.

– – –

Another thing I needed was corn flour, for the tortillas. I forgot to grab this at the grocery store, so went to a corner mart. The guy handed me a small box, about 1″x4″x6″, that said “Cornflour. Great for soups.” I was skeptical, so called Ambika and asked her what she used corn flour for. “Soups,” she said. “It makes them nice and thick.”

“So you wouldn’t, like, make bread with it?”

“No, no. I would use flour to make bread.”

“But this is flour.”

“Well right, but I wouldn’t use it to make bread.”

“Okay, so what would you use if you wanted to make cornbread?”

(pause) “I would use corn flour.”

As I was talking to Ambika on the phone I was reading the box of “Cornflour.” My eyes finally reached the ingredients, which read: “Maize starch.” Aha! I explained to Ambika I didn’t want starch, but flour, “like, milled corn.” She went,

“Oh. Well, we have that.”

And so I went home.

Man, those would have been some weird tortillas.

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“Luke… am your father.”

(nooooooooo)

– – –

All confusion aside, Nishith and I got started around 4:30. I peeled 16 apples and took frequent breaks to give him advice on tortilla making. He said it would help if he knew what a tortilla was, so I told him they were “Mexican roti.” Anyways, he had never made them before, nor had he ever made any kind of dough, so I had a lot of teaching to do. It was a great experience though, and we had a lot of fun.

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There is no dough.

Just after we got started, one of the housekeeping decided to camp out in the kitchen and do our dishes for us. I tried to explain to her it was my night to cook, but she wouldn’t have any of it (or she didn’t understand me). I asked Nishith to tell her, but she wouldn’t have any of that, either. Desperate, I went and got Ambika, who said “[Hindi hindi hindi hindi],” and the dishes stopped being cleaned. I was relieved. I mean, I like people to do my dishes as much as the next guy, but it seemed like a half-hearted “thank you” not to do the bulk of the work.

Ambika also frequently came in and observed. At first she tried to help, but I was all like “Nope, your job is to not do anything,” and then she just took pictures and asked questions. Not intimidating questions, just like, “Why do you use frozen butter to make pie crust?” and “Do American girls like it when you cook for them?” She also frequently stated how happy she was I was using her fancy equipment. For instance, she had some practically brand new hot pads which nobody ever uses for some reason, and was happy they were getting used. And she was excited to find a new use for nutmeg, among other things (nutmeg went in the pie).

Anyways, we got the dough made and separated. Then we got them all the same size using merge sort.

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Computer science: Coming to a kitchen near you.

We then had to press the dough. Nishith wasn’t tall enough to get his weight over the skillet, so he would get each dough ball set up, then call me over to press. For the rest of the night I hopped between whatever I was doing, pressing tortillas, and cooking them. Cooking only takes about 30 seconds per side, so I was doing a lot of hopping. Luckily, the multitasking side of me wasn’t rusty.

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And Nishith was like, “Yea man, this is so easy.”

For the most part things went according to plan. I won’t bore you with the logistics (though I did spend a good ten minutes figuring how to bake three pies, bake two dishes of enchiladas, make two salads, and have everything be ready at the same time… with a microwave-size oven). At some point during the night I was quadri-tasking: Pressing tortillas, cooking them, cooking the filling for the enchiladas, and filling the pies.

Dinner is typically served at 8:30 or 9 in India, and thank goodness! Around 8:15 I explained the TV show Top Chef to Nishith, which led to periodic shouts of “15 minutes left on this episode of Top Chef! He’s stirring the onions! Will they be done in time?”

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These smiles brought to you by the delirium of cooking on the clock.

Anyways, Nishith finished the tortillas and started cutting the two pounds of spinach necessary for the salad (did I mention I couldn’t have finished on time without him?). I finished prepping the enchiladas and popped them in the oven, then helped him finish the salad, and (finally!) we served dinner around 8:50.

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I’m happy to say it was well received. I wasn’t expecting them to love it, since it was something new, but everybody said it was great, and it all disappeared… so, you know, awesome. About halfway through Ambika started asking me if I had recipes for some other things… they had recently harvested a pumpkin, for instance, and did I know any pumpkin recipes? Or, when winter rolls around, what’s the best thing to do with all those sweet potatoes? They had had pancakes once when visiting the States, did I know how to make those?

At some point during the night I thanked Ambika for letting me use her kitchen, because I know that mothers can be possessive over their kitchens. She just said, “Actually, I’m already planning what you’ll cook next time.” So I was pretty happy with myself.

In addition, the housekeeping was all smiles, and one of them told Ambika he was enjoying taking it easy.

Anyways, after dinner we put on some Frank Sinatra and did the dishes. Ambika and I had some iced Bailey’s to celebrate (she was celebrating someone else doing the cooking and the dishes). Then around 11:30, we crashed.

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Good day. And thanks again, Nishith.

3 thoughts on “Dinner: Success

  1. Marilyn says:

    Congratulations on a wonderful dinner to you and Nishith! What a wonderful thing to do for your hosts and their housekeepers. Something they will remember for a long time. Let me know if you need me to send pumpkin, sweet potato, or pancake recipes. Great blog!

  2. Grandma says:

    Good job on the meal! And it made my hungry! It made me think – I was going to buy some towels last week and couldn’t find anything made in USA – so I didn’t buy any! and you found apples grown in the USA! And great to hear you passed your “90” goal!!

    • Kyle says:

      Hi Grandma — thanks for the comment!

      Yea, it’s pretty funny what’s imported where and what’s not. If you’re interesting in buying from the US you might try etsy.com. You have to deal with it being online, but some of the stuff is pretty cool.

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