Mom’s Cooking School: Doodhi na debra (Indian squash flatbread.)

When I was a child, my parents had planted and maintained two vegetable gardens in our backyard in Texas City. One of them was devoted solely to Indian squash. And, under the tutelage of my Mom’s very green thumb, the squash (doodhi in Gujarati) grew like wildfire.

I have to admit, I was not a fan. Whenever I saw the long light-green gourd sitting on the kitchen counter — and given how well they grew, it was often — I unhappily realized what we were eating for dinner.

An while I’m still not a fan of eating the vegetable, typically chopped up into a daal dish, Indian squash is a great addition to bread. Simple, hearty, satisfying. This Indian flatbread — which is not baked but made on a stove — has the added tastiness of grated ginger and chilies and squash. Doodhi na debra comes with its own portion of vegetables.

Eat it alone or with some yogurt and/or chutney as a great light meal or snack. I could also see using the debra as a tortilla-substitute and filling it with some eggs or shredded chicken.

Peel squash and then grated. About one cup. Can use regular squash from an American grocery if you don’t have access to Indian squash.







Add grated ginger and chopped jalapeños.









Whole wheat flour, about 1 1/2 cups. (It’s best to source this flour from an Indian grocery: it’s milled differently than the ones in American stores. I don’t know the reason for the difference.) Add in small amounts of flax seed, soy, oat, and barley flours.






Add spices: cayenne, turmeric, coriander, cumin seeds, salt.








Add sesame seeds.








Mix and add a little canola oil to bind the flours and spices.








Add squash mixture to flour. (You’ll want to squeeze out as must moisture from the squash as you can.) Knead the dough. There will still be some water in the squash so mix first and if you need additional moisture, add water sparingly.)






Add a touch of yogurt.








How the dough looks like when it’s ready for cooking. Pinch out small pieces, about an inch in diameter. Smooth into a ball in your palm. Flatten ball on flat surface area and roll out into a thin circle.







Cook on cast iron skillet on medium heat.








How each side should look when done.

Mom’s Cooking School

How many meals can one cook in around 60-plus years? I don’t need to do the math to know that it’s a lot. That’s about how long my mother has been cooking. It’s a culinary repertoire that began in India but, upon coming to America, expanded to include Italian-American foods, Tex-Mex, and all sorts of typical American meals families ate in the last 40 years.

My childhood was fairly Normal Rockwell, albeit with Indian-American immigrant touches. My mom made us fresh meals every day; we ate dinner as a family pretty much every night of the week. We mostly ate food from Gujarat, the state where my family is from, a cuisine that is heavily composed of vegetables, lentils and rice. My parents tended gardens during my school years and many of the vegetables we ate — squash, okra, tomatoes — came from that garden.

I didn’t know it then, but those meals set up my own views toward eating and nutrition. I don’t drink sodas and eat very little junk food (ahem, apart from Goldfish and the occasional Whataburger on a road trip.) Healthy eating is important to me.

Of course I didn’t truly appreciate all of that until my 20s, when I was establishing my own homes and living on my own. I didn’t really learn to cook all of our Indian foods when I was younger mostly because I just wasn’t that interested in the domestic arts. (And also, partly because my mom’s sense of perfection didn’t allow for the sort of lopsided and warped-looking rotlis and other breads a novice like me would produce.)

But, for a while now — for likely too long — I’ve been wanting to set about to more formally learn about my mom’s recipes and, more importantly, connect with the family history and culture that these foods represent.

She doesn’t do measurements. She just *knows* how much spice or water or oil to add to vegetables or to a flour mixture to make bread, or how high the stove’s flame should be. She works so fast I can’t try to approximate measurements. So now I’m working to get her to slow down and take measurements — or at least allow me enough time to guess the amounts so that I can take down recipes on paper. I’m sure I’ll annoy her with all of my questions.

This is not about being able to cook like her. I won’t be able to; she is truly a master in the kitchen. (One metric that I cite about my mother’s gifts? She can make delicious dishes, even ones that she’s never even tasted. A strict vegetarian, my mom doesn’t eat meat or meat products and eggs are considered meat. But her omelettes, something that she’s never tasted herself, are amazing.) She made chili and hamburgers for my brother and me when we were kids, though she doesn’t like to cook meat anymore.

But one of my goals for this year is to record this part of my family’s heritage. For many of us, our childhood memories are twinned with meals and I’m no different. The spaghetti lunches after playing tennis on Sundays when an uncle and aunt lived with us in Texas City. The delight I would have upon finding out mom was making one of my favorite foods for dinner or realizing she made chocolate chip cookies. 

I didn’t always like everything that was on my plate; I still dislike Indian squash and don’t really like daal. But, even now, no chicken soup is really as satisfying as mom’s kichardee (a rice and lentil dish) when I’m sick. The foods we ate reflect the lives we lived: our mainstay of Gujarati food, the masala-influenced cheese enchiladas my mom added to the repertoire, the homemade pizza that she makes. They show our journey as an immigrant family with two Indian-American kids as the four of us navigated experiences very different from the ones my parents had in India. That’s worth holding on to.

