Hello, everyone. I was born in Delhi in a rather large house by the river. And as soon as I was born, the first thing that happened to me after I came out of the womb was that my grandmother came in, she dipped her little finger in honey, and wrote on my tongue “om,” which means “I am.” And in that one moment, with my very first taste, my life was affirmed. Who I was was affirmed. And the combination of writing and food. I was immediately connected to the community I come from, which is an ancient community of scribes who also happen to be known as great lovers of eating and drinking. And in fact, my community is often called “sharabi kebabis.” Sharab standing for liquor, wine; and kebab for kebabs, which stand for all of good food. So we were, sharabi kebabis but also scribes, and in that one moment everything was confirmed and I was connected to my ancestors at the same time.
So, what happens in India is that we all, all of us, come from such communities. They’re different communities. Thousands of them exist all over India. They have their own defined religion or sub-religion. They have that traditional foods. They have their own palette of tastes. Each one has a different palette of tastes. And a culture and customs that constantly tell them who they are and what group of Indians they belong to.
Now, I come from the North of India, which is a wheat-eating area. But if you go to Bengal—West Bengal is a state now—and they have a diet mainly of rice and fish. They live by the sea, they have a long coastline, and there is a huge Ganges river delta which is one of the largest deltas in the word, where a lot of the fish comes from and a lot of rice also grows in that area. So that is what they eat, and strangely enough they will not eat fish from the sea. They will just not go out into the sea. I don’t know why that custom arose. Maybe they were afraid of the sea. And also within Indian custom, there’s a fear that you will lose caste if you cross the seas. I don’t know why they didn’t go. Other people in India do. But Bengalis will not eat sea fish. They will only eat fish from their particular delta.
So, in their communities, they have another custom—not the custom I have in my community. When a child is about six months old, the priest comes in. There’s a little ceremony. And they put a rice pudding sweetened with honey in a little bowl. And in that same tray that holds the bowl, there is a fish head. And this is placed in the child’s lap—the child, somebody holds it, of course. The child is fed a spoonful of this particular rice pudding. And the child looks at the fish, the fish looks back at him, and something is confirmed between them. That the child, as he grows up will eat the fish, and will eat rice, and that is the food that he or she is going to remember for the rest of their lives, and that will be their food.
And Bengalis have another thing which I find very interesting. One of their favorite fish is a fish called hilsa, which is rather like the shad in a America; it has a lot of bones. Now, the Bengalis don’t sit around with tweezers, picking out the bones. They don’t do that. They keep eating the hilsa, and they have a way of collecting the bones in one cheek. And somehow the tongue keeps pushing the bones to inside that particular cheek, and like tobacco it sort of grows and it sits there. And when the meal is done they take the whole wad out and discard it. So, that is a custom that comes from their way of being and eating.
Now, it has always been a very curious thing for me, why do people eat what they eat? What makes one group of people eat something that another group will not touch at all? And I find this very very interesting, because it is not something that you can pinpoint. You can’t understand it. And if you for example look at the Japanese, which I find very interesting. Once when I was in Japan, I decided to follow a group of children. They were teenagers. They were going into a movie. And I know what Americans would buy when they’re going to a movie. I know what Indians would buy when they go into a movie. But what were these Japanese teenagers going to buy when they went into a movie?
They went in and they bought packets of dried squid. And this is what they chewed upon for the time they were watching the movie. And of course, they have developed a taste for it. They will eat dried fish and rice for breakfast. I’ve known schoolchildren in Japan eat whale for lunch in schools. And they will have fish that is raw in the form of sashimi and sushi for dinner. And they have soy sauces, but they also have fish sauces. So, they grow up with fish of various kinds, and what we may not eat, they will relish.
And again, in Japan— I was wondering, they don’t have milk, so where is the creaminess in their food? But there is creaminess. And I remember I was staying in a three hundred year-old inn in Kyoto. It was the Tawaraya Inn. And they gave me something to eat which I’d never eaten before in that form in my life, and I thought it was absolutely delicious. And this was yuba, which is the skin off the top of soy milk as it is boiling. And they take the skin off, and it was served to me in the inn. And I said, “What is this thing? I have to find out what it is.” So they said one of the oldest yuba-making establishments is just less than a mile away, and why don’t you go? We will arrange for you to go and see it being made.
