Thoughts of her mother’s kitchen fill fragrant memories for Meera Klein. The scent of lemon juice squeezed over basmati rice or the pop-pop-pop of gray mustard seeds heating in a skillet bring back vivid images of the exotic home she left behind.
Half a world away from her roots, she remembers the abundance of fresh vegetables and intoxicating mixtures of herbs and exotic spices.
“One condiment is very special to me – inji puli,” Klein said. “It means ‘ginger tamarind,’ but it’s so much more. It’s thick and tangy. People (in Kerala) say, ‘Every feast is not a feast until inji puli is made,’ or ‘Inji puli makes any meal a feast.’ My mother made it with ginger, fenugreek, red pepper, sugar and salt. My father said, ‘Inji puli is like life.’ The first taste is so good – life must be sweet! Then you bite into a fenugreek seed; like life, there also is bitter to temper that sweet.”
A young Klein left India to attend college in California. She evaded an arranged marriage and now lives in Davis with her husband and has two sons.
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Over the years, her thoughts often returned to Kerala on the southern tip of India, particularly when she cooked. The librarian and former journalist used memories to write “My Mother’s Kitchen,” a novel with recipes. Published last fall, it has received positive reviews. Klein reflects on both her book and home cooking, Kerala style.
Q: What inspired you to write your book?
A: My mother passed away in 2004. … I always wanted to create some kind of tribute to her. In 2008, I joined a writing group. I went back 35 years to my mother’s kitchen and memories of her. It started with a first story and my memories of her lemon rice. “Meera” became “Meena” (the novel’s central character) and I kept going, sharing the story of this girl as she grows up, and her family.
Q: What’s a “novel with recipes”?
A: It’s not a cookbook; it’s more like vivid food writing. I describe the lemon rice – how tangy, how fragrant, the process of how it’s made. At the end of the chapter, there’s a recipe. There are 25 recipes in the book. There are several rice dishes, stews, many favorites, all vegetarian.
Q: Are you still a vegetarian?
A: Of course! My family have been vegetarians for over 500 years. You didn’t even socialize with people who ate meat. My grandmother said she didn’t even talk to people who ate meat. … Indian cooking is an easy way to be vegetarian.
Q: Indian cooking is like Italian cuisine; there are wide variations by region.
A: Totally! … India is a subcontinent, so it’s vast. There are lots of cuisines, lots of different ingredients and lots of difference of opinions.
Q: What distinguishes Kerala cuisine?
A: The flavors are very fresh; fresh chilies, coconut milk, curry leaf. We use a lot of fresh vegetables.
Q: Tell me about your mother’s kitchen.
A: We had no refrigerator when I was growing up. We ate no meat or eggs, so there was no need to store them. Talk about farm to fork; this was the original. Vendors with carts of seasonal vegetables came by the house each day, tomatoes in summer, greens in winter. That’s what you bought and ate for dinner.
My mother bought raw milk each day. If you boiled it, it was good for 20 hours (without refrigeration). You could have milk for your coffee in the morning. With the rest of the milk, my mother would start the yogurt culture. … She made everything every day.
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