My Family Recipe

The Indian Rice Pilaf That Closed the Gap Between Your Family & Mine

Food has a way of bringing people together.

November 20, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.

I met his parents the first semester of freshman year. They only lived about 20 minutes away from campus, so they stopped by about once a month to drop off essentials: zip-top bags full of South Indian snacks, jalapeño chips, his favorite Milano Orange Cookies, and a ration of bananas to fuel late-night study sessions in the library (he was a good student, I was a lazy one).

I was always introduced as a friend, which was true (although feelings, as they say, were in the process of being caught). After a few times of meeting, they invited me over for dinner at their house the following week. I enthusiastically said yes (you know, in that way where you’re trying to be polite but still want someone to like you), then immediately got nervous.

I had no idea what to expect. Our parents, from what he had told me, could not be more different. His parents cooked nearly every night, rarely drank, prayed often, and went to temple even when there wasn’t a big holiday. If they did go out to eat, they never strayed from Indian or Thai food, and a place called Fresh Choice for the salad buffet. It was rarely enjoyable though, he’d often tell me, since “my mom will just complain the entire time” because the food was never as good as what she could make at home.

As for my parents, well, they loved to try new restaurants (they always took me with them, which was one of the best parts about my childhood). They seldom had dinner without wine or a cocktail, usually a rum and coke. They were religious in theory, but less so in practice; we went to church maybe once a year (if that) and when I opted out of my Catholic Confirmation, they were only somewhat disappointed.

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Top Comment:
“I loved reading your story so much! I could completely envision the movie trailer for your love story :) also, I can’t wait to try the pilaf! Yum! ”
— Heidi B.

We had so little common ground, I wondered whether or not his family and I would have anything to talk about—or if the table would go silent after the standard hellos and how are yous.

The day came. I wore an emerald green long-sleeve shirt from Urban Outfitters with jeans, he wore his favorite sweater and grey pants. We took the BART to Oakland, hopped on a short bus ride over the bridge into Alameda (a small, mostly residential island with sweeping views of San Francisco), and made the short walk to his house.

It was a mostly quiet walk, but not in an awkward way—more, reserved. I think he was probably nervous, too. We walked to the front door and knocked, and his mom (who while kind and small in stature, is not a woman I’d ever want to cross) welcomed us inside and asked us to take off our shoes.

Their large two-story living room was mostly empty, save for a round table and chairs near the front windows, a wide Persian-style rug, and statues of Hindu gods with little offerings of hibiscus flowers and fresh fruit set at their feet.

Something good was clearly happening in the kitchen, because the house was fragrant with spices—herbal cardamom, warm cinnamon, sweet-bitter star anise—and what smelled like fried dough. We sat down at the kitchen table; his dad immediately offered me some orange juice and his mom set out sliced mangoes and a crunchy snack mix I couldn’t stop nibbling on called “mixture.” The conversation was easy, and there were even jokes; they asked me about school and my parents, I asked them about California and the food we’d be eating any minute now.

Soon, it was all on the table: a pot of steaming rice pilaf, a bowl of chana masala (chickpeas in a thick and spicy tomato-based sauce), cooling raita (plain yogurt with tomato, onion, green chile, and fried mustard seeds), and hot papad (a super-thin, crispy flatbread). His mom would continue to fry up the papad as we ate, adding a fresh one to my plate every few minutes, even long after I was full. She put a big spoonful of each dish onto my plate, but was hesitant about giving me too much yogurt, which she thought I might not like (I did). Most everything she made—minus the papad—was North Indian, I learned, because they thought I might not like their more traditional South Indian fare. (The Indian restaurant food most people are familiar with is North Indian, like creamy tikka masala or chicken biryani.)

Without skipping a beat, my boyfriend and his dad dug in with their hands (well, only their right hands), nimbly scooping up different combinations of the rice, chana masala, and raita, and expertly cracking the papad into bite-sized pieces with just a thumb and middle finger. His mom, sensing my hesitancy, quickly placed a knife and fork in front of me. I declined (I didn’t want to be the odd one out, or rude) and awkwardly began working my way through the plate with just my one hand; I made two spills and the food missed my mouth at least once (which we all easily laughed off).

