The Caregiver Who Makes Chana Masala for Everyone
As a child, I would boldly declare that I would not eat something if it did not taste "like my mom's." I was spoiled for choice growing up and lucky to have a mother who is ferociously talented in the kitchen. There was only one other house, besides my own, where I would happily eat without comment: Hina Auntie's. It didn't matter what she put in front of me. I would drain bowls of steaming dal brightened with a pinch of sugar; pillage stacks of crispy, salty Indian snacks she spent hours frying; and try not to burn my tongue while scarfing down a tray of piping hot enchiladas she would make to appease our endless demands for Mexican food. It was as simple as this: If Hina Auntie made it, I would eat it.
Hina Auntie, full name Hina Mody, is my mom's best friend. She is the person whom I first trusted to thread my eyebrows, and her two kids feel more like cousins than family friends. Perhaps Hina Auntie has always had a special place in my life because she shares a first name with my mom—and several matching outfits. The two Hinas, as I like to refer to them, are especially adept in the kitchen when it comes to the cuisine of Gujarat, the state in western India they both hail from.
It was at the young age of seven that Hina Auntie learned to cook. She didn't really have a choice: Her mother was ill, and as the eldest of three children, she had to figure out how to feed the family. "There weren't many restaurants or other options at the time," Hina Auntie tells me while sitting at her dining table in suburban Michigan. "I had to cook." She would whip up pots of lentils, beans, vegetables, and rice before going to school each day, picking up her skills not from a cookbook but by observation. She turned out to be a natural and has been cooking for people ever since.
Prior to the pandemic, there was a running joke in my family in which we referred to Hina Auntie's house as "Motel Mody" due to the sheer number of relatives and guests that would filter through from every corner of the country. She has a sense of hospitality that most Michelin-starred restaurants spend years striving to instill in their staff. Everyone is welcome, and everyone is treated like family. And for Hina Auntie, this means making several cooked-from-scratch meals for a crowd. Her go-to? Chana masala, starring tender chickpeas swimming in a tangy tomato gravy, and puffy, fresh-from-the-fryer puri. "It's a dish that everyone likes, especially kids," she tells me.
Hina Auntie uses no fancy tools or tricks when she makes her chana masala. The magic, she claims, is in toasting whole spices like cloves and coriander seeds and grinding them fresh. She does not worry about mise en place, nor does she measure out ingredients with a spoon, cup, or scale. Instead, she simply relies on her eyes and decades of experience to know when she has added enough. Chana masala is a dish she has made hundreds of times in her life, she says. While the chickpeas simmer, she makes quick work of the puri dough, kneading flour, water, salt, and ajwain seeds together in the time it would take me to collect ingredients from the pantry.
It's mesmerizing to watch her puri assembly line: She pinches off a glob of dough; rolls it out into a perfectly round, thin circle; and gently slips the disk into a pan of bubbling oil. In minutes, she has created a small mound of golden brown, puffy puri. The last step is to prep the garnishes for the chana masala: She insists that it is served with raw onion, a flourish of cilantro, and lemon or lime wedges. Though sometimes, if she is feeling fancy, she will fry off thin slices of potato, too.
I often feel homesickness in the form of hunger pangs. In those moments, I crave not only a pot of freshly made chana masala but also the warmth of Hina Auntie's house—the sounds of energetic and easy conversations from a lifetime of family friendship, watching the teamwork as one Hina rolls the puri and the other Hina fries them, and her gentle but persistent demand that we all eat more, until we cannot possibly consume another bite. But I will always eat just one bite more, for her.