My introduction to Indian food was a pretty average chicken tikka masala from Tandoor, a respectable establishment in my neighborhood that prides itself on providing customers with “an aromatic dining experience.” Tandoor was convenient to pick up on a busy day and varied the monotony of fajitas, pasta, or stew that rotated our family dinner menus. It came in metal tetra pack containers, scribbled with “rice biryani” or “extra garlic naan,” (at my brother’s behest). I’m not sure when my fascination for India first began. I had no tangible connection to the country, yet I had this itching desire to learn more about it beyond the realm of food—a feeling I knew wouldn’t be satiated by Tandoor, no matter how buttery the naan. My yearning led me to go on a creative writing workshop in India where I was met with an authenticity that I craved and an experience I couldn’t predict.
Titu is a renaissance man. There is seemingly nothing he can’t do. Throughout our month-long trip, he played the role of guide, teacher, and sometimes chef. On this particular night, he played the host: inviting a group of 12 college students and a professor to his home for dinner.
The walk to Titu’s house was a leisurely one, a mere 10 minutes down the winding gravel road we took from our abode, nestled in the hill station of Mussoorie, India. Enveloped by a canvas of thick pine forest and the distant horizon of the Himalayas, we veered off the main path as Titu led us down the mountainside forming the road. We made our way down a dangerously steep set of makeshift stairs to a collection of dilapidated metal storage sheds. They were morphed and crested into the earth as if they were one.
Titu’s home was lined with a walkway covered by an awning—big enough to shield from the region’s unexpected rainstorms while still revealing the breathtaking view. We took off our shoes outside and entered one of the several compartment-like rooms. We were welcomed by a small woman with piercing brown eyes, sheathed in a sari that draped her body in delicate layers. Titu’s mother imprinted a red bindi on each of our foreheads as we formed a procession as if meeting a head of state. We were presented with a basket of shawls from which we were to choose—a gift from host to guest.
We were gestured to settle on the floor, lined with unmatched carpets and small pillows. The looming loft where Titu slept suspended above us as we crammed ourselves in a conglomerate of crossed legs and touching elbows. Being a dinner guest in a different culture invokes feelings of anxiousness and humility. I felt an obligation to remain respectful to unfamiliar traditions while also appreciating the novelty. There was something equally satisfying about not knowing what I was going to be served. I sat in a kind of culinary trepidation as the smells teased my senses.
A number of Titu’s family members came in and out—all active participants in the cooking which simultaneously took place in the other room. I was ravenous and slightly uncomforted when we were informed dinner was typically served at 9 or 10 p.m. Much to my selfish delight, a tray of piping hot masala chai appeared before us. I gratefully wrapped my fingers around the teacup as if caressing it. I let the steam penetrate my face with a cloud of cinnamon, cardamom and peppercorn. Wide-eyed and curious, I lifted it up to my nose before I took my first sip. The complexity of spices infused in the black tea created a nuanced tasting journey on my palette—from unexpectedly spicy to a nectarous sweet. The milky tea traveled through my veins, pumping chai instead of blood. A plate of tea biscuits and masala chai-spiced chips accompanied the tea. The spice blend, I would soon discover, was no longer limited to its tea roots, but was rendered a flavoring for the most unlikely of foods. The teacups were filled the rest of the night, like bottomless coffee at a diner.
After rummaging through a box, Titu pulled out a large black album. He opened it and showed us old pictures of him and his family, some torn at the edges but discernibly taken in the very mountains that had become our temporary home. Continuing his show- and-tell efforts, Titu revealed an old black speaker that he said he found in the trash and then fixed. He plugged in his phone and scrolled to play what was purportedly the “only American song” he had. Suddenly, the familiar tune of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” started to play. We began to sing together, all sways and smiles, a song that felt so out of place yet so deserving of that moment. I knew it would be stuck in my head for the next week, and I was wholly okay with it.
We began to sing together, all sways and smiles, a song that felt so out of place yet so deserving of that moment.
Our kumbaya camaraderie continued as Titu recollected some of his impressive hiking feats, including carrying a woman on his back for 13 days when she was on the verge of death. In between oohhs and aahhs, a new aroma encircled the room—a kind of warm ambrosia that felt like it was sent from the Hindu gods rather than their Greek counterparts.
Plates and bowls of food began to appear in impressive mounds. A table visibly too small was placed in the middle of the room. We collectively stood up to help arrange the platters, our incentive to be useful more of a nuisance as we bumped into each other, distracted by the heaping pile of steaming hot roti, a traditional flatbread made with whole-wheat flour and water.
We were beckoned to grab a plate and serve ourselves. We hungrily encircled the table as Titu tried to translate the menu in broken English. One end had a bowl of fluffy white basmati rice, an Indian staple as common as bread and butter. Each grain retained its shape, perfectly intact and not mushy—an accomplishment that deserves as equal praise as al dente pasta. No meal in India is ever complete without dal, a nourishing lentil stew that is both hearty and wholesome—the plant-based protein for most vegetarians. Every spoonful tasted smoother and creamier than the next. The most memorable dish, however, was the medley of pumpkin squash: little golden nuggets lightly fried with cumin seed and turmeric. It was spicy yet sweet from caramelization. Some of them were mashed and others stayed whole in shape. I was mesmerized by the potency of its golden-orange hue. I savored every bite, chewing slowly and thoughtfully so as to remember the taste I would hope to recreate, though I knew it was impossible.
We all ate in emphatic delight, sopping up the lingering sauce and rice pellets with pieces of torn roti, wiping the bottom of our plates clean. I looked around as we all sat in this tiny room, filled with random trinkets and unmatched carpeting, sipping what was left of our now cold masala chai. This was nothing like eating Tandoor with my family out of takeout containers, but it still felt like home.
A mist now hung over the valley, letting in a breeze tainted with the scent of weed that grew as wild and free as grass in India. Convinced I was second-hand high, my belly full of dal, my heart warm with John Denver, I sat a contented dinner guest—relishing a fullness that I knew wasn’t just from the food.