A man named Sing convinced me I could make Indian food "just like they make it at Bombay House." And I was naive enough to believe him.
I wandered into Sing's shop in the heart of Taylorsville in the hopes of finding cardamom pods—anything whole that hadn't been ground to a blackish dust by McCormick. But Sing saw me as a white girl who definitely needed several impromptu lessons on Indian cooking.
Before pointing me in any direction in particular in his dimly lit and exotically fragranced store, he first needed to find out just what in the devil I would be needing with cardamom pods.
"I'm making chai," I told him a little sheepishly.
"Well, how do you do it? What do you put in it?" he asked me.
I started going through a list of ingredients that seemed to me to be pretty regular: cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom pods, bay leaf.
"No, no, no. That is not how we do it. It's NOT how we do it." He was quite positive that he was about to save me from making a colossal chai mistake.
"You are going to need this," he said definitively, as he handed me a large basket. I followed him meekly as he quickly started listing off the necessary items for chai and grabbing bags of unrecognizable spices off his low, dusty shelves. After filling my basket with green cardamom pods, black tea powder, raw fennel seeds, an egg-shaped nutmeg seed, and whole cloves, he asked me if I knew how to make saag paneer. I slowly shook my head, so he grabbed the handle of my basket and shoved a tattered notebook and greasy pen into my hands and indicated with a loopy finger in the air that I should start writing.
"This is a very important Indian dish you need to master," he said as he continued filling my basket with the necessary ingredients. He rattled off instructions as I followed him around frantically scribbling down notes, doing my best to get close enough to the spelling of the strangely named ingredients to be able to look them up on Google later. A couple of times, seeing my confusion, Sing rapidly spelled the ingredient for me, but because of his thick accent I didn't get much closer to the correct spelling. "You call me when you have made it and tell me how it turned out," he said.
On the second loop around the store we were on to chicken curry complete with whole mustard seeds, golden garam masala, and bright orange turmeric powder. I scribbled down the directions, convinced by a very enthusiastic and effervescent Sing that I could make this curry like any restaurant. "You call me after and let me know how it is. You be sure to call me," he repeated.
I walked out of Sing's store with a bag full of enough spices to season my own restaurant for a year at least, but convinced I could cook like the Bombay Houses' best chef.
I came home and eagerly started wading through my recipes written in several directions and with arrows and notes in the margins. My friend Bonnie came over to witness the attempt and was unreasonably supportive as I started pulling out bags of powders, pods, and seeds.
My kitchen soon took on the look of a disaster area as I tried grinding the spices with the back of an ice cream scoop and blending spinach and onions in a not-so-powerful blender that hasn't been used for anything except margaritas.
At one point Bonnie pointed out that the green goo I was scraping into a wildly sizzling pan looked a lot more like baby poo than food.
But I pressed on.
The curry was lumpy and the saag paneer too green, but Bonnie ate some of the chicken and declared the rice perfect.
It took me hours to rescue my kitchen, but I can't give up now! I have enough ingredients for a year full of spicy attempts at curry and saag.
I haven't dared call Sing.
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