A celebration of Indian American contributions

Library event will feature food demo and sampling

This Saturday, there’s an event taking place in Madison that showcases more than 50 years of contributions that Indian Americans have made to the city in areas including science, medicine, research, technology, business, the arts and food.

And it’s going to be one tasty event.

As part of the Library Takeover project, Namaste Madison, an event celebrating Madison’s Indian American community, is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 13 at the Madison Central Library on West Mifflin Street. Funded and supported by the Madison Public Library Foundation and the Madison Central Library, this is a series of three events happening this spring in Madison libraries, where winners of the grant take over space at the library to share something important with the community.

From noon to 1 p.m., a food demonstration followed by a sampling of Mumbai-inspired street food will be presented by local cookbook author and cooking instructor, Neeta Saluja. Offerings that day include: behl, a mixture of puffed rice, crispy fried chips (similar to tortilla), fried broken chickpea noodles and roasted black grams called Kala Chana (tiny garbanzos) served with a choice of sauces: one sweet and sour, the other spicy as well as mango lussi, a cool yogurt beverage.

A celebration of Indian American contributionsIn preparation of the menu, I was invited into the home of Saluja and her husband Kewal for a tasting of items similar to what will be offered Saturday. We were joined by Lakshmi Sridharan, who is the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in water chemistry in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she also is the organizer of this event along with her daughter and a friend of mine, Anjali Sridharan.

Saluja has taught for almost 30 years. Her cookbook, “Six Spices: A Simple Concept of Indian Cooking,” published in 2007, is a lesson on simplicity. She illustrates how only a few spices are needed to create a multitude of Indian dishes. She offers classes at Willy Street Co-op, Orange Tree Imports, and All Through the House in Stoughton. A few years ago, I took her class on chicken tikka masala and was introduced to the taste, aromas and pleasure of cooking Indian food at home.

At the tasting, we sit chatting around Saluja’s dining room table when she brings a tray of tall glasses filled with ice and a thick, smoothie-like drink–lussi. Sipping the fruity, tropical and slightly sweet mango yogurt through a straw made me instantly devout to this remedy for cooling the body on a hot day. We nibble on roasted peanuts when the scent of warm spice fills the room. Noting the pause in conversation, Lakshmi says street vendors rely on sending out steaming clouds of fragrance to pull in customers so it “makes you hungry and want to eat.”

Then Saluja, who up until now appears to be quiet and reserved, comes to life as she brings the food to the table commanding our attention, “All right,” she instructs theatrically, “Close your eyes and imagine you are in India, on the streets, with the people, the noise, the music and then the smell of potatoes, chutneys and cilantro.”

And with that, her dining room becomes a bustling market place in India complete with earthy scents of chili pepper and cumin swirling in the air. I am immediately filled with a hunger not only for this food but for a place I have never been and yet am instantly transported to, thanks to Saluja.

A large bowl of what looks like dry cereal sits on the table. Around it, smaller bowls of toppings: boiled potatoes, diced cucumber, cilantro and two chutneys–a green chili with lemon and a tamarind and date sauce blended and cooked with cumin and red chili powder served cooled. Behl, with its crunchy and soft textures and it’s building blocks of flavor, is a classic, I’m told. You enjoy it as Anjali says, “Like a made-to-order omelet.” You help yourself with the toppings, building your bowl the way you like.A celebration of Indian American contributions

The evening winds down with cups of black tea infused with cardamom and milk and a plate of petite sweets that Saluja and her husband Kewal have brought back from their recent trip to India. With my pen and yellow-lined pad at rest, I ask my dinner companions what it was like being among the first Indian immigrants to arrive in Madison, and where they got their ingredients from.

Leaning back in her chair, Lakshmi recalled a time when the community got together to place a hand-written order for ingredients, spices and flours, to New York City. The process took about two weeks, and you’d have to plan ahead. Should you forget, you might find yourself without a key ingredient such as dahl, a staple in an Indian household.

Finally, Kewal, who hasn’t said much up to this point, leans in and says, “Would you like to hear a story?”

“Sure,” I say, “I’m always up for a story.”

He tells the tale of how the tiny chickpeas became an important food in the Indian diet. It seems the king of India and the creator of the Taj Mahal was imprisoned by his cruel son, who made sure the father from his cell had a view of the Taj Mahal. The son permitted his father to have only one grain for the rest of his life in prison and left the choice to him. With that, Kewal places a bag of the small black chickpeas in front of me and says, “Guess what he chose?”

It’s because they’re so versatile, Saluja says. They can be ground or left whole and¬ added to sweet or savory dishes.

These are the kinds of stories that will be shared at Saturday’s event. In an email, Lakshmi wrote to me explaining why she chose to apply to the Library Takeover.

“I felt there is a compelling story waiting to be told about how the Indian Americans share their rich culture and contribute in many ways (social, cultural, scientific, medical and economic) to the community,” she writes. She hopes that this gathering of the greater Madison community on this day to learn about Indian culture “will bring us all even closer together.”

RECIPE: Mango Lussi

1 cup plain yogurt
1 cup mango pulp
(Peel 1 mango, slice out pulp and put through blender and puree it or use canned mango pulp available at Indian grocery stores)
1 cup water
6 tbsp. sugar or to your taste
1 cup crushed ice
A pinch of nutmeg for each glass

1. Place yogurt, mango pulp, water and sugar in a blender and run it on high speed for 30 seconds.
2. Add crushed ice and run the blender again for another 30 seconds.
3. Pour the drink into tall glasses. Sprinkle a pinch of nutmeg in each glass before serving.

NOTE: This drink should be prepared just before serving.

Recipe from Neeta Saluja’s cookbook: “Six Spices: a Simple Concept of Indian Cooking”