So I said I wanted to do that. Now, it happened to be a sunny but snowy day, a beautiful snowy day and big flakes of snow were just sort of drifting to the ground. It was a gorgeous kind of day. And I walked from the Tawaraya Inn to this place. It was as I said quite a bit of distance. And right in the middle of town, in the middle of modern buildings, there was this older barn, three hundred year-old barn. And I went inside, knocked on the door, a man in very traditional Japanese clothes opened it, and I went in. And it was warm inside and there was a hearth and there was a cauldron boiling. It was filled with soy milk. And this gentleman called me. And then he stirred the pot and let a film form on top of the soy milk. And then with long tweezers he lifted up this little sheet that had formed, and put it in the bowl. And then he put a few drops of the most gorgeous soy sauce, a drop of sesame oil, and a few thin thin slices of spring onion, scallions. And he said, “Taste.” And it was gorgeous. It was creamy, and yet it had a little bit of texture. It was a little resistant. And it tasted of Japan. And it was wonderful.
So, these are things that you discover as you go around the world, that these are cuisines and people are eating things that you don’t even know anything about. And I had the same feeling when I went once to… I was in Singapore. And I was with a Chinese family, and a young mother was making a soft-boiled egg for her little two year-old toddler. So she opened the egg and put it in a bowl, and then she did the same thing. She put a little soy sauce, a little sesame oil, few scallions. And she gave it to the child. And I thought oh, this child, this will be the taste of home for him. This will be the mother’s taste for him. This is something that he’ll always remember and will form the pattern of tasting in his mouth forever. So, all these things go back to something that your mouth is trained to eat in a certain way.
I also remember at one time I was in Padang, which is in Sumatra, Indonesia. It’s the Westernmost big island in Indonesia. And in Padang, they’re Muslims mainly. And they are pretty self-sufficient, the way they grew up in their family. So for their dinner, for example, they have a fish pond where they have fish so they can get a fish. They have chicken. They can chop the heads off, saying, “Bismillah,” because can’t do it without saying that, and then eat the chicken. And all the spices that they eat are generally fresh. And they will get them from the garden. So, from the garden they were getting ginger, they were getting galangal, they were getting red chiles, and they were getting fresh turmeric.
But then, they used something that I had never used before, and that was the turmeric leaf. And they took the turmeric leaf, which grows very easily—it’s on top of the plant—and they either ground it in the spice mixture, or they just put a part of the leaf in the rice. So the rice—it’s a very aromatic leaf, and it flavored the rice in the most marvelous, earthy, turmeric‑y kind of way. And if any of you are interested in trying this, which I suggest you do, you can buy fresh turmeric, the root (it’s a rhizome, actually) in any Indian market. And you plant it in soil. And you water it just a little. And after a while, the leaves will sprout up.
Now, I live in Upstate New York. I have a house where I do all this growing. And I put it out in the summer and I bring it in in the winter. But it grows year after year, and it’s the most wonderful leaf to know something about. But it is a taste that I associate with Padang in Sumatra. It’s one particular taste, in one particular town, in one particular country. And these things develop on their own in little pockets, and it happens throughout the world in some form or the other.
Now, India as you know is known for its spices. We are magicians. We really are magicians in the way we use spices. And that’s because we’ve been doing it for a few thousand years, so we know a little bit about it. And all Indians share this kind of knowledge. And it’s a painterly knowledge. When you think about it, it’s like a palette. And you have all these fifty, sixty spices that are in your cupboard. The way you use them, just as a painter knows that you can take yellow and you can take blue, and you can make green.
So, in India we know our spices, and we know that each spice has its own taste. But, if you combine, you get a different flavor, which is the sum of its parts. So you can combine two, three, four, twenty, thirty spices, and they will all the time have a different taste, a different aroma, depending on how you treat them. Because each spice can be treated differently, as well. If you take a cumin seeds, which a lot of countries use— So, if you use it plain, it’s like…you know, one grayish color. But if you roast the spices and grind them, ooh! It turns bright pink. It’s another color. And then if you pop it into hot oil, it turns a third color. So you’re getting three kind of tastes out of one single spice.
