I Remember Two Girls

I know two dead girls. I remember them now, as an adult, out of proportion to how I knew them then – one I knew in grade school, one I knew in high school. Neither were girls I knew very well, or for very long.

One talked to me in gym class. Maybe we were badminton partners. She left our school about as quickly as she arrived. I remember an incident with a lacrosse stick, some of her more colorful stories. Feeling nervous every time I talked to her, but in an electric way. Her fast-talking storytelling drew me in in disbelief and fascination. Would she ask me to hang out someday? What would I say? Was she alright? Who did she live with?

I never got any of those answers, and within about one year she was found murdered in Milwaukee. Her death is linked to those of seven other women. She was a runaway, the only minor, the only non-professional whose death is connected to a serial killer who targeted sex workers. He is locked up for beyond-life. Exactly who killed Jessica, maybe it wasn’t him, remains unresolved.

What I remember is that there were pictures of the other women, six or seven of them, in the newspaper some 15 years later. But there was no picture of Jessica. I can tell you she was thin, very thin. Her eyes were maybe not quite as brown as her very straight brown hair. Eyeliner was involved. That’s all I remember. We were not friends. Others from my hometown would have other stories, real stories, about Jessica – including the handful who wore blue tee-shirts in her remembrance. The girl had her own tee-shirt, but the newspaper of record could not even find her photo.

The other girl, a childhood neighbor, had her final hours recounted by the man who murdered her. He is in prison again, too. This time he will stay there, and how he killed this other girl – aged 19 – is something that can be looked up easily elsewhere but not here. This girl left behind a daughter, brothers, a sister and a mom. I remember not seeing her for ten years, then seeing her picture in the paper and reading this story and regretting, immediately, the summer I spent barely acknowledging her as my friend of convenience.

She was killed in Milwaukee the very same week that Elizabeth Smart was found in Utah.

Secrets and Slurs: When kid lit ain’t child’s play

“Mrs. Lennox,” says the young officer in a trembling voice, “you ought to have gone to the hills two weeks ago.”

 “Oh I know I ought,” she cried. “I only stayed to go to that silly dinner party. What a fool I was!”

This passage is one of countless times “The Secret Garden” reminds us that Mary Lennox’s mom was a fun, frivolous, gorgeous, pitiful excuse of a parent. About Daddy Lennox we learn nothing. Being a colonial officer in India seems to get one off the hook for child neglect – which is what was happening to Mary all her life up to that cholera epidemic that left her orphaned. In the nursery. With a snake.

“This is sad,” my daughter interrupts. I promise her that the saddest bits of the book would soon be over. If she was too sad or too bored, I say, we can stop.

She appears to be the opposite. Take the aforementioned exchange between Mrs. Lenox and the young officer.

“What do they mean ‘go to the hills?’” daughter asks.

I explain to her that the hills are “hill stations,” where the climate cools as the elevation soars, and where mosquitoes and attendant diseases fear to tread. I remind her of our own trip to the hills, 28 hours in Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu State, elevation 2,200+ meters.


A brush with Kodaikanal wild life.

Family Tourism & Colonialism

Turns out, Mrs. Lennox really did miss out. Kodaikanal is overrun with tourists and natural beauty, verdant commercialism and glorious displays of green (the forests) and grey (the mists). Monkeys, too. The streets are narrow and steep, rows of veg restaurants and chocolatiers and ice cream counters and craftspeople making some of the most beautiful things I saw that entire trip. Life there is cooler. Saris are topped with knit caps, shawls and sweaters.


Nature’s bounty served up roadside in Kodaikanal.

Scenery that day included the Kodaikanal International School – and here is where reading “The Secret Garden” became this unexpected hybrid of history lesson and trivia showdown. Not far from Kodai’s Tibetan Market are the grounds of the International School. Just walking past the iron gate and peering into the brick buildings and emerald grounds of the school leaves the impression that you’re brushing up against academic opulence and exellence, crossed with the visual appeal of Hogwarts.


A photo from the Kodaikanal International School website.

I asked my uncle about the school. “Is it expensive? Is it good?” He answers promptly and positively to both. Back in the States, I looked up more information on the school. It was built in the early 20th century to accommodate the children of missionaries who could not weather the heat and illness of lower-elevation India. Later, in the 1970s, the Kodaikanal International School became India’s first International Baccalaureate-certified school.

