Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cooking Lessons

Last night John and I headed over to one of his Muslim contact's house. A house I can only describe as palatial. It was a Roman villa hidden by large walls and an attack dog, set back in a manicured lawn in the middle of Vizag. It had marble pillars and vaulted ceilings for crying out loud. Marble pillars and vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows done in the most elegant and tasteful way by a hand long used to refinement and class. We were supposed to be joined by Michelle, but she fell sick that afternoon.

We were invited to come over and use their oven to make pie for Thanksgiving. I was to teach the wife, Karija, how to make pie, and they would feed us dinner in return. John and I had decided to go over and do a test run first to see if we even could make pies in India and to be able to leave some with the family - really, just an excuse to eat more pie.

Earlier that afternoon I had caught a bus into town to look for ingredients for the pie. Pumpkin and pecan were on the docket for the night and I had to go see if I could hunt up brown sugar and pecans. I had picked up a nice pumpkin a few days earlier from the vegetable market in Old City when I was in that part of town, but I was having a tricky time finding the other ingredients. I found a rough, brown-coloured sugar used for desserts that substituted nicely for brown sugar and instead of pecans we used a combination of cashews and almonds and butter instead of shortening for the crust. Corn syrup is also MIA in India, so I found a recipe that used honey as a base instead for the pecan pie. Making it up as I go along? Yep, pretty much.

That evening John and I walked up Beach Road well-laden with our ingredients and were ushered into the mansion by a kind, gracious women of about 50. A kind, gracious women who scolded us for not letting her buy all of the ingredients for us. Her kitchen boasted real flour, a blender, egg beaters, a full gas range, glass bowls, and marble counter tops, so I think she fulfilled her end of the deal quite nicely. The measuring cups and spoons floored me. Oh the joys of real kitchen tools!

For the next 2 hours I played head chef and John my sous as I orchestrated two pies, two maids, two sons, Karija, and myself and I tried to remember the tricks to pie making. John and the two sons concentrated on cutting the pumpkin and making that pie while Karija and I made the crusts and the nut medley one. It was hilarious to listen to John and the 14 year old boy work:
Okay, Captain, we need cinnamon.
Cinnamon, check. Okay, Captain, what next?
Karija had definitely seen her fair share of cooking shows and knew her way around a Western kitchen - so much so that at times I wondered why I was in charge. I guess it was the altitude and humidity, but the crust dough was much wetter than usual, and the pies took almost twice as long to bake.

As the pies cooked we sat down to a family dinner - a Muslim family dinner which meant there was plenty of quality meet. John had spent time with this family before and made himself at home - to the great delight of the family.

I guess I became part of the family, too. As we ate pie and vanilla ice cream on their outdoor patio, the husband, Manivar, was very approving. He said it was a pity we were meeting each other so late in my time here - I could have come over twice a week and we would have taken turns sharing and teaching cultural cooking secrets. Gosh I would have loved that.

He went farther than that, too. He said if I ever needed help finding a husband, he would find me one in his community.
"But I thought you could only marry in your community?"
"Well, with the delicious food you have made, I'll use my influence. It will be no problem."
"Oh, okay. I will definitely remember that."

And John and he proceeded to play matchmaker for the next 15 minutes.

Karija couldn't get over using pumpkin in a dessert. "Finally, pumpkin has a use!" Manivar said. Overall, I had a hilarious, delicious, and wonderful time with the family. And I'm going back on Thursday.

My grandmother would be proud to know that her pie crust recipe is beloved by Indians as well as family members, and they promise to make it often.

Old Fashioned Honey Pecan Pie
1 c. honey
3 eggs, beaten
3 T. butter
1 t. vanilla
1 c. chopped pecans
1 pinch nutmeg
1 recipe for 9 inch single crust pie
In a saucepan bring the honey to a boil. Cool slightly and quickly beat the eggs into the honey. Add butter, vanilla, nuts, and nutmeg. Pour into the pie shell. Bake at 325 degrees F (165 degrees C) for 25 minutes or until set.

Traditional Pumpkin Pie
3 eggs
1 egg yolk
1/2 c. white sugar
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 t. salt
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/2 t. ginger
1/4 t. ground cloves
1 1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. heavy cream
2 c. pumpkin puree
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C). In a large bowl, combine eggs, egg yolk, white sugar and brown sugar. Add salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. Gradually stir in milk and cream. Stir in pumpkin. Pour filling into pie shell. Bake for ten minutes in preheated oven. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C), and bake for an additional 40 - 45 minutes, or until filling is set.


  1. Lovely. Pumpkin pie should be accepted everywhere. Where the spices new to them? I had pecan pie here, too. It was terribly delicious.

  2. Part of the reason the pie took so long to bake was probably the use of fresh pumpkin. Whenever I try it that way it takes FOREVER to set up.