Hubby and I felt proud about our packing – we had definitely made a great progress over the decade - we couldn’t believe that each of us were carrying one whole baggage less than that allowed by international flights! Well, this was our eighth trip to the US and we had graduated from luggage-chugging passengers to luggage-savvy world travelers!
I remember the first time – way back in 2000 – when both my boys were students – we were on an 80-day visit. In addition to two pieces of carry-ons each, we had lugged along two suitcases each – no, not those monstrous sized ones – as both my hubby and me are petite-sized and were inching towards 60 and 50 respectively and could not vainly boast of enough muscle power to lift heavy stuff off the conveyor belts. And guess what? Two of them were stacked with eats, masalas and papads and ready-to-cook and instant foods and snacks galore – well, I wished to help my poor student-sons save a few dollars of their fellowship! But while we were filling up our Customs Declaration form aboard the flight we claimed we weren’t carrying foodstuff as we felt every question should expectedly be answered with a ‘No’. Luckily our lie went undetected or so it seemed - you see our baggage could not make it to the connecting flight unlike us and so we didn’t have to get them through Customs. ‘They’ bravely made it on their own and we don’t know what examinations they had undergone. But next time onwards we had become enlightened and would carefully tick ‘Food’ as ‘Yes’ and added a phrase of explanation - “dry, sealed, packed snacks”. Promptly enough our baggage would go through screening and we had to answer a couple of questions. Once the officials made us open one of our boxes and in particular a stainless steel container tucked inside while we were left wondering what they wanted to find out. On opening it, they saw the round ‘besan laddoos’ and asked us what they were. When we explained that they were sweets, they gave one another meaningful glances and burst out laughing. Putting two and two together, we guessed that from the x-ray, they must have suspected they were bombs!
Okay getting back to the 2000 visit, when we drove down to our son’s student-apartment in the university campus and opened the bags of goodies, my son and his Indian room-mate had a go at the snacks from day one.( I quickly tucked away a part of it – saving it for my elder son who was visiting next week). After the four English meals aboard the British Airways flights, we were eager to savor some Indian stuff. On examining the fridge I saw a bunch of giant tomatoes and a giant onion – that was all the vegetables in there. I made a quick tomato curry out of that and was nauseated at the thought of having it with bread (oh no, not again) when my son came to the rescue and proclaimed that they had Tortillas. “What?” “Tortillas – chapathi-like....” he started explaining. Like a famished kid, I grabbed them, heated them and relished them – anything close to chapathi tasted so divine. But if you ask me now, I’d say it’s a poor cousin of Indian rotis – at least to my ‘Indian’ palate!
I managed with all the ready-to-make eats I had lugged along and we pulled on till the weekend. Then my son took us grocery shopping to the Indian store. Prior to that, he had also given me a list of ‘to-make’ dishes/ delicacies. So I had a long grocery list. I was aghast to find that they sold stuff in giant packets – all pulses were sold in 2lb / 4 lb packs! That’s pardonable but imagine 400 gms of coriander powder/ garam masala – wouldn’t they lose their flavour during the limited use in the Indian homes there tending towards Western cooking? Or for that matter in the apartments of youths who give a once-in-a-week shot at cooking? I couldn’t bring myself to buy a 400 gm packet of mustard seeds for some 3.69$! “What? Rs.180 worth of mustard seeds? I wouldn’t have spent that much money on mustard seeds in an entire year’s cooking in India!”. “Cool it, mom. Need it? Buy it!” pacified my son. I regretted at not having got a 100 gm of mustard seeds from India. May be a 100 gms of cumin seeds too and ….well the list extended …jaggery – it cost more than 4$ for 2 lbs – tut, tut, too bad – I should have packed a kg and saved…When I voiced my thoughts to my son, to my horror, he seemed amused. He went on to explain - “Well, mom, if you convert the $ value into rupees, you will end up buying nothing at all. When I spend my dollars, we have to multiply by 10 if you want to know the equivalent in Indian currency.” “Pray, how’s that?” I asked totally baffled. He patiently explained – “You see, it’s like this – how much do I get as fellowship? 1500 $ per month, right? Well, I can live the life of a fresh-on-the-job-in-India youth – whose first pay check would be something like Rs15000 (in 1998). So my 1 dollar is equivalent to Rs 10. So that’s the equation – but if you are spending your dollar, it is equivalent to Rs.49, got it?” Okay, so that would not be as bad as I had thought. So jaggery would cost a little more than Rs 40/ kg – fine – but I couldn’t condone the fact that we had to buy a 400 gm pack of mustard seeds or a 4 lb pack of sooji – forget the price - I'd be cooking there just for a couple of months!
With the fridge and pantry well-stocked for a fortnight, I plunged into full-fledged cooking. I discovered that making chana didn’t involve a one-day-in-advance planning – I mean beginning with soaking of the chana the previous night. And I didn’t have to pressure-cook it for 24 minutes. All I had to do was make the gravy, open a couple of ‘chick peas’ cans, drain the water, wash it well and add to the gravy and let it simmer and lo, chana was ready! What a saving of cooking time! And when I’m on this factor of time-saving-and-utensil-saving-dish-washing-saving aspect of American way of life, I’d like to add the daily savings – we don’t have to boil milk, we don’t have to prepare curd, we don’t have to make chapathis – we just buy them all. If we don’t have time to cook, well, there are ready-to-eat MTR/ Gits packs to make instant dishes.
Grocery shopping in the US is a weekly affair and we need a car to cart home the groceries – including milk, juices, buttermilk/yogurt, flavored milk, ….and fruits and vegetables and bread and eggs, ice creams, and other dairy products. It’s not like going for an evening walk and getting stuff on our return. Oh yes, if we have a nearby shop, we could walk up and get one or two absolutely essential items. Too many are ruled out because we can’t carry the giant sized ones.
Another thing is, I have never ‘paid’ for green chillies/ coriander/ curry leaves in India – I have evolved my own strategy by which my friendly vegetable vendor more than gladly obliges me with a handful of green chillies/ a quarter bunch of coriander leaves/ a two-inch-ginger piece/ half a dozen stalks of curry leaves. We are no big users of these spices, so the magnanimous ‘bonus’ would suffice for my cooking. But when I went to get vegetables in the US, I had half a mind to tuck in five green chillies along with some vegetable in the polythene bag, but my son told me that I use a separate bag for my ten chillies. I was surprised to see them getting weighed and charged some 15 cents. That’s one thing in the US – they will neither forego nor keep back the smallest cent!
With subsequent visits to the US there were changes in our outlook and attitude. The boys had settled down in their jobs and I (it was never them) didn’t need to be very calculative! So whatever stuff was available in the Indian stores there (and that was a pretty lot) were eliminated from my list of ‘to-take-to-the-US’ list. Every subsequent trip saw us travelling lighter and lighter… Also the variety of vegetables stocked in Indian stores these days leave no cause of complaint or yearning – the frozen section has cut ‘tondli’, drumstick, ‘methi’, samosas, burgers and many more….. There are fresh chapathis and assorted parathas as well as idli/dosa batter and all leading brands of Indian sweets and snacks – you name it and they have it – to satisfy our craving for Indian food. At Trader Joe’s, we even found packaged Masala Dosa on the counter!
Well, all said and done, every time we return home after a six-month-stint in the US, I do go berserk when I go marketing and bring home a car-load – so irresistible is the spread of tender, fresh, modest-sized, and tasty Indian vegetables which seem so low-priced in comparison to the $ rates!