So it was a great way to connect Mrs. Lennox’s vague comment “Oh the hills!” to our sight-seeing in Kodai.

But any reader understands that Colonial literature – even the children’s variety – can’t keep its worst secrets for long.

Soon my daughter is asking more questions.

“Why didn’t Mary live with her ayah’s family in India?”

“Why didn’t Mary stay in India because she already spoke Hindi, probably, so she would do okay in school there?”

“Why didn’t an Indian family adopt her?”

All of the above were harder to explain – even to a well-traveled bilingual kid. I tried it briefly and vaguely, getting across the notion that countries don’t colonize in order to learn and to cultivate the cultures of another. We talked about “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” about why English schoolchildren in India were educated in English – not Hindi, about how this explains the prevalence of the English language in India today. About why an ayah could never adopt an English girl in 1910. About why ayahs and servants did not have names in books like “The Secret Garden.”

Frances Hodgson Burnett: Not a Little Princess

Then I dug around a bit about Frances Hodgson Burnett – doing some unofficial, hodge-podgey research across a few sites. What was she like, writing about English girls rescued from cholera, despondent but debonair uncles and Sara Crewe, the poor little rich girl of “The Little Princess?” If I remember right, there were ties to Indian diamond mines and colonial opulence in that novel, too. And I had loved it.

Well, Frances Hodgson Burnett struck it rich herself, born into privilege in Manchester as she was. She lost some of the family wealth as a very young child with a suddenly widowed mother and many siblings. As a teenager she and the family emigrate to the U.S. on the invitation of a brother who owns a dry goods store in Knoxville. But they arrive in Knoxville in 1865 – the end of the Civil War. From Manchester to Knoxville, anyone who made any money on American cotton economy isn’t making it any more.


Frances Hodgson Burnett in another photo I didn’t take.

A teenager still, Burnett starts writing more than she ever had before. In a cabin she shares with family she churns out stories and novels so prodigiously that within a few years the 19-year-old is supporting her family. American dreaming, indeed.

Lots of other things happen to her. Suitors, marriages, stage adaptations, best sellers, two years in Paris with her doctor husband, the loss of her teenaged son to tuberculosis. A divorce and disastrous remarriage to an actor who is ten years younger.

None of these things are things I tell my daughter. She seems unperturbed after my first bumbling attempt at “Colonialism 101 for First Graders.” By chapter three it is all about the moors. What do they look like? What is heather? Are they still there?

I think about switching to a much-abridged version of “Wuthering Heights” by way of explanation. I don’t. Heathcliff is such an asshole sometimes. Maybe in middle school we can talk about the dangers of falling in love on the English moors. For now, we look up pictures of them on the Internet.

 From Frances to Francine Nolan

But wait! There’s more. Six months ago I bought my third copy of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” My mom bought me my first when I was 11 or so. Maybe ten. I read it every summer after that. Francie! If you know her, you love her. The way she studied and odd-jobbed herself across Williamsburg and adored her drunk of a dad and completely understood her mom loved her, but not nearly as much as she loved Francie’s younger brother. She took it all in and wondered and worried and wrote. She boards the Wolverine train and goes to college.

But the book is gritty. It’s about being poor and Irish and Catholic and being welcomed or pitied or hated for all of it, while holding on/shaking off  the perverse privilege of judging others who are more poor than you, or Jewish or Italian. Remember the unwed Italian girl and her steady diet of non-Italian food? Out pops a positively German-Irish-looking baby and the whole family is relieved.

I thought about not giving that book and its turn of the century biases and slurs to my 11-year-old. Or not reading, ever, “The Little Princess” to my daughter. Maybe they won’t ever want to read either. This seems highly likely.

Secrets in Books: Share Them

But secrets belong in gardens, slurs belong on bookshelves, and of course they need to be explored and weeded out and put in their proper place. America just celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. We took the kids to see a play and movie based on 42’s life. In both instances, words were not minced. A boy in the row behind us whispers: “Is it okay to say the n-word like that?”

Jackie Robinson, no. 42.

Jackie Robinson, no. 42.

