“Que eso esta?” I asked the Tico boy who was serving as our guide, pointing to the corn-like stalks in the nearby field.
I knew the answer, but couldn’t believe it.
“Cana de azucar,” he replied.
I lapsed into nostalgia. Sugarcane juice, squeezed out of fresh stalks on a hand-driven grinder carried on a vendor’s cart, then mixed with ice and lemon juice; no tropical summer was complete without this culinary delicacy.
My friend said, “All over the Third World, this is what people do.”
I recounted to her my memories of Hapoos mangoes, squeezed fresh and eaten with chapatis laced with ghee. Many a lunch or dinner in the summertime consisted of little else.
If we were not eating ripe mangoes, we were chopping up green ones to make fresh chutney with chopped onions and phodni to eat with every meal.
Costa Rica unlocked for me a torrent of culinary memories, long stashed away in a secret cave that opened up at the word “sugarcane.”
Alas, my girlhood was interspersed with pangs of hunger. A tall child who was gifted with a rapid metabolism, I was perennially hungry. My mother’s dislike of cooking was as intense as my love of food, so throughout our life together, we seemed to be set on a collision course.
Unlike other mothers, my mother took little delight in housewifely tasks like cooking and cleaning. Yet, she happened to be a very good cook, with the knack of adding just the right proportions of flavorings so that each dish achieved a culinary crescendo. Her secret was in knowing when to stop.
Other women cooked tantalizing-looking delicacies, which, after one taste, revealed fatal flaws; a tinge too much of salt perhaps, or an overdose of chili, or worse yet, a total lack of flavor of the original vegetable left after the overcooking.
Not so with my mother’s preparations, which excelled in minimalism. Boiling bitter melons to remove their acridity was pure sin, she averred, for not only would you lose the nutrients, but also miss the adventure of braving its bitter taste. My mother and Alice Waters would have gotten along famously.
Like all children, I loved batata bhaji, or potato curry. There was the bhaji cooked with sliced potatoes with their skins intact, often stir-fried with sliced onions for extra taste. Or boiled potatoes cooked dry with garlic or onions, or floated in sauce, whole or chopped.
Like all children, I liked sweet dishes the most; in fact, my sweet tooth was legendary. Shankarpara, sweet dough cut up into diamond-shaped cookies, and fried in ghee was a typical Maharashtrian dish, as was karanji, ghee-fried sweet dumplings stuffed with sugared raw coconut.
My favorite sweet, however, was shrikhand, made with chakka bought from the corner mithaivala and strained through fine muslin with saffron and cardamom, until it had a texture so creamy that it caressed your tongue.
We lived in an era when people rarely traveled, so that the cuisine of Pune, Mumbai, and the southern coastal region of Maharashtra was distinctly different from the cuisine of Vidarbha, where we lived.
There, bhakri, hand-rolled bread made of javar flour, was what the villagers and working people ate daily with raw chilies and onions, and what townspeople like us ate once a year as a delicacy.
Then there were the savory snacks, all made with fried chickpea flour. My mother, with her nutritional insights, would declare that anything fried and made of chickpea flour had to be bad for your health. But who could resist the mouthwatering sight of hot bhaja served beside a steaming cup of tea on a monsoon afternoon? Who could not be tempted by batata vada, savory potato dipped in chickpea batter and fried in oil?
So parochial were our lives back then that I had only seen samosas displayed on a vendor’s cart near the traffic island but never tasted them, until, as a college student, I began to sneak to the India Coffee House with my friends. The first taste got me so hooked that poring over my physics books in the University Library, I would invariably be lost in a fantasy about hot steaming samosas served with tamarind chutney. Alas, upon coming home, I would discover the kitchen cupboard empty, and my mother sitting next door chatting with a neighbor.
She would rush home only at the sight of my younger brother, but her partiality didn’t dawn on me until I arrived in Berkeley and, in the intermission of a screening of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, overheard two women commenting on the difference in the treatment of the daughter and the son in the movie.
My fantasies came true on second Saturdays, when, returning home from school or college, I would find the house spic and span, and my father standing beside the gas stove on the kitchen counter and stirring for me hot poha—flaked rice—dampened and stir-fried with onions and phodni, and sprinkled with shredded coconut and chopped cilantro.
My father was the one who would teach me cooking at age 12 after my mother suffered her “nervous breakdown.”
These memories flooded me as I got off the rickety Costa Rican bus and accompanied the Tico boy, Alan, to his house. There, much to my surprise, his father and mother dusted off a hand-driven sugarcane juice machine and served me a frothing drink so refreshing that I declared it was enough to keep me in the tropics forever.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at www.saritasarvate.com