The world’s a small place, even here in the Napa Valley. Yesterday I helped with an annual charity event called Kitchens in the Vineyards; this year one of the homes on tour was none other than the lovely residence where I’ve been working and living these many winters. Not only does the event showcase the house, but it includes 2 chefs and an author at each location.
As I wandered into the large kitchen shortly before 9am to make some more coffee, I encountered a petite woman in gauzy sari attempting to plug in a rice warmer, while the docent in charge of explaining the kitchen’s aesthetic attributes struggled to find an unused outlet. This must be the morning chef. I already knew the afternoon one quite well, since she’s a friend and I’d helped her wipe up the messiest, most scrumptious chocolate batter from the white Carrera countertops the night before.
The woman with the rice warmer, which was nearly half her size, seemed a bit frustrated in her explanation to the docent in her lilting Indian-British accent that “no, this is not a rice cooker – that would never do for proper Indian cooking, since it would make a crust. This is to warm the food, not cook it.” As she opened the lid to show us the steaming contents, that food and its aroma threw me right back into my Kurdish mother-in-law’s kitchen, thousands of miles away.
“Bulgur!” I jumped into their conversation, in my eagerness to see what she had combined it with. “No, this is daliya, cracked wheat… not the same as bulgur.” Well, perhaps they are slightly differing versions, but hers looked very familiar. The chef explained that this was a common breakfast food, cooked with small bits of whatever vegetables were on hand, plus ginger and finely chopped chilies – serrano in this case, since we were in California. Daliya is eaten after a cup or two of coffee, around 10am. “My favorite time for breakfast,” I interjected, a comment met with the rolling eyes of the owner of the house, who revels in telling me each new day that she’s been up since 4am.
The chef explained that she’d had to learn to cook more than 40 years ago when she moved to the US. “Indian women don’t know how to cook because it's 'done' for them. They only learn to ask the cooks for what they want.” She was quite vocal in her views about how the ‘help' are quite well provided for in Indian homes, and could not understand why they would prefer working in factories and offices when they could be taken under the protection and support of an Indian family. Ahem. Now it was my turn to roll the eyes: but hadn’t she brought simple village food as her offering today, I thought?
As if she’d heard me, she said, “But my favorite meals are in the villages. We once had the most amazingly flavorful meal of daliya, cooked outside over an open flame with the herbs and berries from the sparse trees that grew in the arid landscape where we were, in Rajasthan. We ate it with a simple roti” – turning to me to explain, “bread.” Not to be rude, but I had to let her know that I’d left the Napa Valley before and knew my roti from my naan. I had my village stories too.
I told her about Yade’s foraging the hillsides for greens to cook with her bulgur, on Ayasuluk Hill where we live in Turkey. “My husband’s family is Kurdish. This daliya is very similar to what my mother-in-law makes; no ginger but with chilies too, though she would flavor it with bits of chicken. And she frequently cooks outside, though she has a modern kitchen.”
She looked puzzled. “But the Turks don’t use such hot chilies”. Perhaps not, but the Kurds do, I said, relating my theory that since the Kurds were a Indo-European people, if you went back far enough, you’d find cultural connections to their cousins in Rajasthan. I forgot to mention to her that the Kurdish word for bread is also naan – that information may have tempered her obvious skepticism.
Later that morning, as I sampled a plate of her daliya in the courtyard crowded with a homogeneous crowd of middle-aged wine country residents, she related her theory of parallel worlds. “I find it intriguing that Indian cuisine relies so much on ingredients that are not indigenous to the sub-continent. Of course, we had black pepper, but chilies, tomatoes, potatoes, corn - all came from the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. What did they eat before then?” I’d often had that thought as well: “What had cooks in Anatolia used before the arrival of those ingredients we think of as quintessentially Mediterranean and Middle Eastern?”
Though I did not really understand what she meant by “parallel worlds”, I did feel the connection of the food she’d prepared with the food I knew from my Selcuk home. That cooks everywhere, by using the simplest of ingredients, can create bridges between cultures by what they create. Anyone, from any part of the world, could eat a simple bowl of daliya and be comforted by thoughts of home.
Today I discovered that this chef, who I only knew has a restaurant in downtown Napa, was the creator of one of my all-time favorite restaurants, the Bombay Café in Los Angeles. If I’d known, I could have thanked her for the worlds she opened for me in the ‘90’s when savoring the most intriguing combination of flavors and textures. She took Indian food to another level, taking us beyond mere curries and introducing us to imaginative street food. Her restaurant was nearly a place of pilgrimage, an event we all looked forward to, the jewel in an anonymous strip mall. Her restaurant was the very reason I knew roti from naan.
Now that I know there are sev puri in Napa, I will have to visit her again before I return to Turkey.