Saturday night four of us were out on the balcony enjoying the breeze and playing a few rounds of rummy when Lalita and Vijaya, two of our cooks, called for me from in the kitchen. I went to see what they wanted and found them holding a box of walnuts.
"Suzanne cooking walnut curry, yes?"
"Yes? Oh, okay. When am I cooking? Tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow? Ah, no. Monday."
"Lunch or dinner?"
"Ah, no. Your choice."
"Dinner? Okay. What time should I come?"
"Ask Durga [the head cook]."
Any one picking up on the fact that no one really knows what's going on? Yeah, for all of my anthropological intuition I didn't see that one coming. I assumed that for whatever lucky reason I had been picked to be taught how to cook - maybe because I cook for myself more often than the others. Later I found Durga who told me to come around 5:30 or six Monday evening.
Monday evening rolls around and I come freshly scrubbed and beaming, ready to learn the secrets of Indian cooking only to find Vijaya in the kitchen cleaning up after finishing cooking the fish we were to eat that night. I pull down the box of walnuts and ask her what to do first.
"Oh, I do not know." Ah, this must be some specialty of Durga's.
"Where is Durga?"
"I don't know." Hmmm, things are going down hill fast.
"Walnut curry?" I'm grasping at straws.
"Yes, you making for dinner." Do they really thing I know how to make walnut curry? We're in trouble.
"Ah, ah, yes. I make for dinner." They have left a hole in the meal reserved for my curry. My curry? I've never made curry in my life. This is supposed to be for everyone - students, servants, everybody. Shoot.
So, being the calm, collected chef of the 21st century that I am and knowing that I am working in a kitchen that, while primitive, is fully stalked with spices, I googled "walnut curry". Walnut curry as far as the vast reaches of cyberspace are concerned does not exist. I found a peanut curry and a walnut curry-esque stuffing for pork chops and decided to improvise.
Chopping. Yes, chopping would be a good idea. Chopping walnuts is always a good start. Think while chopping. Aware that the clock was fast ticking towards dinner time, I hastily grapped a plate, a knife, poured out the nuts and began cutting. Just then, Durga walks in. Thank heavens! Saved! She will know what to do.
"Durga! Hello! Walnut curry?"
"Aaahhh, yes," giving the nuts a glance and me one of those ambivalent head shakes that means yes, acceptance, or anything you want it to in India. Her eyebrows and voice were raised, enthusiastic but concerned.
This, I though, this was the voice of experience.
"You need mixie?" Was that a question?
"Yes? Yes, I need the mixie." Sure, why not? And Durga pulls out and sets up the food processor for me. After an expectant pause on both sides, I galantly scooped up half of my chopped almonds and dumped them in the mixie, looking to her for affirmation. Durga closed the lid and flipped the switch, grinding my nuts into dust.
"Other half, too?"
"Ah, yes?" I realized at this point that I was the one giving directions. The panic returned.
"Oh! paste. Sorry, sister." We had let the walnuts grind for a little too long and they became more paste than powder.
"Oh, that is no problem. It is fine. No problem." I sincerely hoped so. I apparently sounded expert enough that soon Durga left me to return to her room. Durga is pregnant for the first time and is having to deal with the heat, her full-time job, and morning sickness. Funnily enough, she finds it hard to have energy sometimes.
Alone once more, I let the panic show as I feverishly reopened the web pages. Cumin, coriander, garlic, chili powder, salt, pepper, curry powder, curry leaves: they were all listed between the various recipes I looked through. Right. I turned to John, the other self-styled chef in residence, for help. He had never made curry either. He just laughed and wished me good luck. Right.
I heated oil in a pan and put the walnut powder and chopped garlic to toast. Powder doesn't toast very well, but I had reduced my entire stock to dust when I thought Durga was in charge. Toasting. Add chili powder. Add salt and pepper and cumin. Add coriander. We don't have coriander. Add more cumin. Durga came in at this point to have a look around. It smelled pretty nice at this point.
"Ah, nice. Your mother teach you?" Oh gosh, they really do think I am a walnut curry expert. Wanting to keep my mother's repution clear away from whatever this mess might turn into, I replied in the negative.
"Um, no. I, ah, I found it myself." She then saw the computer screen open on the counter and laughed.
"It is there?" Durga doesn't use recipes. Durga just knows how to make delicious curries.
"Yes, yes, it is there." Maybe I was a little defensive.
"I need to help?"
"No, no, it is very simple. I will be fine." I didn't want her to see the very apparent improvisation that was going on.
"Okay, I go to my room."
Add milk. Make it a thick liquid - please, please make it look like curry. That seemed to work pretty well. Add more milk.
John came in to see how I was doing, and I made him taste it. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good - it had no direction or distinction. It was brown mush. He suggested more salt, more chili powder, and tumeric. Tumeric? Sure, why not.
It all went into the pot. And so did a chopped onion. Which should have gone in at the very beginning with the garlic. Oh well. Add a little more milk. Add a little water. Oh, quick, keep it from burning. More chili powder. More pepper. Just call it done. It looks like poop. It's done.
I announced to the waiting cooks that it was finished - I felt finished - and I left the house to go run to an appointment with a lady in our branch. She had invited me over on Sunday, and I didn't feel like I could break the engagement. I never did find her house, but that is another story. I never did taste how the chutney-esque creation was with rice. Everyone claimed it was good. Lova said, "Your curry, super." I think she was being nice. Meghan had some on toast later - "See, see - voluntary consumption!"
Even now, I am completely baffled by the chain of events that led up to me being abandoned in the kitchen holding a box of nuts. Where did they get the idea I wanted to make dinner? Where did they get the idea that I knew how to make walnut curry? That such a thing as walnut curry existed? And where did that box of nuts come from? The world may never know.