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Alternatives in America

How a vegetarian couple found their way around Berkeley, California, in 1956, from trying to source ingredients to using a native American stone grinder

Tiffin is a food-heavy memoir penned by Rukmini Srinivas, academic-turned-American television chef. Brought up in a large family with liberal values, Rukka, as she was popularly known, taught at Queen Mary’s College in Chennai and later at the Delhi School of Economics. In between, she married M.N. Srinivas, already on his way to becoming one of India’s most distinguished social anthropologists. In this excerpt, Rukka describes making do in Berkeley in the 1950s, which was still a couple of decades from becoming the hub of ‘California cuisine’, characterized by fresh vegetables, herbs and heavy global influences.

Edited excerpts:

Kunjappa (writer R.K. Narayan) had this story to tell us. The week he arrived in Berkeley, he was invited to dinner by a young American scholar. They went to Shakey’s Pizzeria. The host ordered a pizza with pepperoni topping, and Narayan liked the look of the slices of cherry tomatoes. But these tomatoes tasted different, he thought. The young student explained what pepperoni was, and when he realized that Narayan was a strict vegetarian, he helpfully removed the bright red discs from one side of the pizza and re-offered it to Narayan, who manfully took a few bites. He called me later that evening and requested a bowl of rice mixed with yogurt as ‘cleansing’ food, as he put it….

After scouting around a bit, I found that the Co-op in Berkeley, Draegers in Menlo Park and China Town in San Francisco stocked more food that vegetarians like me could eat. Chamu (M.N. Srinivas) and I made frequent trips on the F train from Berkeley to China Town in San Francisco, where, to my delight, many of the vegetables that I was familiar with, like the white pumpkin, bitter gourd, colacasia tubers, ridged gourd, Japanese yellow pumpkin, green chillies and fresh coriander, were available. My first lesson in alternative American English names for some vegetables I was familiar with was on the streets and in the markets of China Town in San Francisco. What I knew in India as lady’s finger is called okra, fresh coriander is cilantro, white pumpkin is winter melon, bitter gourd is bitter melon, aubergine is eggplant, a variety of double beans is fava beans, and so on….

Chamu and I did a bit of research and found that the Greek stores in San Francisco carried most of the spices I needed, which I ground in small quantities. We also frequented the Armenian and Greek stores on Market Street in San Francisco for slabs of tamarind pulp, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, whole red dried chillies, spices like cloves, cardamom, bay leaves and saffron, and Chamu’s favourite sweets, Turkish halwa and baklava, both of which he said closely resembled the sweets made by the well-known Indra Bhavan sweet stall in Mysore.

David Mandelbaum (professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley) had done field work in the Nilgiris in south India. He and his wife Ruth were familiar with our dietary restrictions and the problems we faced with the local food available. Ruth took charge and familiarized me with the Co-op and Natural Food Store in Berkeley. I was thrilled to find many of the ingredients that I needed and were integral to my cooking. Rice flour, garabonzo flour, basmati rice, some of the lentils and legumes, and fresh coconut were available, and I stocked up on these.

On weekends, without fail, Kunjappa and Biligiri (a young doctoral student from India) would come home for a late-afternoon tiffin and stayed on to a simple dinner. Kunjappa was happy to eat rice mixed with curds, with a side dish of a vegetable, and pickle. The menu for tiffin was dictated by Kunjappa, who wanted ulundu vadai (deep-fried, spicy, split blackbean batter doughnuts) and Biligiri requested bread upma. To satisfy Chamu’s sweet tooth, I made cobri mithai frequently. The three men were very particular about filter coffee. Chamu did a bit of research on coffee, and after a few weeks of trying different grinds, we settled for Caffe Magdalia D’oro espresso which seemed closest to the strong Mysore brew we were accustomed to in India. Like us, Kunjappa had also brought a metal coffee filter with him from Mysore!

Biligiri would come early to help me with all the preparation work for the tiffin. Making bread upma and cobri mithai was not a problem. Making ulundu vadai was a challenge. I did not have the equipment to grind the dal into creamy batter. Ruth offered to loan me her electric blender. I was not comfortable with that for more than one reason; she would have had to buy a second one for her kitchen, and besides, I had never used an electric grinder to grind batter! I was used to a large granite mortar and pestle back home in India. Only as a last resort would I grind in an electric blender….

Once, when I had casually mentioned to David that I would have liked a stone grinder for grinding fresh spice powders instead of an electric blender, he suggested, with a twinkle in his eyes, that I visit the Anthropology Department museum, adding that I could borrow whatever I needed. I wondered what he meant till I came face-to-face with a spectacular array of exhibits displaying indigenous cooking equipment, mostly of stone and wood, used by Native American tribes. I took my time at the museum examining the numerous exhibits, and decided to borrow a metate—a flat-stone grinder, a two-feet-long rectangular block of granite, which came with a twelve-inch-long cylindrical granite roller—used by Native American Indian women to grind corn. Nowadays in Boston, I use the granite mortar and pestle that Mexicans use for making guacamole. My daughters are still hopeful that I’ll start using the food processor some day.

The metate exhibit no. site location, period and date found its pride of pride on my kitchen counter, and David was amused that a museum piece, an American Indian flat-stone corn grinder was finally being put to use by an Indian woman from India. From then on, I ground all my fresh masalas for mixed vegetable sambar (a lentil-based flavourful south Indian stew), chilli-garlic chutney and the batter for ulundu vadai on the metate. I grew very fond of it as it did a great job.

Ulundu vadai, deep-fried, soft, spongy doughnuts of split blackbean batter with aromatic fresh herbs and spices. Today, the making of vadai is made simple with a vadai maker, a cylindrical extruder, much like a doughnut maker, which pushes the batter in uniform rounds with a central hole.

Ingredients (for about 30 vadais)

2 cups urad dal, soaked in water for 2 hours and drained

1 teaspoon salt

2 green chillies, chopped fine

6 black peppercorns, powdered coarse

8 curry leaves, torn in pieces

1/4 teaspoon asafoetida powder

1/4 cup small pieces of fresh coconut (my mother’s description was ‘tooth-size’)

1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated

1 flat tablespoon flax seeds (optional)

1/4 cup water, plus 2 tablespoons

2 cups oil for frying


Grind the dal in a food processor to a thick, smooth, creamy batter of dripping consistency, adding cup water. Stop frequently, push down from the sides of the blender with a spatula, and grind, adding a little more water if needed. Empty the batter into a bowl.

Add the salt, green chillies, black peppercorns, curry leaves, asafoetida, coconut, ginger, and flax seeds, if you are using them. Mix briskly. Divide into 30 equal portions and set aside on a platter.

In a wok or fryer on medium heat, warm up the oil but not to smoking point.

Wet your fingers, pick up one portion, place it on a plastic sheet, flatten slightly with your fingers, and make a hole in the middle with your index finger. Make 6 doughnuts at a time on the plastic sheet. Pick each one and slide into the hot oil, frying 6 in one batch.

As you slide in each one, it will initially sink to the bottom, and in a few seconds, rise to the surface, swelling up. Gently separate them if they stick to each other. Fry to a golden-brown, turning over with a slotted spoon.

Remove and drain on a paper towel. Check one to see if the inside has cooked by pulling the sides apart. Well-fried vadais will be crisp and brown on the outside and soft and spongy within.

Serve hot with creamy onion coconut chutney.

Excerpted with permission from Tiffin, by Rukmini Srinivas. Published by Rupa. Pages 344. Price: 395.

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