Each time I step into my mother's pantry, my eyes dart from shelf to shelf in childlike wonder, calling me back to the days when I stood a mere three feet tall, standing on my tip-toes grabbing jars with sticky hands. Now, more than two decades later, I peer at the worn yet sturdy bins of flours and glance towards the makeshift containers of legumes before landing on my intended target: glass bottle after glass bottle, each filled with colorful, whole spices—like coriander seeds, cinnamon stick, and Kashmiri chilies. They sit on display like shiny jewels in a gallery. Below the shelf sits a masala dabba, a round box arranged with canisters holding freshly ground spices.
My mother's hidden sorcery lies in wielding those spices with craft and care. Time and time again, I watch her cleverly transform a simple weeknight dinner into something quite magical. On a whim, she creates enchanting combinations, tossing freshly grated carrots with lime juice, mustard seeds, and shredded coconut; drizzling creamy yogurt with fragrant curry leaf oil; and stir-frying steamed squash with chili powder and cumin seeds.
In the late '80s, my parents immigrated to the United States from India. As with many immigrants, they assimilated, adopting local customs and traditions. Still, my mother never abandoned the flavors and ingredients she grew up with, traveling to the local Indian grocery store to resupply her pantry as needed or stuffing jars of spices in her suitcase to bring home while vacationing in India.
Every night at our house featured a spread of home-cooked Indian dishes, save for the rare takeout dinner. We ate freshly griddled chapatis, cozy dal, koshimbir (or raita), and a spiced vegetable side. Chapatis were standard, and my mother rotated through several dal recipes she learned from her relatives. That vegetable dish, though, was where her creativity truly shined.
It may seem simple enough to sauté vegetables and throw in a few spices here and there. But, creating a perfectly balanced dish with a depth of complexity is a true feat. Even more challenging is the magical power to conjure excitement in a child's eyes, especially a child of an immigrant caught between one culture and another. For the first 18 years of my life, I was a cliché, taking on the role of the ungrateful daughter, desperate to fit in, to disentangle myself from my Indian roots. Some days, I picked and nibbled at my food, begging for store-bought mac and cheese over her homemade dal. On those nights, my mother admitted defeat. But the following evening, she was determined to try again, this time a new combination of spices and vegetables. Every so often, she succeeded; little did I expect that slowly, with time, I would become her sorceress-in-training.
Even as I struggled to make sense of my disjointed dual identity, I was learning, processing, and observing my mother's cooking. On school nights, I sat on the couch in our living room working on an assignment when I would hear the familiar sound of my mother rummaging through the pantry. Then, she reappeared in the kitchen with her trusty masala dabba and a few jars of whole spices by her side.
"Little did I expect that slowly, with time, I would become her sorceress-in-training."
Watching my mother, I learned spices could be brought to life in two key ways. Tadka (or the blooming of spices) involves adding a combination of seeds (e.g., mustard seeds and cumin seeds), leaves (e.g., curry leaves or bay leaves), and powders (e.g., asafetida or chili powder) to hot oil to bring out their essential flavors. The technique of tadka itself is magical because it makes a spice taste even more like itself. Tadka can either kickstart a dish or finish one. She might sauté the oil with cumin seeds, then toss in chopped green beans or cubed potatoes. My favorite trick was when she topped a dal or gravy, pouring sizzling spiced oil on top.
Dry masalas (spice powders) were equally essential and required a bit more nurturing, first toasting the spices in a dry pan, then blitzing them up until they resembled a fine, smooth powder. When she was young, my mother watched as her grandmother ground spices and pastes by hand with a flat, coarse stone and a rolling pin. In our home, she upgraded to an electric coffee grinder. Most Indian households craft their own unique blends, ranging from a few spices to dozens of spices, from earthy to pungent, from sweet to spicy. In this way, she creates hundreds of unique flavor profiles from just one set of spices. My mother humbly displays that wisdom, that ability to choose what whole and ground spices nestle into the evening's meal, as her secret weapon.
On a recent visit home, we stood in the kitchen all day as she marinated fish in tamarind paste and demonstrated how to stuff parathas with spinach, cheese, and chili powder; I pulled out a notebook and took copious notes. The following morning, she served a riff of her classic kheer recipe, substituting bulgur wheat for rice and simmering the grains with a blade of mace I had gifted her.
In an essay on her mother’s cooking, food writer Annada Rathi notes, “For decades, I savored Aai's best dishes. Now I look to my own kitchen . . . to shape mine.” Today, I reflect and look back on her cooking with easy admiration. I can see now that my mother's greatest skill in the kitchen is the ability to balance strong flavors with creative techniques, a reflection of her mastery of Indian cooking. And through the years, I've learned how to equip my own pantry for battle.