At intermission of the play “Jackie and Me,” playgoers got to meet and to talk with a man who played for the Negro League Chicago American Giants and nearly made it to the MLB Chicago Cubs in 1955, before injury ended his pitching career when he was still a teenager. My eldest could not believe this. He was stunned, his cheeks deepened red, when he asked Dennis Bose Biddle: “Did you know Jackie Robinson?”

“Yes, he opened the door for me. I asked him if he ever felt like quitting. ‘Every Day,’ is what he told me. But he stayed on.”

So stay the books. And I’ve added to the collection between my childhood and my kids.’ Certainly, important titles remain missing. Suggestions are welcome.

“A Young People’s History of the United States.” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” “Living Up the Street.” “The Little Princess.” “The Little Prince.” “Jackie and Me.” “The Diary of Anne Frank.” “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “Going to Meet the Man.”

Some are for now and some are for later. Some entertain and some inform. Most do both. Some make you feel like you’d be a hero in the French Resistance, certain you’d be an abolitionist among southerners, a Freedom Rider among fear-mongerers. The best books, I think, make you really uncomfortable when they make you ask of yourself: “But really, would I really be any of those things? Living then with the raw material I am today, would I have had the courage?”

All these books should be shared. I can’t tell my kids they have to read them. But the books will be there. Just in case. In the meantime, at bedtime, my daughter trades in “The Secret Garden” for “The Diary of  Wimpy Kid.” This will take time.

Don’t Judge a Book by its Title

Two nights ago my daughter asked: “Mom, what did you like to read when you were a kid?”

“’A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ ‘Whitley Strieber’s Communion,’ ‘The Secret Garden,’” I spat out the titles so fast, like I had been waiting all my long and lonely mom years for just such a question.

And I have been!

My daughter tsk’d and shook her short-sheared head at that last title: “The Secret Garden.” It’s her auto-reply to everything I say or suggest that reinforces stereotypes of 21st-century American girlhood. But I say these things by accident or misunderstanding, I tell you.

‘Girl Talk’ 

Review these examples from recent conversation.

Me: “Want to wear your sweat pants with a draw-string waist for Easter Service?”

Daughter: Tsk.

Me: “What about a black scoop-neck tee-shirt for the spring-theme recital at school?” Daughter: Tsk.

Me: “Want me to pack your lunch in a white paper bag with glitter on it, or a brown paper bag that has been through three lunches and was squished into your backpack’s moldy micro-compartment for three weeks?”

Daughter: “White is for girls! Brown-bag it!”

Gardens? Secrets? Gross!

So it was with my list of go-to books, especially that last one. “The Secret Garden.” Gardens and secrets? Please, you might as well have called it “Tea Time & Glitter Tampons: An Afternoon at the Mall with Barbie.” That’s how appealing a book about gardens and secrets is to my daughter.

But if you have read “The Secret Garden,” you know there’s more to it than this Edwardian manor-moored child Mary Lenox, rose bushes and colonial gossip.


Don’t mind the glare. My kids are my photography staff.

“Don’t judge a book by it’s title,” I tell my daughter. “It’s about forgotten children, a boy who talks to animals, snakes in the nursery. And it all starts in India!”

“Snakes in the nursery” did pique her interest, as did the lost child and my assurance that the boy who talks to animals has no unicorns in his care. A unicorn on the moors would have been a true credibility blow for this book, in my daughter’s eyes.


Our last bookshelf. Each of the kids has one, too.

By the time we wrap this literary pep-talk it’s time for stories and bed. I walk to the dining-room bookshelf that has been painstakingly culled and downsized from two large shelves of books into one shelf containing only our “best of” volumes. Something that never happens to me happens right then: I find the book exactly where I thought I had placed it one year or two ago. It’s a showy blue and gold hardcover with gold-edged pages and a satin-ribbon bookmark that was gifted to me by my godmother when I was eight or nine. I think she bought it at Gimbel’s in Packard Plaza – talk about a flashback. I plan to always keep it.

This night, I planned to read it.

“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle…”


Chutney for Children

The day after Code Red, I co-presented with my daughter on the subject of “India.” I had hoped for one hour twice weekly until the end of the school year to address the country fully and properly. I know about .00018 percent of the total story behind India, and hours would be needed to extract all that info for the younger generation. The teacher gave me 45 minutes.

