I’d had South Indian food before I cooked it with my father, but he's the one from whom I learned to cook it. In his ramshackle ranch-home kitchen, before the rusting electric stove, I chopped vegetables from his garden while he talked.
“Normally when you make uttapam, you use rice flour for the batter, then fry it,” he explains. “We're going to use some Bisquick from the corner store and a cheap griddle.”
Uttapam is a kind of rice pancake, with vegetables and chilies mixed in. Some make the comparison to pizza, which would be more apt if Indians ate their pizza with chutney or sambhar, soupy lentils from South India. The food historian K.T. Achaya claims the uttapam dates from the fifth century A.D., and perhaps even earlier, being eaten in Tamil Nadu by Syrian Christians, Nairs, and Nampoothiris in that era and the British in next. Achaya is nothing if not technical, though, and “a circular pancake of toddy-fermented batter of rice” is the most technical description one can give a dish like uttapam. The toddy, a still used to make palm liquor, is the engine of choice for fermenting the creamy, foamy dough of several South Indian dishes. Dosa, vada, idli, and uttapam have such similar consistencies and ingredients, that the idea of fermenting the rice batter seems to have occurred to South Indians before they figured out what to make with it.
There is no toddy here in my dad's kitchen—a toddy is about as big as a small bathtub, and my dad doesn't even have room for me. His sink and oven meet at a corner, and the awkward square between them is the biggest countertop in the room. Past the sink, the counter runs out and cabinets begin, nearly all of them empty save the spices above the stove, above which my father has also crammed every plate, bowl, and saucer he owns. There are two refrigerators: the freezer is broken on one, the other is an ancient mini-fridge and it isn't cold enough. Atop the second is a temperamental microwave. The power will cut out if something is cooked for longer than five minutes. The buttons, caked with the grime of nearly fifteen years, take a long time to decipher, and still longer to depress. It is a kitchen that resists all save my father, who can navigate the narrow doorways with ease, coax slightly more heat from the coiled iron burners, and set the microwave precisely. Indeed, the kitchen is resistant to outsiders because it is, in essence, an extension of my father's nature. The front porch is crumbling into the dirt, there are holes appearing out of nowhere in his lawn, his property is alternately choked with dust or weeds. In the kitchen, none of this matters. Nothing is beyond him. Here, he is in control.
I put down the knife and show my dad the cutting board full of vegetables. “Is that enough?”
He squints. “Enough for me, sure. But what about you?”
Hesitant to try uttapam for the first time, especially in a kitchen like this and with sketchy ingredients like Bisquick and overused cooking oil, I shake my head. “No, I'm not too hungry.”
He shrugs. “We can always make more. It will be good practice for you.”
As he begins rolling oil in the warming pan, I think back to other meals with my father. His cooking is strange to me, as distant as he was when I was growing up (my parents divorced before my seventh birthday). He adds twice as much spice to most dishes he makes, to compensate for the salt and sugar the diabetes will no longer let him eat. His noodles are nearly Szechuan in fire, searing the tongue while leaving the nerve endings just open enough to appreciate how painful they are. His idli, cooked in a white plastic egg tray put in the microwave, are swollen and puffy just as idli should be, but are grittier, the taste of Bisquick flour pressing against the gums. His chutney, though, is another matter entirely. It's fueled with flaming red tomatoes from his garden, tomatoes as big as Red Delicious apples and as tangy as lemons. A massive Mason jar of the stuff sits behind the sink, marinating in the sunlight from the window. The chutney is unbelievable, with a consistency like marinara, a far cry from blazing noodles and crunchy idlis. We eat it with nearly every meal.
So, in my father's kitchen, with this kind of track record, I am a little conflicted about trying a dish that comes from the same Bisquick mix as his idlis but uses the same ingredients for his chutney. “Should I stir these into the batter?” I ask, holding the filled cutting board over the mixing bowl.
He shakes his head. “No, no, that would ruin the flavor. Watch.”
Pouring some of the batter onto the griddle, my father lets the bubbles rise to the top of the “pancake,” and begins arranging tomatoes and jalapenos around the circle like a pizza. Some white and yellow chunks of onion are added, and just as smoke begins to wisp its way up from the edges, he flips it. We are rewarded with a violent sizzling and hissing, as though we were grilling cats. But in a minute he flips the uttapam over and the whole thing looks cooked, juicy, and redolent with flavor.
“Oh, this one got a little burnt,” he says, pointing to some char on the bottom and black residue sticking to the tomatoes. “I'll eat this one, you can have the next one. In fact, here, you can try it.”
I subtly reduce the number of jalapenos on my uttapam in the pan. My dad notices and adds some wordlessly. When it is done, I slide it off the pan and onto my plate, spooning some tomato chutney on the side. There is coconut chutney set on the table, too, probably just as nutty and coarse as the uttapam before me.
“Let me know how you like it!” my father hollers from the kitchen. I sit down at the table alone, and, tearing off a chunk of uttapam with my fork, dip it in chutney and take that first, nervous bite. It is coarse, it is spicy, it is what my father calls “poor man's uttapam,” and it is in the most impoverished part of the Texas Hill Country. But it is alive. We plucked the ingredients not an hour before they hit the stove, all from my father's half-acre garden. The oil is still clinging to the bottom of the uttapam, making it glisten, shining in the afternoon sun. My father is watching me eat and silently holding his sides in pain, but even with failed kidneys he is alive. As my teeth clamp down around a fresh jalapeno and a whole new ideation of the pepper enters my sinuses, I approach the understanding that I, too, in this moment in my father's house, am alive.
Vyasar M. Ganesan is a writer from Austin, Texas. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. He is currently working on a project about Indian food in America. You can read his work in Agave Magazine, Limbic and Illusion, and the National Gallery of Writing. For more information, visit vyasarwrites.com