Saurashtra road trip

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Two days after Dad landed here, we set off on a road trip. Our plan was to explore Saurashtra, or 1,000 kingdoms, which before Indian independence was a region made up of many princely states. From Ahmedabad, we headed south and hugged the Gujarat coastline – except for an excursion inland to Junagadh – all the way to Dwarka, the state’s most western point.


The tour company I hired had put together an itinerary for us for nine days of travel (see map above) but it was the sight-seeing in between was no less note-worthy. Along this route there were none of the New India’s multi-lane, modern toll roads. We traversed the state largely along state highways, the surfaces of which varied from fairly decent asphalt to jaw-jarring gravel.

Along the way, we encountered humans using every kind of transport method available: walking,  bullock and camel cart, bicycle, scooter,chhakada, trucks, in addition to passenger vehicles like our own. This being India, the rules of the road are flexible. You overtake from which ever position is the safest and if you need to, driving in the opposite lane is acceptable as long as you are beeping your horn as warning to oncoming traffic.

Click here for more about our road trip and pictures of the people and sites along the way.


A divine walk with Dad

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

DSC_9334The muted buzz gives way to the intense, insistent punctuation of words spoken in rapid-fire Hindi as soon as the SUV doors open.

Sahab, dholi chaiyye? Bhen, dholi lijiye, nah?

1,100 rupees. 900 rupees. There are four-person dholis and those carried only by two. You can take turns sitting, they tell my father and me.

We are surrounded by dholi-wallahs. Dad and I grab hands so we won’t get separated as we push our way forward. There’s no way to get through the group clustered around us, so close to see the red smears of chewed paan in their teeth. No amount of Nai chaiyye – or I don’t want – spoken at first dismissively, yet politely, and then rudely, as rude as you can be, dissuades them. The dholi-wallahs close in tighter, accompanying us as we try to move toward the gate that marks the entrance.

It is a jarring introduction to Palitana, the most sacred of all Jain pilgrimage sites and a must-do for the faithful. The climb is more than 3,600 steps to reach mountain-top cluster of 3,000 marble temples carved out of marble over a period of 900 years, starting in the 11th century. From the ground, the temples look like the miniatures you see for sale at handicrafts stores all over India.

Click here for pictures and more about my visit to Palitana. At a place for Jain pilgrims, Dad and I have a chance to connect.

Scandinavian Scenes

How I spent my summer vacation, part 3. Our cruise took us to Scandinavian ports of call, Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen. The long days of summer are full of people enjoying the outdoors in Tivoli Gardens, the grounds of Stockholm’s city hall or Olso’s Vigelund Sculpture Gardens. We also visited the Ice Bar in the Swedish Capital for some seriously cold drinks.

Moscow Moments

How I spent my summer vacation, part 1. In addition to three weeks in beautiful Paris, I joined my parents for a Northern European tour that took us from Norway to Russia. Our last stop was Moscow, a place I’d been interested in since grade school when the biggest threat was the Evil Empire behind the Iron Curtain.

Moscow today is a thriving, chaotic metropolis. It’s home to roughly 15 million people and the traffic jams along its ring roads ensure you experience what that means! As the tour guide led us around, I was struck by how much of the city is built or rebuilt in the last 20 years, either by Russians seeking to replace what the Soviets had destroyed as too religious or czarist or the oligarchs spreading their newfound wealth.

A disappointment for me was that the U.S.S.R. played only a small role in our tour. Red Square had hosted an international military bands competition so we were only able to get an awkward look at St. Basil’s Cathedral and a visit to Lenin’s tomb will have to wait until another day. The “Park of Fallen Idols,” where many statues of Soviet leaders were moved after the 1991 revolution, was not on our itinerary. I tried to engage our guide, who was old enough to remember those days, but she seemed reluctant to speak of things 1917 to 1991. I realize Moscow has a long history; it’s believed to have been founded in 1147, but for an American kid of the 1980s, the Soviet period holds particular sway. Perhaps, следующий раз, or “next time.”

‘The Help’

Forgive me, but in the last few weeks Donna Summer has been ringing in my head.

No, I’m not on an ’80s nostalgia trip. But reading this and this does makes me wonder how Summer’s everywoman would have reacted to this statement:

“The problem is not whether maids will use their days off to run away. Rather, the exponential increase in days off may lead them to squander their hard-earned pay instead of saving it to help finance a better life when they return home. The higher risk of promiscuity, extramarital affairs and unintended pregnancies are also possible consequences.”

This was one reason cited by a letter writer to Singapore’s Straits Times about why housemaids should not get ONE day off a week. This particular person cited the hardship on her family. Who would take care of the children or the elderly if the maid has the day off??

Uh …. you?

How do you get to a place where you believe that is a valid argument supporting essentially slave-like conditions for your employees. And not just any employee: These are the people who care for your children and your elderly parents! They live in your home!