I prepped a special batch of chutney for the children, using 1.5 chilies instead of the usual 3-4. I brought some chips. I brought “Tinkle,” which my kids devoured when they were abroad. Many copies came home in their carry-on.

The presentation began immediately after lunch, so one can imagine things were a little crazy. I quickly realized my Powerpoint “India: A small report on a giant culture,” would have to be shelved in favor of a Q&A-style format. NO, I would not be comparing literacy rates of boys and girls in India and reminding my daughter’s class how lucky they were to be receiving a free, high-quality public education that is mandatory and does not discriminate.

Despite a major improvement in literacy rates in India over the past decade, the number of children who are not in school remains high.  Gender disparities in education persist with far more girls than boys failing to complete primary school.

The national literacy rate of girls over seven years is 54% against 75% for boys.  In the Northern Hindi-speaking states of India, girls literacy rates are particularly low, ranging between 33 – 50%.

–UNICEF, Girl Star Project

Instead, my daughter and I began to share anecdotes about our time in India – sprinkled with a few random facts. The best question came in response to a story about monkey aggression on Elephanta Island. Within our first few moments there, just where you set off to mount the dozens of wide shallow steps to the caves, a monkey jumped down in my front of my astonished second son. She grazed his chest lightly with her paw as she landed in front of him. We all were stunned, him especially. He dropped his defenses. His muscles slackened. The monkey struck again, grabbing his lemonade and jumping back into her green canopy. She took greedy pulls of lemonade in the trees. She did not even look at us. This was strictly a business decision on her part.

After our classroom presentation was over, a little girl came up to me. She looked worried. “How did your son get his lemonade back?”

Since there’s no fooling smart young kids, especially the day after a Code Red, I took the honest approach: “When a monkey takes your lemonade, you don’t get it back. She drank it all.”

After that we began a taste test. Small steel dishes were places at every table. The teachers scooped out banana and pita chips onto sheets of paper towel. The kids looked wary of the pulpy emerald mixture. I heard some “what is that?” But they got down to business ASAP.

At a couple tables, the chutney went fast. Refills were requested. I was surprised. Then I wasn’t. “This is nasty!” pronounced one girl. I appreciated that she was able to tell me to my face, with a smile. No backstabbing about it.

“Mom-lecture mode” was activated.

“I can understand that you might not like how chutney tastes. It’s a very different taste, and some of my kids don’t like it, either. But a word like ‘nasty’ is not the nicest way to tell someone you don’t like their cooking. What’s another way to let me know what you think of the chutney?”

The student was unperturbed. This was a friendly conversation. We were all learners in that room.

“Um. I don’t like this?”

“Yes, that sounds a lot nicer than ‘nasty.'”

We parted as friends. She liked the pita chips and gave me a parting “thank you” hug.

I hoped to swipe a few calories of chutney myself, but by the end of our 45-minute whirlwind tour of India … the chips were gone. I vowed to make myself a grilled-cheese and chutney sandwich with Granny Smith apples just as soon as I could. I packed up the Tinkles and the chutney, stashed our roll-up map of India back in the brown paper bag. I walked out of the school, handing in my visitor’s badge on the way out. The door thudded shut behind me.

What we do in the 512: Reunion weekend winds down

Things I’ve learned in the last 48 hours:

  • I can still handle hill repeats.
  • I still need my girlfriends.
  • Eating chaat and Gujarati has changed how I eat all food, forever, everywhere.
  • Making ragda pattice once does not make me any kind of expert on Indian cooking.
  • I might be able to convince 3-4 of my vacation ladies to order up a tiny pre-brunch tattoo early-Sunday morning.
  • I wear my grandma’s clothes. I look incredible.

Ragda pattice panic!

We’ve enjoyed a whirlwind weekend in Austin. Freezing and sweating and slipping off mossy rocks in Barton Springs. Eating fried pickles at the Lodge on Lamar Ave., dancing at nite clubs on Sixth St. and pretending we’re only just old enough to have been the other dancers’ former nannies — not their current moms. It helps. So does dim lighting. And dancing in front of neon, wall-sized American flags.

We exchanged clothes and confidences. I made ragda pattice; they made huevos rancheros. I need these women in my life: strong relationships, strong minds, strong bodies. These sustain me.


