It was 4th of July. The day I came back to New York after a long vacation in India. The cab ride home from the airport always feels strangely melancholic and peaceful. The streets are quieter and less crowded and somewhat of a sensory shock after the hustle and bustle of Indian cities. The early morning hours, jet-lag-induced daze and the fact that my ears are always blocked for days after I land, only make it more surreal. The feeling is sort of what I imagine falling into a half-coma would be like. But that day was even quieter than usual because of the holiday. And I had really high fever.
I managed to reach home and went off to sleep for a couple of hours. When I woke up the fever was worse. 103 deg F. “May be I should see a doctor”, I thought. My internet was also not working. So, after a few phone calls I figured out that the University health centre was closed due to the holiday. And I was asked to quickly go to the neighboring hospital. The attending physician at the ER told me that my heart-rate was abnormally high and I needed an IV. So, I spent the next few hours getting the cold drip and observing how an ER works. The highlight of the day was the guy brought in with a gun shot, drenched in blood. Also, since I had just returned from a tropical country, an unnecessary malaria test was administered. But the drip made me feel better and I went home to sleep for a few more hours.
P and S had sublet my apartment while I was gone from New York during the summer. Since I was back, they had shifted to another apartment in the next block. In a different city, five years back, when I had first moved to the US, I had lived with P (and N) for the initial month or so. I hadn’t known them, but they worked in the same office and had very graciously shared their home with a complete stranger. When I was in college, which was 12 years back, my biggest fear about going abroad to study was not knowing where I would go once I landed at the airport. In retrospect, it seems funny and silly. But at that time, I didn’t know anyone who lived in a different country. Technology-wise, it was a completely different world. Cellphones were still not common. Even though I had an email address, I used it may be 2-3 times a year, and internet was not yet a part of anyone’s daily life. We all lived off-line it seems.
Of course, things had changed a lot by the time I came to live in the US. I was emailing, may be 2-3 times every hour and I had found myself a place to go to from the airport. My first impressions of the US were formed by P and N. They were the ones who told me about Craigslist and took me to Whole Foods and Ikea. I will always remember their morning ritual of drinking south indian coffee and listening to Suprabhatam while I was half-asleep on the couch. My first strawberry shortcake was eaten in their house and that is also where I discovered Muddy Waters. S was a frequent visitor. When I finally found my apartment, he helped me bring my mattress home in his truck. P and S would eventually get married and move back to India and then come to sublet my apartment in NY, several years later. Life does come full circle.
Since I was sick, P offered to bring me food. The first night she had made a spinach soup with coconut milk and lots of garlic. Sounds weird, right? But it was so delicious and nutritious. I remember waking up at 2 am and eating the soup and then going off to sleep happy and satisfied. Next day, I was supposed to start teaching. But I was still feeling very weak, so had to cancel my lecture. And greedily, I accepted another offer of home-delivered dinner from P. She had made a pumpkin and black-eyed peas stew. “Umm…sounds weird”, again I thought. I could see her walking on the street with a big bowl of stew in one hand from my window upstairs. It was called Olan.
While I was eating Olan, I was also browsing through one of my new cookbooks ‘The Suriani Kitchen’, which has since become one of my favorites. And guess what I came across? Lo and behold, a recipe for Olan! From having no clue about this dish an hour back, I was now reading about it and eating it at the same time, for the first time!
Olan is made of red cowpeas, ash gourd/white pumpkin and coconut milk. There are hardly any spices other than green chillies, mustard seeds, cumin powder and curry leaves. It’s light, delicate, slightly sweet and so restorative. It is not the most good-looking dish, but you can taste each ingredient and it’s perfect for days when you want to eat something nourishing and simple. Traditionally, it is an important part of an Onam Sadya meal in Kerala which is always vegetarian. If you can’t find red cowpeas (also known as red chori or adzuki beans, available in Whole Foods), you can use black-eyed peas instead. In place of white pumpkin, I used butternut squash. Depending on the consistency, you can eat it as soup or with rice. It can also be used as a mild side dish with something spicier.
Even if I had not fallen sick and P had not been there, I would have probably discovered Olan eventually. But now, I will always remember the day I ate it, who cooked it for me and how it tasted and made me feel. Thanks, P!
Adapted from: The Suriani Kitchen, by Lathika George
Ingredients (serves 4)
- 1/2 cup dried red cowpeas/adzuki beans, soaked in water overnight
- 1 can of coconut milk (400 ml, first-pressed)
- 2 small green chillies, slit
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- Salt, to taste
- 2 cups 1/2 inch cubes of pumpkin
- 1 teaspoon oil
- 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
- 6 shallots, sliced
- 6 curry leaves
- Remove 1/2 cup of thick coconut milk from the can. Dilute the rest with water to make 3 cups of thin coconut milk.
- In a medium pan, cook the already soaked cowpeas with green chillies, cumin and salt for 25-30 min, until they are soft. (If you are in a hurry, you can pressure cook the beans in water and then add the remaining ingredients to them. But keep in mind that you will need a lesser quantity of thin coconut milk.)
- Add the pumpkin and continue cooking for 5-6 more minutes, adding water if needed.
- Stir in the thick coconut milk, remove from heat, and set aside.
- Heat the oil in a small skillet and add the mustard seeds. When they burst, add the shallots and curry leaves and fry for 1 to 2 minutes, until golden brown.
- Stir the tempering into the cowpea mixture.
- Reheat until warmed through but do not let it boil.
Note: If you have leftover Olan in the fridge, bring it to room temperature and then, slowly reheat without letting it boil. But, I think it tastes best when eaten fresh, so avoid making too much at a time.