Despite my clumsy handiwork, though, I could not stop eating the rice pilaf, especially when I swirled in a little bit of the tangy yogurt. I asked not only for seconds of everything, but thirds (and maybe even a fourth). Honeyed with golden raisins toasted in ghee, textural with sautéed vegetables and cashews, and perfumed with whole spices, chiles, and chopped mint and cilantro, it was the type of dish you could eat every day and never get bored of.

When his mom asked me what my favorite dish of the night was, the answer was easy. Every time I’d come over for dinner (and eventually, for long weekends), the rice pilaf and raita was always waiting for me.

“You will be the raita, I will be the pilaf—is that what you’re gonna write about?” he half-jokingly asked me, pulling into the company parking lot.

I wanted to know more about how his parents met, and what they thought about us.

They had, he told me, a typical Indian love story: an arranged marriage. His mom was the daughter of a prominent family from Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, a southern state in India with almost one million people. His dad is from a smaller village called Kalakkad, further east and inland in the state of Tamil Nadu.

They met through a network of families that worked by word of mouth. When a son or daughter was ready for marriage, he explained, their family would send around cards with their location, height, caste, and their horoscope.

It’s called jathakam, and it’s a type of vedic astrology that relies on the Tamil birth chart; the results can reveal things about your past, your personality, and of course, your future, including marriage. If the stars align, the two families and prospective husband and wife will meet. For his parents, it only took one evening for them to decide to get married.

It was a few months after college graduation and I was forcing his hand. I had finally told my parents about our relationship. Actually, my mom had asked me point-blank if he was my boyfriend and I didn’t see the point in hiding it any longer—not that I ever had a real reason to in the first place, I just liked keeping some things to myself.

“I knew it!” my mom said triumphantly on the phone (she loves to be right), before quickly becoming annoyed (and hurt) that I hadn't told her and my dad sooner. Then, my dad jumped in and said what all good parents say, “As long as you’re happy, we’re happy.” I believed him.

Now it was time to tell his parents—"or else," I threatened—even though he was scared to.

After a few weeks of steadily—and at one point, mercilessly—prodding him to get it over with already, he finally sat them down at the kitchen table, sweating, and told them that we had been together since graduation.

"Indian people are so confusing," he told me. "Nowadays, it’s not arranged anymore. They don’t want you to date, but if you haven’t found somebody—it doesn’t make sense, you’re supposed to magically find someone." Maybe the idea of long-distance dating would be a bit easier for them to take, and at least he had magically found someone, I told myself.

It didn’t go terribly.

“After my sister,” he said, “my mom’s last hope was that I’d marry a South Indian girl.” But his dad understood that this situation (I was the "situation") might happen were they to raise their children in America.

Like my parents, his parents also had a feeling. Parents always know, I guess.

This past summer, I went to visit California to stay with his family. We go back and forth between New York and the Bay Area, or sometimes South Florida (where my parents live), about every three months.

My after-work flight got me to their front door well past midnight, but his mom was awake to greet me and prepare me a cup of frothy, soothing decoction (a type of South Indian filter coffee). I was excited for the next day. I had asked if she could show me how to make the rice pilaf—maybe even write it down—and she agreed.

We spent the afternoon together in the kitchen. She showed me how to form the pilaf’s spice base: Gently melt some ghee in a large skillet and heat up the spices until they are aromatic; don’t let them burn, like I did when I made this by myself for the first time. Then, you slowly build from there: Stir in minced garlic and ginger, and finely chopped green chiles (they are small, but don’t underestimate their spice); add the peas, carrots, and green beans and sauté until tender but still firm.

The real key to this dish is the rice: It should never, ever be mushy. Though she uses a rice cooker at home, my boyfriend pointed me to a BBC video that forever changed the way I cook rice. Use this method, and I promise it will turn out light and fluffy every time. Oh, and the golden raisins and cashews, too: Bathe them in warm ghee for a sweet, crunchy touch without which this pilaf would be incomplete. The raita is the easy part, so long as you don’t use Greek yogurt; any plain, whole-milk variety will work.