Then you take mustard seeds. I call mustard seeds the Jekyll and Hyde of spices, because when they are just crushed, they are pungent and they’re bitter. But if you pop them in hot oil, they turn nutty and they turn sweet. So the spices themselves have different flavors that can be brought out of them. And in different parts of India, in different regions of India, they use different combinations of spices. And I can actually tell, if I walk into any Indian kitchen and close my eyes, most of us can tell where that kitchen is. For example, if I go in and I smell roasted peppercorns, roasted coriander, roasted fenugreek seeds, and maybe I smell a little coconut oil, and maybe I smell some fish, I know I’m in Kerala, on the Western coast of India. So, different combinations, it’s a different taste palette for every part of India. And it is essential to know the difference, because that’s how we differentiate between the foods of different states.
Now, chefs in the Western part of this world train either with other chefs or they go to academies of various sorts to learn how to cook. But there’s one part of India where they go to the temple to learn how to cook. And this is in South India. It’s a special temple called the Udupi Temple. It’s in the state of Karnataka. When you go to the temple, of course you can go to pray, but you can go to work there and learn to be either a priest or a chef.
And it’s a very interesting setup. I once went there myself, and what happens is that there are people who come to eat there. And they come by the hundreds and thousands every day to eat. So there are big dining halls where they come and sit down. And the room is cleared and banana leaves are strewn in rows on the floor. And people come and squat—not squat, they sit cross-legged behind each banana leaf. And then the servers come and they serve simple foods like split peas and vegetables and rice, and the people eat. And then they finish, and they leave.
So, I was standing there watching all this happen, and everybody said, “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!” and I said, “What’s going on?” And I heard this thundering noise, and a group of cows, like a herd of cows, came galloping in and they came galloping towards me. They climbed the steps of the temple. And they went in, they ate up all the banana leaves, they licked the ground, and then they thundered out. And then they washed the floor, and then they were ready for the next group to come in and start eating.
So, there are particular customs in different parts of India, and then they’re followed. Now, these particular people come and learn how to cook here. The kitchens have cauldrons that like this high. [raises hand over her head] They have a stepladder that they go onto, and they have a paddle with which they stir these pots. And when one set of a food is made, they pour it into a big wooden boat from which it is going to be served. It’s cooked in such quantities.
One of the most important spices that are used in this particular place is asafoetida. Now, I don’t know how many of you have heard of asafoetida. It is a resin that comes from a tree. My husband plays the violin, so the rosin he uses on his bow is rather like asafoetida. It looks like asafoetida. But asafoetida has a very very strong smell. It’s been called “devil’s dung.” It’s a digestive. The main purpose for our using it is that it is a digestive, and it’s meant to cure even horses of gas. So we use a tiny, tiny amount of it in our food. And in fact if you go to this Udupi Temple, you will be able to buy the little vessel where you crush the asafoetida and where you can store the asafoetida. And this is of course used, as I said, as a digestive. It’s a very important digestive.
And of course this brings me to the whole Indian preoccupation with food as medicine. Now, I don’t know about the rest of the world, though I have heard— Once I was in France and a French doctor in the Toulouse area told me that for bedwetting, the best cure is fried mice, and that is the traditional cure. They gave the children fried mice and supposedly they stopped in fear of the mice; they stopped bedwetting.
And in India, every single person has a knowledge of food as medicine. And it isn’t as if they go to college to learn anything about it. It is just something that comes down from generation to generation; it’s just passed down. And it’s not considered at all rude in India to ask questions about bodily functions. People will like, “Hello, how are you? How’s your constipation today? Are your stools still pebbly?” So, these kinds of questions are routinely asked in a very happy kind of way, just to see how somebody’s feeling.
Now, in our particular household, we were a large family, about thirty people in a big extended family that lived together. My grandfather sat at the head of the table, then my grandmother. And my grandmother always knew what was wrong with any one of us. And she always had a cure for it. And I may have read dozens of books on Ayurveda, but she had not read a single book. What she knew came from her mother. And that was absolute, and what is more it worked. Every single time, it worked.
So, if you had a loose stomach, then your regimen was rice and yogurt. Rice and yogurt. And you kept eating that till you were cured, and it didn’t take long. It took a day and you were fine after that. And if you were at all queasy, then it was a ginger tea. You were getting ginger tea. For high blood pressure, there was always garlic. And then there was asafoetida— Any time you cooked beans of any sort, asafoetida was definitely put into it. As a mouth freshener, it was always roasted fennel was passed on the table to freshen the mouth, as was cardamom. As well cloves. These were all considered greats mouth fresheners.
