Best Cook | Tastes of India
Jessie Grearson grew up in Meriden, a little village in western New Hampshire. Her mother, she says, made everything from scratch. “I used to crave store-bought cookies,” she quips. So she learned the basics of good cooking from her mother and then went off to Williams College in the Berkshires, followed by grad school at the University of Iowa, home to the acclaimed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There in Iowa City she met Viren Sapat, and her life changed forever. Viren and Jessie married and eventually moved to West Falmouth, Maine, where they bought a little white Cape with a white picket fence around it, an iconic New England scene. But inside, it’s more like Delhi, busy and spicy.
Jessie’s small kitchen is narrow, with an island counter close to the sink and a window looking out on the gardens. Jessie’s daughters and helpers, Ellie and Emma, comfortably jostle around each other in the small galley space. Jyoti Sapat, Jessie’s mother-in-law, is often there, stepping in whenever there’s a need for gentle correction. “I’m always learning from Jyoti,” Jessie says. “So many years, and she still hasn’t taught me everything she knows.”
Jyoti sits at the end of the island, hands folded on the counter, dark eyes smiling with love and pride. “I’m not a genuine Indian cook,” Jessie says. “I’m a cook who has learned to adapt Indian cooking to the American kitchen.”
Rice dances in a large saucepan. Jyoti has taught Jessie how to “sizzle” it, placing it in the hot oil until it shimmers. Jessie is also making her beloved spicy chickpeas, choosing the flavorings and adding to the mixture as she goes. Jessie’s “mandala” is a big circular tin; when she opens the cover, it reveals a nest of a dozen or more smaller tins, each containing one of many Indian spices: garam masala, asafetida powder, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, clove, coriander, ginger. “I think of this as what a palette is to a painter. Artists mix their paints; I mix my spices. What color will I use today?”
Naan (traditional Indian bread) is heating up in the oven; the chickpeas are simmering in a gingery tomato sauce. Jessie surrenders the pot to daughter Ellie, who gives it a slow stir while Jessie makes dal (lentil gravy). “Is that right, Jyoti?” she asks. She often double-checks with Jyoti, who nods with a tranquil smile. “This is the modern way,” Jyoti says, her voice heavy with the accent of her native country. “My mother-in-law always did it differently.”
Lunch is almost ready. Jessie arranges the chickpeas, dal, naan, and spiced rice in a wheel around each plate, a mandala all its own. She adds dabs of raita (a cooling condiment) and chutney. Jyoti cuts into a big, ripe mango and slices it skillfully onto a plate for all to help themselves. The family gathers. Jyoti tastes and smiles her approval. Small portions to start; the serving dishes are left for seconds or thirds. “We always make a lot,” Jessie explains, “so that next time all we have to do is heat up the bread.” But when we’re done, there isn’t much left but the chutney and the raita, and a little naan.