I did not just meet them, but this is crazy. These women saw me through three kids, marriage and undergrad. And they still want to hang out with me.

As for the ragda pattice that I made on Friday night, they were proof it takes a village to feed a village and that an “Indian cooking” blog does not a chaat chef make. After packing and prepping in painstaking fashion for a ragda pattice throwdown, I committed some major tactical errors.

1. Shopping for provisions at a store that carries eight kinds of chutney but not tamarind chutney. Trying to buy ginger-garlic paste at that same store. Central Market, I love you but I’m talking to you. “Thanks” to the Central Market clerks who directed us to Taj Grocer’s.


Nervous about Friday’s cooking commitment, I spent the day in sweat pants and, briefly, in Taj Grocer’s on Lamar Blvd.

Even with the right groceries, errors persisted. These included too much wine during food prep; getting scared of the pressure cooker; not enough chilies; renting a vacation home with knives duller than “American Idol: Season 2013”; forgetting to add the tamarind paste that had been in my carry-on through two flights. Thank gawdness I made fresh mint-coriander chutney and raita. Nobody at the table knew the paste was missing but me. Right, Sharifah?


Edit massages the kale. I compress the cucumber.

Chaat meets BBQ: A Night at Salt Lick

Night two we took things in a totally different direction. After considerable controversy and debate we made the 45-minute drive to Driftwood, Texas for dinner at Salt Lick Barbecue. Not even the hostess’ warning of a two-hour wait could keep us serious-minded carnivores in Austin for local BBQ. The two-hour wait was more like one, the entire UCLA track & field team filed out of the restaurant — laughing and clutching leftovers — as we approached the Driftwood Vineyards that neighbor Salt Lick BBQ. Good sign, non? We had a magical time talking about college, our next college reunion, sampling local wine. 

Sitting, finally, at the picnic-style tables, we were treated to brisket, chicken and ribs. Plates of pickles and onions, a simple and slightly orange potato salad — like mashed potatoes served lukewarm and prepped with a seasoning that’s too subtle to identify but too delicious to be denied — and mayonnaise-free cole slaw whose starring ingredient is sautéed sesame seeds, and fluffy, sesame studded loaves of white bread accented the meal.

We stopped talking, but it’s not like we were gross about it. Napkins were used. A couple gals tried forks and knives. Someone said “please” before I passed them the spicy BBQ sauce.

Me, I made open-faced sandwiches: smearing the bread with spicy BBQ sauce, layering a slice of charred chicken and snappy garlic pickle atop the bread, then completing my edible creation with a sprinkling of cole slaw. Sometimes I used the doughy bread to swipe a lump of potato salad or sop up BBQ sauce. It was like Texas-style poori, and the entire experience reminded me of how fourteen years of Indian food has changed the way I eat. Not just what I eat, but the ways in which I take perfectly American ingredients and layer, alternate, sauce and sprinkle them together in ways that replicate the rich, fresh bursts of garnish that make chaat cuisine so beautiful to look at and so memorable to eat.

Texas-style poori.

Texas-style poori.

I prefer my food richly textured, and I blame the crispy, salty, golden crunch of sev noodles for this. I marveled at how beautiful they looked on a salad Friday night, their delicate golden curls flecked atop green, citrus-rubbed kale leaves. Who knew sev and kale could be so good together? Who knew a food that I can barely make has nonetheless fundamentally changed how I eat? Christmas Eve 2012 was the first time I tried a jalapeno in my pho, and I hold our November sojourn to India mostly responsible, and I’m grateful.

 Tattoo time?

I can’t promise any group ink tomorrow. But I’m certain that if the Sola neighborhood tattoo parlor had been open at 1:30 Sunday morning, a few of the college-reunion ladies would be dabbing fresh <<414>> ink with antibiotic ointment right now. As things stand at 4:08 a.m. local time, not one of us has a calf tattoo and Mikey the guy with the Depeche Mode sleeve says we should try a place on First St. at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

I wear my grandma’s clothes; I look incredible.