And of course then there was turmeric, which is both an antiseptic for inside the body and outside the body. It’s a very very important seasoning in India. We don’t use turmeric because we like our foods to be yellow, we use it because of its great antiseptic qualities and its great ability to cure inflammation.
And I’ll have to tell you my story about turmeric. We have four sisters. And three of us, when we were in our sort of early teens, we decided to have our ears pierced. And my father said, “You’re not going to these village people who just push an earring through…” And it was a wonderful way; the village women did it best. But my father would have none of it. He said, “You are going to the family doctor.” Now, the family doctor knew nothing about piercing ears, but that’s where we went because that’s who my father sort of trusted more. And the family doctor took a needle, went through with a big fat thread which he pulled, and we were all yelling and screaming. Anyway, our ears were pierced, and then the following day we all had infected ears.
So then that’s when my grandmother came into the picture. She said, “Don’t worry, these doctors know nothing.” And then she came in and she had clarified butter which she heated with a little turmeric. And with a swab she daubed that on our ears, and we were cured. So if my father had just let us be, it would have been fine. But of course the yellow of the turmeric, we went to school for the next week with yellow ears. But we were cured, certainly, of the infection.
And at religious festivals in India, when millions and millions of people go to religious festivals and invariably get all kinds of diseases, they get bitten by mosquitoes. So, you will see people if you go to one of these big festivals in India, you’ll see them walking around with yellow faces, yellow hands. They’ve got turmeric rubbed all over their bodies. And if they get the slightest bit of infection the turmeric just takes care of it, and then they are cured.
So, as I was going around India sort of collecting information on recipes and things like that, I once stopped off in a city called Lucknow, which is Northern India. And it was winter, I had a very very bad cold and a cough and I was feeling absolutely miserable. And I landed up at one of my aunt’s houses for breakfast, and she said, “Would you like some tea?”
And I said, “Yes, yes, please. I’ll have some tea but without any milk or sugar.”
And she was startled by that. And then she said, “Would you like some toast?”
I said, “Yes, I would love some toast, but without any butter.”
So she said, “You’re not looking after yourself. You’re going to get sicker and sicker and sicker. And you’re not eating the right thing, but you wait. Sit here and I will help you.”
And she went into the kitchen and she made an infusion, a tea, which had black pepper; it had fennel seeds; it had holy basil, which we call tulsi, in it; it had ginger in it. And she brought the tea to me, and I drank it, and within twenty-four hours I was cured.
At another place on the same trip, I was going around, and I was in Varanasi, or Benares, the holy city on the Ganges River. And I was with a family whose occupation as a family group was moneylending, money in some form or the other. They’re known as banias in their particular community in India. And they are very careful with their food. Their food is cooked by a cook who has to be bathed and cleaned in the morning. Then he cooks his food. And he doesn’t put it in serving dishes after that. In order for the food to remain pure, it has to go directly onto the plate of the person who’s eating. And these we call thalis, they’re big round plates with little bowls in it. And the food goes directly into them so it stays pure. From the cook to the eater, there’s nothing in between.
So I had this wonderful meal with them. And after the meal, this lady of the house began telling me, she says, “Do you know a preparation for a woman who has just given birth? We have this wonderful smoke that we use for these women. They sit astride a hollow chair, and we burn this smoke. And it just goes up the body and completely heals the body after childbirth. Do you have the recipe for that?”
I said, “No, I don’t. And I would love to have the recipe.”
She said, “I don’t know the recipe, but I will go and ask my mother-in-law, who knows the recipe. And there were sort of curtains drawn in the next room. She went through the curtains, closed them up again and disappeared for awhile. And then after a long time, she came back with this long roll which came from an adding machine on which this recipe was written. There were fifty ingredients, one after the other. And I thought my goodness, how do you make this with so many ingredients? It must be difficult. But I thought I would try, because it was a wonderful recipe, and I thought this kind of wonderful, smoky, spicy smoke would be something that we should all learn something about.
So as I was thinking this, this finger came out of the curtain (which is obviously the finger of the mother-in-law) and started wagging at me and saying, “If you leave even one ingredient out, you will die.” So, all our families have this kind of gift to offer you, special recipes for all kinds of occasions.
