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Returning to Family Recipes with Daal Baby

Episode 05

In this episode, Lakshmi recalls her experience of moving from India to Northern Kentucky when she was 10. She shares her journey from trying to embrace American food to ultimately returning to her mother’s recipes with her food business, Daal Baby. 


All of my food experiences growing up in India were super, super positive because my mom -even though she was super busy taking care of the entire family, running the household, she was studying to become a lawyer in the evenings- despite all of that- like, she saw it as her duty to cook fresh meals for the family at least a couple times a day, sometimes three times a day for many people. I feel very privileged and spoiled to have been raised with that kind of food that was made with a lot of love and care and made fresh for almost every meal. 

My childhood...I have a lot of very fond memories because I grew up in a sort of extended household with extended family. So, my maternal grandparents were around, my mom’s younger brother who is only 14 years younger than me, he was around, he was like my older brother. And then my parents, my real older brother, and myself. And then we lived in two houses right next to one another, in a compound, and then across the street I had all of my childhood friends. So, I would come home from school and finish my homework and then run across the street and we would play cricket and run around, or like climb trees and then come back home at dinnertime and kind of get on with the rest of the night, go to sleep, and one of the things that I have learned from my mother, who has been the main cook in our family and in our close extended family is not one to take shortcuts with the food. And no matter how busy she was, and how stressed she was about things, she would always make a full meal. And she would always do things the long way. When we were younger there were a lot of… she would pickle and ferment vegetables. She would make these rice crackers that you had to mix and roll out and dry in the sun for weeks and then you could finally deep fry and eat them. So, my takeaway...she would use kind of low tech implements and instruments to make the food. So, I think my biggest take away and my admiration is just her process. And she honors cooking and she honors the opportunity to nourish people.


Moving to Kentucky was very...shocking. Because back in the early 90s, in India especially, media was...there was no social media. We didn’t have cable TV. All we really had was state television which was one or two channels...really just one channel called Dordachen  and I don’t know what it means. You just had the news, you had whatever programming, and then on Saturdays they would show a fun movie and on Sundays they would show a fun movie and if you wanted to watch something different you had to go to the video store down the street to rent a video cassette, then you could watch that. So, I hadn’t had much exposure to what America was like, except reading Archie Comics which I would borrow from the same library down the street where you could rent videotapes, you could get comics, and books and things like that. I was obsessed with Archie Comics just because it was really colorful. It was this depiction of these two girls who I saw as the protagonists, Veronica and Betty, and they were both completely the opposite of each other. And I didn’t realize at the time why they were so boy crazy about Archie. I really enjoyed sort of reading about all of those dynamics between the characters, but the thing that really stood out to me was how the gathering place for all of the characters was “Pop Shops'' where they sold milkshakes and hamburgers and for me that was what American..oh my god you can go eat hamburgers. 

I knew what a hamburger was, but I had never had one until I moved to America and this is within the first few weeks of moving to Florence, Kentucky. We went to Wendy’s I was either Wendy’s or McDonald's, but I think it was Wendy’s and I was in line with my dad and I was super I am a fast food place which I had read about in Archie Comics and I get the register and they ask me what I want and I say, “ I want a hamburger,” and so I got a hamburger. We went to sit down to eat and I unwrapped it and I bit into it and I just had the most repulsive reaction to the food. Because it was like what is this. You know? It just tastes not really what I expected. So, that was really shocking and would say maybe even a little bit traumatizing too… [Laughing] have discovered that. 

When we first moved to Florence, I went to R.A. Jones for sixth grade and I remember the cafeteria culture which was so different then how lunch time was going to school in India. And, you know, I was very surprised with cafeteria culture and how many people didn’t pack their food versus how many people went to the counter and had their meals served fresh from the cafeteria. So, that was a little bit of a struggle...not a struggle...but that was always...I was trying to advocate for myself to my mom to say, “hey, give me some money so I can buy food from the cafeteria,” you know? And so they let me kind of try it out for a bit, but it was always french fries or pizza or specifically, we had, White Castles it felt like several times a week and I just remember the smell of the White Castles and I was just like hamburgers and onions is very overwhelming. So, that’s like a very vivid memory but of also trying to convince my mom to let buy food at the cafeteria was also because I didn’t want to bring Indian food to school because, you know, there was shame associated with being different and I was the first Indian person that most people in that school had seen. When I first arrived there I was like this novelty item because Indiana Jones had just come out before and they were like, “oh my God do you eat monkey brains?” and asking me really weird questions. So, I think part of me just wanted to fit in by eating from the cafeteria even though I wasn’t particularly thrilled by it .

So, India’s got this big...well, it might have changed now, a few decades later, I’m sure it’s very different...but when I was in school there everybody packed their lunch almost all of the time and once in a while maybe once a month or once every few weeks, you could skip lunch and your parents could give you money to buy food from the canteen. But, the one thing that is big in India is like lunch dabbawalas and dabbawalas is a box and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen these stainless steel containers. It’s like two or three bowls and they stack up on each other and then you can kind of close it and it’s got a handle on the top. So, most of us would come to school with dabbawalas or we would have dabbawalas delivered to us. They had dabbawalas services where the rickshaws would go around to all of the households of the students to get the dabbawalas and then they would deliver the dabbawalas at lunch time so that your meal would be warm. And at lunchtime everyone just opens up their dabbawalas outside and we sit and we eat what’s in there. So, it’s usually like a vegetable, a stir fried vegetable, maybe some kind of flatbread called chapatis or rotis and maybe rice mixed with curry. So it’s like a standard template usually for lunch. So, everyone was eating the same thing. I think we used to eat outside. There was no closed cafeteria for us, we would just kind of eat sort of on the corridors growing up. So there’s like ventilation, you know? There’s familiarity and there was a lot of sharing of lunches with each other. So, that’s what I grew up with. 

I’m not a trained chef. I’m basically a home cook and I learned how to cook just by helping my mother out in the kitchen and most of the time she had to force me to help her and I was never a voluntary participant in meal preparation and meal making and so I picked up some basic skill from her. But basically after I finished undergrad here at the University of Cincinnati, I moved to New York and I lived in Brooklyn and that’s when I started to really, really miss my mom’s cooking and I started to ask her questions about how to make this, how to I make that. It was a good way for me to nourish myself, but I also started to feed my roommates and I started to feed friends and every time people would come over I would make them dal and rice or dal with a vegetable, different variations of Indian food that I grew up eating. My friends would always love it and they would ask for it. Daal Baby came about because it was a way for me to extend who I shared my homemade food with and I wanted to also educate people…. Not educate people, but raise awareness about the diversity of Indian food because whenever people think about Indian food they always think about Hijabi food, North Indian food - chicken tikka masala or saag paneer or naan and those items are amazing and their delicious, but I don’t know how to make those and what I grew up eating is completely different, completely different. So, for me this is a way of showcasing the diversity and showcasing the difference of what people eat in restaurants versus what people actually eat at home. I just try to replicate what my mom makes and what she’s taught me. I would say it’s a variation of our family recipes and I would say that my mom is a much more traditional cook and she know there’s a certain taste and flavor that she sticks to trying to achieve and sometimes that’s what I do but sometimes also I try to evolve a little bit because kind of going with this mission of using seasonal vegetables and locally sourced’re kind of like at the mercy and that’s not the right phase. You’re at the mercy of what’s available so my food is always a bit different than hers because I go about making it in a completely different way. 


Episode Notes:

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