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My Aatma

I dipped a charred piece of bread into a rich gravy that soaked each crumb like a sponge. I raised it to my mouth and closed my eyes, and that is where my journey began.

I am a western chef. I grew up in a small city in New Hampshire in the United States where one wasn’t exposed to Indian food. Growing up in kitchens, I learned how to cook from many amazing western chefs. Each chef would impart the knowledge passed down to them by their mentors. It wasn’t until much later in life that I would try my first bite of Indian food. From the moment my mouth tasted the tangy and spicy gravy of chicken vindaloo, I became transformed. I wanted to know why the west didn’t embrace Indian food the way many other parts of the world did.

I cannot think of a cuisine that represents its country better than Indian food. It’s a passionate dance of fire, ever-changing and evolving with each bite. From spicy and sweet to sour and salty, Indian food, much like the country, is bold and full of life — its intensity amplifying as its unapologetic flavors barrage your sensations. To master the cuisine would take lifetimes but to fall in love with it, takes only one bite.

Since I began my journey with Indian food years ago, I knew that this cuisine was different. To define Indian food is like trying to define life, it changes based on the journey. From the rich curries of the north to the dosa, idli, and spices of the south, Indian food cannot be defined, it can only be experienced.

It all began in a small grocery store in the U.S. A friend of mine needed to buy some spices, so he dragged me along. The store was located in a small strip mall in my town, surrounded by independent restaurants serving various cuisines.

I walked into the dukaan (shop) on a cold fall day. The door opened and a wave of scents hit my nose. Spices lingered in the cool autumn air as I closed the door to a new world that awaited me. The smell of incense and toasted jeera (cumin) was intoxicating and a smile crept over my face as I walked down the aisles.

At the back of the store stood a short lady dressed in a kitchen apron chopping sabji (vegetables). My friend approached her and conversed in Hindi, as I gazed around in wonderment at the number of items in her store. From snacks like chivda to sweets like kaju pista rolls and gulab jamun, a world of possibilities was opening up to me.

The short lady in the apron must have seen me in this trance-like state because she smiled and said, “want to try something?” Not wanting to be disrespectful, I agreed. She went to the back of the kitchen, put some sabji in a small container, and handed me a plastic spoon.

“This is called Indian Breakfast.” She said with a thick accent.

In the container, I saw vegetables, semolina, and some other things I couldn’t recognize. I dug the spoon in and took a bite. An explosion of flavor, spice, and heat hit me with an unapologetic scream. The balance of spicy, sweet, and sour overcame me and I smiled again.

“This is delicious,” I said.

“What is your name?” The short apron-clad woman said.

“My name is Keith.” I said.

“I am Indira, welcome.” She said.

This began a friendship that would change my life and help me discover my passion for Indian food and culture. Over the coming years, Indira would share her journey with me as we cooked together and became friends.

Her Gujarati family taught her to cook from a young age and she loved to share her passion with her customers. Indira is a kind and humble woman who doesn’t mince words. She would cook lunch out of her grocery store’s kitchen five days a week. She didn’t take orders like a normal restaurant. Her food was heartfelt and cooked with love, based on what she felt like cooking that day.

Lunch would come in a styrofoam box with rice, a dal (lentils), and a sabji. Her food was simple and humble. From masoor dal that was tempered with perfectly fragrant oil to the thalis (platters) she would cook for holy days, her food was beyond delicious. It was like a hug from your grandmother — comforting. I would often eat lunch at her grocery store and walk up to her after I was done, with a sense of wonderment as I thanked her.

It wasn’t until I knew Indira for about a year that she finally gave me the opportunity to learn from her. She needed help with her website and I wanted to learn how to cook her food, so we made a deal.

Walking into her kitchen for the first time in the morning was an experience. The smell of incense brought me back to the first time I met her. I chopped onions while listening to morning puja (prayer) songs and chants. Indira taught me that food isn’t tasted with just your mouth, it starts in the heart. How we feel, what we are thinking, it’s all put into the food.

As western chefs, we are taught that we eat with our eyes first. Presentation matters to us. As we learn new recipes and search for who we are as chefs, we discover flavors and techniques we implement into our plating. Indira’s food was not beautiful in the upper culinary sense, but the true beauty of her food was in the one making it. Over the years, I would make dal and bring it to her to taste. She would smile and tell me I was missing something even though the recipe was hers and followed perfectly.

One day, I got a call from her and she asked me to come to the shop. She told me that she was catering a wedding and the party wanted chicken tandoori. Because of her beliefs, she couldn’t cook the chicken, so she asked me to make it. I remember the feeling of fear and joy that overcame me as I thought about catering my first Indian wedding. I wanted to prove to Indira that I could do it, so I spent weeks making chicken tandoori. I ground all the spices, changed different ratios of ingredients, and finally, when it was time, I was ready to showcase my chicken tandoori to the guests.

We arrived at the wedding and set up for a long day ahead of us. Dish after dish was brought out to the wedding party and next up was my chicken. At the end of the wedding, Indira told me that the bride and groom wanted to say thank you. I walked out into the reception area not knowing what to expect. I was greeted warmly. The bride and groom turned to Indira, and said, “The chicken was great, thank you for that.” Indira smiled and said, “The white guy made it.” We all laughed and I knew she was proud of me that day.

Culture and history aren’t taught in tandem with techniques and recipes in the west, so we aren’t connected to the origin of our food the same way many other cultures are. After countless hours reading cookbooks, getting kicked out of Indira’s kitchen, learning Indian history, and studying Hindi, I have concluded that Indian food cannot be separated from the culture. It is kneaded into the naans and soaked into the dals they cook. This was the very thing my food was missing.

Years later, Indira sold her store and retired but her food lives on with every spice I grind and dal I soak. She welcomed a westerner in her store and treated him with kindness and respect. She taught me, comforted me when my mother passed away, and instilled in me a passion and respect that burns brightly to this day.

o become a chef, you can learn how to cook from recipes, schools, and videos. You can learn techniques and flavors, but you cannot be taught how to cook from your soul. To cook from your soul, you must discover who you truly are as a person, only then can you discover who you are as a chef. I have eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world, served countless guests, and devoted most of my life to my culinary passion but it wasn’t until I met Indira that I learned to cook from my soul.

This is what Indian food means to me. It is a connection with your atma (soul), your true self that you transcend to bring the gift of nourishment to the people you feed. Beyond chatpata, beyond spicy and beyond meetha aur khatta (sweet and sour) is the soul of the person who cooks and their truest expression of love and gratitude.