I grew up in the kitchen with a mother and a grandmother who cooked multiple times a day. In our household, frozen meals were a foreign enterprise akin to kryptonite; instead, I was raised on a hearty South Indian diet of pure, unadulterated ghee, satham, and a plethora of vegetable-laden karamathus and koottus lining the dinner table on a nightly basis.
I also grew up as The Good Kid. There's one in every family — and in the confines of the Narayanan household, that was me. The one who listened attentively to her paati's stories, immersed herself in cultural arts, and wore her sister's hand-me-downs diligently. Not to mention, the one who could make a dosa to perfection by the time she was 13.
No trouble finding a husband for me, I was told.
When my parents moved to Indianapolis in the early '90s, they were greeted by the lack of anything familiar. Indian groceries meant a trek to the infamous Patel Brothers in Chicago, three-and-a-half hours away. Locally, we made do with what we could find, my appa often bemoaning the lack of his favorite crunchy avaraka and robust sepankizhangu in grocery stores.
Unsurprisingly, the society surrounding them was equally barren: By the time they found people who looked, spoke, dressed, and ate just like them, they had almost lost hope. As they say, when it rains, it pours. And pour it did: Indians from all corners of the subcontinent poured into the neighborhood and suddenly, we had a community.
It's a seamless one today, but speaking to Amma, I realize that each relationship has been built on intricate threads: instances, if you will, of young adults with young children, learning how to navigate their own American Dream with the help of those equally lost. What I really didn't know is that Amma built her relationship with Nandini Aunty, a beloved family friend and one of my many mothers in the community, on a single cabbage dish.
In a land full of vegetarians, Amma and Nandini Aunty grew up in similar regions of a sprawling city called Chennai. But while Amma came from a humble upbringing, living mostly on staple goods, Nandini Aunty enjoyed the luxuries of foreign products, exotic antiques, and dishes that had migrated from the northern regions and nestled their way into her Tamilian household.
Aunty's grandmother's cabbage bake is just that. An import from the Maharashtrian regions, it strays far from the more common South Indian use of cabbage: usually a simple side dish mixed with grated coconut, mustard seeds (kadugu), and a spattering of spices.
Traveling down generations, it's been adapted, with inputs from other family members who each remembered it in a slightly different manner. Luckily for us, when my amma tasted it at Aunty's house for the first time at that dinner almost three decades ago, she asked for the recipe.
It's a fairly simple process: Dump the ingredients in a mixing bowl, apply every ounce of arm strength you have to the mounds of cabbage that await you, and bake. But as with every home chef, Amma decided to add her own twists, a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that. Her cabbage bake, a dish that was at once a teatime snack and a dinnertime appetizer, was reserved for family, but especially every year at Navaratri.
During this 10-day-period of celebration that's called Dussehra in the northern regions of India, guests flock to the house. Women and children sing, admiring a staircase of dolls and idols that adorn the living room. Decked in their best attire, the women of the community display spreads of their finest offerings. In Carmel, Indiana, each woman has her signatures.
At our house, it's the cabbage bake, of course. Sure, there's an eggless fruitcake that breathes of a slow-roasted, orange-infused caramel and an authentic, handmade puttu that my paati begins preparing three months in advance. But the cabbage bake has earned its rightful place in the lineup, its spices reminiscent of the street food my mother's friends would indulge in back home, almost 8,000 miles away.
It needs no condiments, no accompaniments. And yet, it's a coveted dish in our family. Which is why over the years we've learned to make too much of it, freezing a stash to reheat in the following months, once festival season has come and gone and the pomp and circumstance of Deepavali is overtaken by Christmas lights and a large, looming tree.
After all is said and done, cabbage bake remains.
When I moved to Chennai almost three years ago, fresh out of college and ready to jump in, I looked forward to Navarathri the most. After all, the grandeur must only be multiplied at its origin. To my disappointment, however, I found that the festival is much more subdued in my hometown: a different sundal is served every day, and while filter coffee is the common accompaniment, there is no chatter, no innovative dessert, and no cabbage bake.
I moved back to Indianapolis this year, rather grudgingly if I may add. I miss the Chennai air, the culture, the warmth (quite literally). But one thing I'm grateful for is the cabbage bake: I've already claimed a batch for next year's Navaratri season.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: The 'cabbage bake' that brought together a community of immigrants