“Incredible” might be overstating it. Plus my new dress originated at Dallas’ Orchid Shop so, really, it could not have belonged to my late, never-met-her grandmother. Still, the dress is a 1962 vintage, was cheap and tailored nicely for a short person with narrow shoulders and is an excellent green — not as seafoamy as a shamrock shake, nor as forest-hued as kale. I like it. Macklemore ain’t the only one poppin’ tags with swagger.

Thanks to Austin, Edit, Jennifer, Jessica, Nicole, Sharifah and Megan-from-England for making this a wonderful, not-quite-over weekend. Shout out to my MIL for watching kids and my husband for finishing the weekend with them and helping me through a flight snafu. To Connie, me and Edit say “thanks.” Couldn’t have done the 5-1-2 without you!


America the beautiful & tasteless.

Chutney Challenged: on location, off topic

Well, I did make the channa masala on Sunday. Things went okay. Folks told me — I served it to six adults and three kids within 24 hours — “Your chickpeas are so firm. But tender.” I would agree. Maybe because I soaked them for 12 hours. Channa masala takes up a lot of time, many steps, squeezing and sautéing, boiling and scraping. Kids told me: “I’m not. HAVING. Anymore of this!” Ignore them, because they are not our target audience. 

General advice:

  • Read the entire recipe carefully and fully. Once or twice. If you just “skim” the recipe, a few steps might take you by surprise when it’s too late.
  • Use a non-stick pan, all the oil (maybe a bit more than the 1/3 cup grapeseed or peanut oil the recipe requires) and watch the temperature carefully. Channa masala has a long cooking time: 90-120+ minutes. First you make the spiced tomato & onion gravy. Then you add it to the chick peas. That combination simmers stovetop for quite some time. After a while, both the gravy alone and then gravy combo will do their best to adhere to the bottom of the pan. Avoid this, unless you want to make charred masala instead of channa masala. 

Channa masala quartet.

Changing topics/locations

I wanted to write more about the masala earlier this week . And I couldn’t. I woke Monday morning to two awful stories: another gang rape in India and media sympathy for Steubenville (umm, the rapists, not the young woman at the center of this case). For a few days, I couldn’t be a food blogger. So I blogged nothing. 

Yesterday I boarded a plane to Austin, and from Atlanta to Austin I did write about what happened in India, what’s happening in Steubenville, what I observed in middle school — from the nightly news to home ec. class. How no one among us should be surprised that rape and sexual violence happens everywhere — could happen to anyone.

It’s personal and political and kind of … out there. So I might post it, or I might not. I guess you can take this paragraph as warning that a “very special” Chutney Challenged post might be coming soon. So maybe you’ll want to avoid it, or read it. Or fundamentally disagree.  

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned.

Another thing that’s next


My clients: Edit, Jessica, Nicole, Sharifah. En route is Jennifer.
Photo credit: Jessica.

Ragda pattice. I was invited to Austin to play personal chef to a group of dynamic, successful, cultured and very Midwestern ladies with an appetite for adventure. I loaded my suitcase with hand-blender, pressure cooker, gym clothes, chilies, spices and some heels and glitter because, come on people, this is Texas. Terrified that a jar of tamarind chutney might wreak havoc in my luggage, I packed none of this ragda pattice essential. Soon we’re off to Central Market to stock up on mint, cilantro, onions, potatoes, tamarind chutney, ginger, etc. The white vatana is already creamy, golden and all soaked up. A cloudy, spicy, reflective day in Austin awaits us.

That’s vacation, baby.  


My spices, my toiletries, my clothes = fifty pounds of baggage.

We’re Doing This Right: Channa Masala

Tonight I dropped the eldest at a homework playdate and sneaked off for a “me party.” First I went to Leon’s Frozen Custard and enjoyed a diet coke. More honest people would call this a chocolate-and-strawberry cone.

As I sat in my car licking my diet coke, I reviewed the latest installment in Slate.com’s “You’re Doing it Wrong” series. The latest edition was channa masala – how people try to whip up a batch of restaurant-quality chickpea stew. And fail. The dried chickpeas soak then stew over  hours, anywhere from two to eight. Eight roma tomatoes, two onions, myriad spices later there is a golden, steaming chickpea stew awaiting you. A classic dish, channa masala has its own spice blend (that’s the “masala”) and the textural versatility to go with the fried bread that’s called bhatura or with rice. It’s on every Indian menu I have seen from Mumbai to Milwaukee and the dish’s prominence is well deserved. In India, this was my first-grader’s go-to meal at every veg restaurant. In the non-veg restaurants it was chicken – on a stick, drowned in curry, in a pile of noodles, any way she could get it.


