How a family of pirates from Rhode Island brought home all the flavors of Calcutta in a single suitcase
I am the daughter of former pirates, of a kind. Our loot included gold, silver, even a few precious gems. Mainly though, it was food, so much that throughout my childhood I was convinced my parents were running the modern equivalent of the ancient spice trade. They didn't exactly plunder this food; they bought it in the bazaars of Calcutta, where my mother was born and to which we returned as a family every couple of years. The destination was Rhode Island, where we lived, and where, back in the Seventies, Indian groceries were next to impossible to come by.
Our treasure chest, something we called the Food Suitcase, was an elegant relic from the Fifties with white stitching and brass latches that fastened shut with satisfying clicks. The inside was lined in peach-colored satin, had shirred lingerie pockets on three sides and was large enough to house a wardrobe for a long journey. Leave it to my parents to convert a vintage portmanteau into a portable pantry. They bought it one Saturday morning at a yard sale in the neighborhood, and I think it's safe to say that it had never been to India before.
Trips to Calcutta let my parents eat again, eat the food of their childhood, the food they had been deprived of as adults. As soon as he hit Indian soil, my father began devouring two or three yellow-skinned mangoes a day, sucking the pits lovingly smooth. My mother breakfasted shamelessly on sticky orange sweets called jelebis. It was easy to succumb. I insisted on accompanying each of my meals with the yogurt sold at confectioners in red clay cups, their lids made of paper, and my sister formed an addiction to Moghlai parathas, flatbread folded, omelet-style, over mincemeat and egg.
As the end of each visit neared, our focus shifted from eating to shopping. My parents created lists on endless sheets of paper, and my father spent days in the bazaars, haggling and buying by the kilo. He always insisted on packing the goods himself, with the aura of a man possessed: bare chested, seated cross-legged on the floor, determined, above all, to make everything fit. He bound the Food Suitcase with enough rope to baffle Houdini and locked it up with a little padlock, a scheme that succeeded in intimidating the most assiduous customs inspectors. Into the suitcase went an arsenal of lentils and every conceivable spice, wrapped in layers of cloth ripped from an old sari and stitched into individual packets. In went white poppy seeds, and resin made from date syrup, and as many tins of Ganesh mustard oil as possible. In went Lapchu tea, to be brewed only on special occasions, and sacks of black-skinned Gobindovog rice, so named, it is said, because it's fit for offering to the god Govinda. In went six kinds of dalmoot, a salty, crunchy snack mix bought from big glass jars in a tiny store at the corner of Vivekananda Road and Cornwallis Street. In, on occasion, went something fresh, and therefore flagrantly illegal: a bumpy, bright green bitter melon, or bay leaves from my uncle's garden. My parents weren't the only ones willing to flout the law. One year my grandmother secretly tucked parvals, a vaguely squashlike vegetable, into the Food Suitcase. My mother wept when she found them.
My parents also bought utensils: bowl-shaped iron karhais, which my mother still prefers to ordinary pots and pans, and the areca-nut cracker that's now somewhere in the back of the silverware drawer, and even a boti, a large curved blade that sits on the floor in Bengali kitchens and is used instead of handheld knives. The most sensational gadget we ever transported was a sil-nora, an ancient food processor of sorts, which consists of a massive clublike pestle and a slab the size, shape and weight of a headstone. Bewildered relatives shook their heads, and airport workers in both hemispheres must have cursed us. For a while my mother actually used it, pounding garlic cloves by hand instead of pressing a button on the Osterizer. Then it turned into a decorative device, propped up on the kitchen counter. It's in the basement now.
The suitcase was full during the trip from Rhode Island to Calcutta too, with gifts for family. People there seldom asked for any food from America; instead they requested the stuff of duty-free, Dunhills or Johnnie Walker. We brought them Corning Ware plates and bowls, which, in their eyes, were exotic alternatives to the broad, gleaming stainless steel dishes they normally used. The only food we packed for ourselves was a big jar of Tang, which my father carried with him at all times and stirred obsessively into the bitter purified water.
In spite of everything we managed to haul back, the first meal we ate after returning from India was always a modest affair. My mother prepared the simplest of things: rice, some quartered potatoes, eggs if she was motivated, all boiled together in a single pot. That first meal was never an occasion to celebrate but rather to mourn, for the people and the city we had, once again, left behind. And so my mother made food to mirror our mood, food for the weary and melancholy. I remember thinking how strangely foreign our own kitchen felt that first night back, with its giant, matching appliances, water we could safely drink straight from the tap and rice which bore no stray stones. Just before we ate, my mother would ask my father to untie the ropes and unlock the suitcase. A few pappadams quickly fried and a drop of mustard oil drizzled over the potatoes would convert our survivalist meal into a delicacy. It was enough, that first lonely evening, not only to satisfy our hunger but to make Calcutta seem not so very far away.
My parents returned last August from their 13th visit to India in their 30-odd years abroad. When I asked my mother what foods they'd brought back she replied, with some sadness, "Nothing, really." My father observed matter-of-factly that most everything was sold here these days. It's true. Saffron and cardamom grace supermarket shelves, even in the small towns of Rhode Island. The world, the culinary world in particular, has shrunk considerably. Still, when my cousin's mother recently visited New York City, she packed several pieces of fried ruhi, the everyday fish of Bengal, into her bags. Of course, the Indian markets of Jackson Heights, Queens, were only a subway ride away, but the fish had been sliced, salted and fried in Calcutta. This was what mattered.
Today the Food Suitcase sits in our basement, neglected, smelling of cumin. When I opened it on my last trip home, a few stray lentils rolled around in one corner. Yet the signs were still visible, in the cupboards and the refrigerator, that my parents have not abandoned their pirating ways. You would know as much, were you to visit them yourself, by the six kinds of dalmoot my mother would set out with tea and the mustard oil she would offer to drizzle on your potatoes at dinner.
Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of the short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies (Houghton-Mifflin). She lives in Manhattan.