The Stranger in my Kitchen


The Stranger in my Kitchen

Illustration: Shivali Devalkar

Living with a stranger teaches you several things: You brace yourself for their idiosyncrasies, you prepare to adjust to their habits, and you hope they will tolerate yours. The further the stranger is from your culture, the steeper the learning curve – the more rewarding the payoff.

Niya Ming and I are now friends, but when we first met, there was a discernible veneer of ice between us. Niya is from Hangzhou, near Shanghai in China. She lived across the corridor from my room and studied graphic design at my university. She and I shared a kitchen, along with three other people on the same floor. Being older than the rest of us, annoyingly conscientious, and married, I’d written her off as unsociable. I was 20, having the time of my life, and too hungover on most days to realise that, under the stoicism, lived a sensitive soul with a rare sense of humour and great taste in food.

Over time, I realised we had a lot more in common than I believed, especially when we started to agree about the lack of imagination in British food and bonded over the unavailability of real chilli. But it was on the day that she made me her delicious stir-fry pak choi that my feelings about her changed considerably. Over the soundtrack of Bollywood songs, the smell of homesickness, and a glass of sparkling, pink wine, Niya tossed a Chinese wok about with one hand and told me about the importance of crunchiness. I was floored.

Until one day, Niya brought home a cabbage. I had no idea that the green leafy head was going to become such a big part of our relationship.

Niya went to work discarding limp leaves and slicing the rest into thin ribbons with ninja-like precision. I stuck around as she prepped, my salivary glands awakened, wondering if she was going be making another one of her delicious stir-fries. All of a sudden, she discarded the lot into a zip-lock bag, punched it a couple of times, and walked away. This was a bit of an anti-climax. The Amelie soundtrack wafting through her door meant she was working on her dissertation paper and wouldn’t be back soon.

When I woke up the next day, the cabbage was still on the kitchen counter, staring at me. It had graduated to a mason jar with a cloth tied to its mouth.

By Friday, my curiosity had turned into suspicion. The cabbage was still lying there, turning into a state of liquid froth.

It was time. I had to acknowledge the putrid cabbage in the room.

Flavours alien to me, a pungent, astringent feeling, enveloped my tongue. The hint of spice came afterward.

“Should I throw it away?” I asked gingerly. Niya smiled at me, shaking her head, a hint of nostalgia playing on her lips. She was now examining the bottom of the jar and sniffing the vile thing. I dreaded what was coming next. “Do you want to try it?”

With a churning stomach, I tried not to look at the white bubbly liquid (was it moving?) that had formed over the cabbage. “This is K-ee-m Ch-ee,” Niya added helpfully.

A vague bell rang at the back of my head, conjuring up images of complimentary “appetisers” at Indian Chinese restaurants. Niya looked at me with twinkly, watery eyes. It reminded me of the time I had slaved over a sambhar no one wanted to touch. Now, in retrospect, I could understand why. The drumsticks floating around in a watery red sauce, smelling strongly of coconut and several coatings of masala, was a desperate recreation of my grandma’s recipe. Unabashedly traditional, it put off fellow international students, used to eating Indian food made mellow and palatable to their sensitive tongues. I remembered that crushing disappointment, as I reached for the spoon Niya was eagerly holding out.

Flavours alien to me, a pungent, astringent feeling, enveloped my tongue. The hint of spice came afterward. Its wince-inducing sourness, had a sharp aftertaste that made my taste buds dance, aching for more.

It was new. And different. And crunchy.

My Indian perception of kim chi fell away to reveal the first of many mild, fragrantly spiced dishes: a world of Chinese cuisine where vegetables and meat still retained some of their original flavour. Unlike the sweet and sour sauces or the fiery noodle dishes, found in most Chinese restaurants, Niya’s dishes were subtle and refined – just like her introverted personality.

The kim chi was my first step in an adventurous journey of exploring people, alien foods and friendships forged over kitchen counters. With Niya, I discovered new textures: flaky, moist, mellow, raw, crunchy and retain them to this day. Cooking with her offered me an insight into food that I have not been able to find eating in different restaurants across the world. For food that is made from a ubiquitous feeling of nostalgia and homesickness, is not conscious of foreign tongues. It is food that is true and proud of its origins.

From then on, Niya’s habit of leaving vegetables out for days, was met with sniggers from the rest of the hall-mates. But not from me. That cabbage and Niya tided me over many a grey, rainy day. On particularly snowy days, when the grocer down the road seemed like too much of a trek, the kim chi went beautifully with the sausages from my freezer. When I went home for the holidays, she ensured I took a big batch with me. My family now fondly calls it “Niya ka cabbage achaar”.

Nearly a decade later, on a monsoon afternoon back in India, I walked past a bookstore and spotted the volume The Art of Fermenting Vegetables. I smiled, promptly went back home, and opened the jar of kim chi that has taken up permanent residence in my fridge. It provided my dahi chawal a much-needed crunch.