According to “You’re Doing It Wrong” author L.V. Anderson, American at-home channa challenges fail because folks opt out of the Indian grocery store for their shopping, instead buying at a more traditional grocery store. One example of this phenomenon: swapping out amchoor powder for lemon juice. Amchoor is mango powder in a muted mauve color.

Initially, I scoffed at folks who think they can prepare authentic Indian food from the convenience of the “ethnic foods” aisle at Pick ‘N Save. But I didn’t get into this to be all judgy. In some ways, I got into this writing thing because one of my children’s teachers told me years ago: “You’re so real.” She told me this because I was always forgetting to sign permission slips, arriving late to school, packing the kids’ lousy lunches. I am proud of none of those things. Minute failures are the voices in my ear, whispering always: “You could do better. Be more. Try harder. Focus!” Hence this writing exercise is equal parts trying to learn and succeed at something different and difficult to me, and a TMI-style confession that in many ways, on many days, getting through it all is really a lot of work for me. So there’s a pop-psychological analysis of ChutneyChallenged for you. And now I’ve just shamed myself by using the word “chuckle.”

After I checked myself for being a supermarket snob I thought back to my first couple trips to the neighborhood Indian grocer. It was hard for me to walk in, ask for help, leave myself open to a suggestion that might lead me in the wrong direction. With six different bhel mixes to choose from, how could I possibly buy the right one? Should mustard seeds be purchased split or whole? Same question applies for dalia. Harder still was buying cooking equipment. My misadventures with pressure cooker nearly reduced me to tears on New Year’s Day and I had to ask my husband to get his Gujarati on and make phone calls on my behalf to procure one.

Even tonight, when I returned to that grocery store for staples and channa masala ingredients, I experienced a few blank moments. The recipe dictates one begin with dry chickpeas. However, there are about eight different kinds of dry chickpeas: whole or split; roasted or unroasted; salted or unsalted. I asked the owner for help, and was steered immediately to canned chickpeas. I held my ground, and they took me to the masala shelf. I grabbed the channa masala from my bag  to prove our latest misunderstanding, then repeated my interest in chickpeas – nothing else. On my third request, I got there.

I posted a photo of most of the channa masala ingredients, especially the ones you may not have heard of. This whole bundle of items cost  $17.25, which does not include the rice, bhatura ingredients or tomatoes. You will see that I bought garam masala from the Spice House, a small and successful business in Milwaukee. Most of my indi-gredients are from India, Illinois or Canada. I felt better buying the garam masala local. It definitely perked up my singed chivda earlier this week and the scent is more beguiling than any smelly marker you remember from grad school. It is good stuff.


Note: Spellings vary widely in India and among Indian products here in America. Amchur powder could be amchoor. Getting used to this will demystify your every trip to the Indian grocer.

Happy shopping! Tomorrow I cook. Or maybe I’ll go bowling. What I lack in productivity and bowling I make up for in honesty, FYI.


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Vampire Cupcakes

Bite it before it bites you.

the other fork in the road

navigating life via acute corners, wrong turns and dead ends.

The Rants of a Stay-at-Home Dad

Designed for experimentation, not expertise.

Frat House Fridays

Writing, Teaching and Tearing Down the House with a Toddler

Just A Small Town Girl...

Just your average 27 year old diagnosed with E.W.S. at birth... AKA Excessive Writing Syndrome :)


four states in four years


1 woman's journey through cancer treatment

The Creative Trust Milwaukee

fostering life-long learning through the arts

Chutney Challenged

Designed for experimentation, not expertise.


Designed for experimentation, not expertise.

still in sirsasana

Designed for experimentation, not expertise.

Farm to Table Wisconsin

– Reviving the bond between community and farmer

Everything Everywhere All of the Time

New and improved obsolete irrelevance.

Melissa Writes of Passage

1 Family. 6 Languages. 10 Countries. 1 Writer. Always at Home.

Namita's Kitchen


Crappy Pictures

Designed for experimentation, not expertise.