The sad thing is, I’m not surprised by such attitudes. That Singaporean letter writer has plenty of company in the Gulf. Most expatriate and Emirati families here, too, have at least one nanny to take care of the kids. At the malls it’s not uncommon to see two or three Filippina/Indonesian women steering the baby stroller or keeping hold of an unruly child’s hand — in addition to carting around the shopping bags — as the parents glide undisturbed in front.

Continue reading “‘The Help’”

India: Delhi

Part 1 of 4

One of the reasons I moved to Dubai was to be closer to India. Growing up in Texas, India was a full 24-hour plane ride away and schedules often made it difficult to carve out the minimum of three weeks we would need in order to make the journey worthwhile. When I started working, the usual starting vacation allotment of two weeks made it basically impossible to think about traveling so far.

In the last year I’ve been able to visit the subcontinent three times. In August 2010, I went to Sri Lanka for the first time. A few months later, my cousin, N.G., and I took a trip through Kerala, in south India, and we also visited Delhi, and Agra, where our grandmother lives.

I went to Delhi in November 2010 nearly 18 years after I first – and last – visited the Indian capital. Here are some pictures from that weekend of mostly new Delhi: Connaught Place, India Gate and the surrounding neighborhood. We also spent a beautiful winter’s afternoon exploring Lodhi Gardens in the south of the city.

A rose by any other name …

Saw this post from fellow blogger-in-the-Gulf Andy In Oman and just had to share. Since, I’ve been in India the last two weeks I haven’t seen any TV ads or movie posters from the Shrek spinoff, but apparently “Puss” was just a little too much for the Gulf censors to swallow.

The UK’s The Guardian newspaper writes that officials at the Doha Tribecca Film Festival last month also urged Antonio Banderas, who voices the feline character, not to refer to the original title during interviews there promoting the movie. The story says it’s not the first time Hollywood has fun afoul of Gulf sensitivities.
(via 7days)
“The change in title reflects edits made to previous films deemed to conflict with the UAE’s moral values. Sex and nudity are taboo, as is any attempt to depict a holy power on screen. This resulted, according to Time Out Dubai, in a cut of Bruce Almighty – a comedy in which a man meets God and is granted omnipotence – notable for the complete absence of Morgan Freeman as the heavenly father. Similarly, Sex and the City was stripped of its sex scenes and subsequently never shown in the Middle East. It was rumoured that the popular franchise would have been renamed ‘Shoes and the City’ had it been released.”

‘The girl effect’

I came across “The Girl Effect” campaign the other day on Twitter. Backed by The Nike Foundation, Novo Foundation, UN Foundation and The Coalition for Adolescent Girls, The Girl Effect’s mission is to get 50 million of the 250 million adolescent girls living in poverty out by 2030. The message is fairly simple. If girls, especially in un- and under-developed nations, can go beyond age 12 still in school and not married, not only do they prosper, society prospers as well. The website features videos of young girls expressing hope that they can continue their educations.

Living in the Arab world has heightened my awareness of women’s issues, whether it’s the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, perceptions about “modest dress,” or outright bias I see against women in the ways laws are sometimes applied. And it’s not just here. I read a story recently about middle-class Indian women telling doctors they had to abort a girl fetus because their in-laws would be livid at another female child in the house. All of this anguish because of two X’s.

It’s even more confounding to me because of my own upbringing. My parents both came from very traditional households in India and they both assumed largely traditional roles in the house. Still, to this day I remember vividly my mother telling me that getting my education was the most important thing. I was about 8 or 9, and the importance of that message that I didn’t get then I certainly do now. My dad’s suggestion to me decades ago that I be part of an exchange program inaugurated my love for travel. Both of my parents’ support in developing me to my fullest extent, especially when it came to my dreams and aspirations, never wavered. My being a girl was not a consideration. Nor was I given slack for it.

So how is it that my parents were able to strike this balance between culture and modernity (as perceived by me) while other families find it more difficult? Obviously, progress and modernity are somewhat relative. But the question especially intrigues me in a place like Dubai: modern-facing but, at heart, a conservative Islamic society.

Thanks to my friend A.S. who’s let me raid his personal library, I’ve started a sort of “reading program” that relates to women and Islam in particular. Women in Iran, Pakistan and other Arab countries who are revisiting their faith and finding it to be compatible with empowered women, not an obstacle. They are working within and among their communities. Of course the pushback is from societies that have interpreted their religion in a more restrictive way.

There is Amina Wadud, an American minister’s daughter who found Islam in college, who has pushed back against the prohibition against women leading the Friday prayer. She studied at Al Azhar University in Cairo and speaks Arabic fluently. Or Zainab Anwar in Malaysia who founded Sisters in Islam to press for women’s rights. There are many others.

I’m sure there are many Muslims who think these women are pushing for too much, too fast but their willingness to work toward change that will better women – and therefore society – is admirable to me.

I’ve also recently met a few Emirati women for whom this balancing act is everyday life. They’re pursuing careers, wondering about marriage and simply living a life a lot like you and me. Like me, they also have supportive families. Here’s to that shared patch of terrain being expanded to include greater numbers of women.