Honeyed with golden raisins toasted in ghee, textural with sautéed vegetables and cashews, and perfumed with whole spices, chiles, and chopped mint and cilantro, it was the type of dish you could eat every day and never get bored of.

The rice, raita, and papad (which you can also microwave if you’re feeling lazy, which I always am) easily came together in less than an hour. When everything was finished, we sat down at the kitchen table. I took a second to take it in; it was the first meal that, after months of being merely a guest, we had made together, like a family.

I can't explain the Christmas stationery.

Her big, discerning eyes smiled at me as I went in for the first bite—a small pinch of the pilaf on its own, a test—and was relieved to find that it tasted exactly the same that it always did. She took her own first bite, made a small, almost unnoticeable nod. Though she didn’t say much, that was all I needed to hear.

"Food is such a big part of Indian culture," he would tell me over the phone later, on one of our daily long-distance calls. "There’s already a gap because you’re not Indian, which is not your fault." But we had found ours, anyway, over something as simple as rice and yogurt.

His mom wrote down the recipe for me to keep, since I knew that not everything would stick after just one lesson. And for the first time, I think, she went in for a hug as I left for the airport.

“Should we ever do that, or is it a terrible idea?” I asked him, referring to jathakam.

“No, that is a terrible idea,” he said, laughing.

Maybe the fact that, out of 5,350 freshman, we were randomly assigned to dorm rooms just four doors away from each other was prophecy enough. And I think that months from now, years later even, our parents will finally meet.

We’ll meet in California. My parents will fly in, and though his parents will offer a room at their house, mine will stay in a hotel, they won’t want to impose.

The next morning, my boyfriend and I will get breakfast with my parents, just the four of us, at our favorite Berkeley spot. I'll order the same thing I always do: a lox scramble with perfectly runny, buttery eggs; fried potatoes with onions, sour cream, and ketchup; a toasted everything bagel with cream cheese; two cups of diner coffee. We’ll all plan to meet at his parents’ house for dinner at 7 p.m. My dad will say that he can’t wait, my mom will agree, but I'll see that she’s nervous. We all are.

I’ll get to his house a bit early to help make the rice pilaf. It will definitely be on the menu; the raita and papad will be there, too.

My parents will ring the doorbell, and I’ll open the door, a familiar face to welcome them inside. I’ll remind them to take off their shoes, and my mom will make some comment about how she’s glad that she got a pedicure a few days ago. My mom will hug his mom and sister, and hand them the flowers we got at the farmer’s market; our dads will shake hands, a meeting of worlds.

We’ll all sit down for dinner. His parents will offer mine utensils, but I’ll have already instructed them to politely decline. I’ll watch my parents clumsily try to eat with their hands, like I did that first time. But after a few bites of rice and raita, someone will make a joke about something, and whatever nerves or uneasiness were still lingering will wash away with the laughter.

Comfortably full, we’ll go for a walk along Sea View Parkway. Our moms will lead the charge, as they do with everything; our dads will trail behind in the back, talking about work. We’ll be comfortably in the middle, shocked and relieved that, after all that, it had gone so well.

Maybe it was the pilaf and the raita—it has a way of bringing people together—or maybe all of this had already been arranged somehow.

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Erin Alexander

Written by: Erin Alexander

Erin Alexander is the Managing Editor of Food52.


Sarina T. December 1, 2018
Lol this resonates as I am originally from Kerala 😀 so well written, it felt like a movie😊
Erin A. December 3, 2018
Thank you so much, Sarina! 😊🎬
Hana A. November 20, 2018
Aww, Erin! Thank you for sharing this one with us. <3
Heidi B. November 20, 2018
I loved reading your story so much! I could completely envision the movie trailer for your love story :) also, I can’t wait to try the pilaf! Yum!
Erin A. December 3, 2018
Aww thank you so much, Heidi! Let me know how the pilaf turns out :)
Talicia S. November 20, 2018
I love this series. Y'all are such excellent writers, and I enjoy reading about how many things in life revolve around food.
Erin A. November 20, 2018
Thank you for your sweet comment, Talicia!
Eric K. November 20, 2018
Thanks for sharing this, Erin. Always love your writing.