Now, rice plays a very very important part in Indian food. There are many people in India who are just rice eaters. They will not eat too much wheat. They can’t live without rice. We know that rice originated in India thousands of years ago, well before the birth of Christ. Maybe 10,000 BC, we’re not sure. At the same time, it could have originated in the Mekong Delta. But certainly rice was there and recorded in Indian history. We know that five hundred years before the birth of Christ, Lord Buddha had a pudding made of rice and mangoes and honey. And we know that when he was dying, in this last days, and he was fasting, he was eating just a few grains of rice a day.
One of Alexander’s companions— Alexander came to India about two hundred years after Buddha’s time, in 300 BC, around that time. And they found rice growing. They marveled at this grain growing in water and planted in rows. They had not seen anything like that. They also saw sugarcane for the first time. They had never seen sugarcane. And they described it as honey made without the work of bees. And they were completely enchanted with all that.
And so rice we know was always there. And it has always been a part of all our ceremonies in India. At a Hindu wedding, for example, the husband, the wife, the mother and father, everybody, and the priest, keep throwing rice into the fire. And the reason for doing it, of course, is because rice is a symbol of fertility. Why is it a symbol of fertility? I asked the priest that, and he explained it to me that rice is planted in one place but it can’t bear fruit until it is transplanted in another place. So that is why a bride is rather like rice. In order to have children she will have to be transplanted somewhere else. And that is why it is a symbol of fertility.
It’s also a symbol of prosperity in India. And in Western India, in Maharashtra, when a bride comes into a house, they place near the doorstep a canister of rice piled high, and the bright gently kicks it in. She kicks it into the house so it spills into the house. So the idea is that the bride is bringing prosperity and wealth into the house.
In many countries of Asia, people will go out for dinner. But if they have not had rice in the meal, they will feel as if they’ve not eaten. And I’ve seen that in many many countries. In Japan I remember spending a lot of time with Japanese officials of various sorts. We were a BBC team; we were shooting. And I remember we were shooting various aspects of sake, the drink. And we were being wined and dined by some of these sake people. And the officials took us out. They were mostly men. And the men all ate and drank till midnight. And I was told that when they went home they would have their dinner. And I said, “How can they have they’re dinner? They’ve already eaten.”
They said, “No no no. Because their wives are waiting.” And their wives would have dinner with them. And if they don’t eat the rice before, they will wait and when they go home they will have rice with their wife. Therefore they will have eaten with their wives, and they can say with a straight face, “I had dinner at home with my wife.”
And I remember the same thing happening in Singapore. There was a Singaporean gentleman who owned a French restaurant. And he invited me for dinner to show me what all Singapore has. So we had this wonderful French meal. Three courses. I was absolutely full. And at the end of that he said, “So shall we go out now and have some Singaporean rice noodles?”
I said, “Aren’t you full?”
He said, “No no no. I’m full, but I’m not satisfied.”
And that is a very important thing. So this brings me to the subject of this symposium, what is cooking? We are all born into certain cultures. And the culture is like a mother. We run away, we experiment. We are modern people, we try and find new things, we want to find the best lobster, the best crayfish. We want to cook it in amazing ways with something we’ve just foraged from the forest.
But in the end, what are we looking for? We’re looking for satisfaction. We’re looking for satisfaction in some form. And I think that for each person that, depending on their background and inclinations, is a very individual kettle of fish. Amongst our wonderful modern chefs in America, I’ve watched a Korean-American chef who will always have some kind of maybe kimchi or something in his food. It’s very modern food. It’s very creative food. But floating in there is the kimchi that he can’t forget. He can’t leave that behind.
I’ve seen a Chinese-American modern chef. And there, his fatty pork, the steamed buns. Somehow they don’t go away. They’re somewhere in there, and they will always find surface in some way or the other.
A French chef, his butter is very important. And in some way, the butter will always be there. And in an Indian chef, again an Indian modern chef in America, his desserts will not be without the cardamom. Because that somehow is the mother.
However experimental and modern they are, there’s always the little running and touching the mother to make sure. That is still alive and well in their hearts and in their minds. And they need to affirm their roots in some way.
And then there’s René. What do you say about René? He’s one of the most brilliant chefs I’ve ever met. But at the same time, I would venture to say that I think in his last life René was Japanese. Thank you.
Overview page for the MAD 4 / What is Cooking? event.