Cassandra Landry | 12.10.2014 | Issue #6/7
I often joke that I’m not a ‘real’ Indian, whatever that means. I’m not sure when I started doing it, but it’s possible that it arose as a half-assed explanation for my stilted non-knowledge of Punjabi, or my persistent feelings of otherness on the rare occasions we would swing by a temple or a wedding. ‘I’m not that kind of Indian, really,’ I explain. ‘I’m a mutt.’ I am the kind of Indian however, who learned to make rotis at age eleven. The kind of Indian who has stood, on countless occasions, at the stove watching over the tarka (the flash-frying of your spice mixture to release the aromatic oils) while a small mountain of okra, or potatoes, or cauliflower, is chopped. The kind of Indian who, when I went off to college, was gifted a cha pot, with little Ziploc bags full of spices—rusty fern-green cardamom pods, spiky cloves, the pungent loose black tea that always came from the box with a smiling girl in a sari on the front—taped inside. So, fairly Indian, I guess.
The next year, I received a masala dabba, a round tin box filled with smaller round tins packed with more spices: turmeric, garam masala, cumin, chili, the works. There was even a little dignified demitasse spoon in the center that I used a few times when I was feeling overly precious. I was thrilled, and continued to display it in my myriad shitty studio apartment kitchens, even after someone invariably dropped it during every move, mixing all the tins until it was mostly useless. There’s only so many times you can sift turmeric out of cumin seeds, until one day you just say ‘fuck it’ and toss it all into the pot. They’ll sort themselves out.
The secret, see, the one thing that makes me feel as though I’m not an imposter of my own blood, has always been spices.
I started making cha for myself somewhere in the neighborhood of 8th grade, I think. In the late afternoons, after I had gotten home from school and my mother was wrapping up her workday, she would call when she was ten minutes out to let me know to put the pot on. I loved doing this. Dutifully tapping out a few shakes of cinnamon, clouds of it billowing up around my face, crushing the cardamom pods in the heavy marble mortar and pestle that sat to the right of the stove. That same year, tasked with writing an essay about our heritage in class, I penned an epic, over-wrought vignette of a homeland I had never seen, where majestic peacocks strutted the streets, and aquamarine bangles caught the golden light of early evening. (I believe “swirls of dusty, spice-scented air” was employed at some point. Yowza.) It was, I now realize, a love poem to the mythology of spices I was already falling for, to their mystery and utility and flash-bang brassiness.
It’s not an easy love to wrap your head around. There’s too many threads, so much history it’s all but forgotten now, cumin lined up alongside cayenne and harissa in sterile supermarket aisles. Pepper, once the ruler of the spice kingdom, is an afterthought for most, something you casually throw in because you’re supposed to. “The astonishing, bewitching richness of their past has suffered from being too often corralled into economic or culinary divisions, the essential force of their attraction buried in a materialist morass of economic and political history,” writes Jack Turner in the introduction to his book, Spice: The History of a Temptation, “...yet it is easy to overlook the question from which the others derive: why the trade existed in the first place. It all sprang from desire.”
Desire I had in spades, but not the kind that had driven centuries of global ransacking. Spices thrilled me because it's almost like they speak, crystal clear and more urgent than any other ingredient I’d ever come across—louder even, than butter, which is pretty goddamn loud. To me, there is no sliding scale of novice or master in the realm of spices; simply those who listen and those who don’t. By inhaling freshly grated nutmeg, or an oily vanilla bean, or a paprika that leaves heat streaks on the air as it rushes up to punch you in the brain, you know what it wants. It’s direct, exacting. To understand them all, to speak that many languages, is almost unthinkable. Almost.
But what does it even mean to be a modern linguist of spices? Knowing the origin and use of each chili, and every kind of pepper? Or is it an ability to catalogue how they resonate? Turmeric soothes. Fennel settles. Cardamom wakes me the hell up, and cumin, for some reason, seems to quiet everything around it.
A decade after my flowery ode, I’m still no closer to the lightbulb moment I convinced myself would appear. Now, as I ramble into the void, it occurs to me that there probably isn’t one. Their magic is wrapped up the mythology of time, of insane battles and curving roads cutting through mountains, of the sick and the poor, of luxury and miracle cures. They’re just plants, remember.