My Family Recipe

The Spiced Pork Tenderloin That Bridges My Indian & American Identities

One writer's spice rack and masala dabbas are both vital tools in his kitchen today, just as his queerness and Gujarati heritage are integral yet distinct parts of his identity.

October 23, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

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.


Step into my kitchen and you’ll immediately spot my spice rack. It sticks out—quite literally, hanging above my dining table. Be careful when opening it, please, as it’s suspended only by a couple nails at the top, so the bottom swings up if you’re too forceful. Behind the door you’ll find three shelves, each with five or six small glass containers.

Scan the rows to find the likes of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice, cayenne, paprika, crushed red pepper, and a limited variety of dried herbs. You can probably tell what’s in each (or at least I can), but just in case, they’re labeled in Sharpie on strips of Post-its, reinforced with clear tape. Sitting atop the cabinet are grocery store-brand bottles of garlic and onion powders that wouldn’t fit on the shelves.

Perhaps it’s not an impressive display or presentation, but it’s decently stocked and does the job, having moved with me into multiple apartments—and besides, it’s only half of my spices.

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“So much fun to read about shaak, masala dabba and kobi batata! I grew up among Gujarati people, and am always impressed by their work ethic and love for food. American kitchens so need masala dabba. ”
— Annada R.
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The rest can be found in my two masala dabbas: the Indian answer to the spice rack. Both round tins open to reveal several smaller tin bowls, like a flavorful nesting doll. One houses the staples of Indian cooking: ground red chile, turmeric, whole cumin, mustard, and coriander seeds, a blend of ground cumin and coriander, and a store-bought garam masala. The other holds bulkier whole spices: cinnamon sticks, green cardamom pods, star anise, cloves, fennel seeds, and dried chiles.

These spices are kept apart, with the spice rack on the wall and the dabbas tucked away in a cabinet. In many ways, their origins are separated, as well.

My college boyfriend made that first spice rack for me as a birthday gift. I’ve thought about replacing it with a more elegant one, but as the former lovers who are still around will testify, I am the queen of appropriating my ex’s lost objects, be it clothes that never got returned post-breakup, souvenirs from shared vacations, or kitchen gadgets.

Seldom do I think about him when I use it. Maybe I’ll reflect on the meals we made together in my first kitchen and how much culinary prowess I’ve gained since. Maybe I’ll think about the origami rose he made, which sat for years in a small glass on the table in my apartment. Maybe I’ll think about how deeply unequipped I was to trust him, and how the writing—in addition to the spice cabinet—was always on the wall.

The two dabbas are more recent additions to my pantry, but their roots extend far before I had any boyfriends or even a grasp of my sexuality. I remember my mom making curries and daals—not an everyday occurrence but also not an infrequent one—with her dabba sitting by the stove. There were no measuring utensils involved. Instead, tiny spoons rested in a couple of the bowls. Before I knew how to cook, I knew how many spoonfuls of each spice would create the right ratio.

I got my dabbas from my mom’s most recent trip to her native Gujarat, when she visited her mom (my nani). Before flying over, she asked if there was anything I wanted from India. My mind immediately went to spices and small appliances, namely a chakla/belan set (a thin pin with a small board for rolling out doughs) and my very own dabba.

Even just using a dabba creates, for me, an air of authenticity while cooking the cuisine of my mother's culture. Dishes come together with a sprinkle of this, a dash of that—all from the same vessel. No unscrewing or uncapping required. Before, most of my Indian spices were squirreled away in a sort of mock dabba: a large ziplock bag filled with smaller bags of spices. It was sticky. It was impractical. It was gross. Suddenly, with the dabba, my Indian food felt more Indian.

Both the boyfriend-bestowed spice rack and the mother-supplied masala dabbas are vital tools in my kitchen today, just as my queerness and Gujarati heritage are integral yet distinct parts of my identity. With a first-generation Indian mother and an Irish-American father (whose lineage traces back to the Mayflower), I grew up very close to the former’s family and customs while passing only by name and by appearance as the latter's. While interactions with my paternal relatives were limited, I knew my mom’s extended family—and then some. I had multitudes of masis and aunties calling me betu (darling).

As close as I am to them, I’m also slow to introduce my mom’s family to, say, a boy or to discuss my sexuality in general. I’m sure they know, but it’s never overtly discussed. Sometimes I feel I’m living two cultures that might acknowledge each other, but don’t necessarily mesh. I wish I could be more open with my masis about the guy I’m seeing. I wish my nani knew that when she mentions my eventual wedding and asks if I want an Indian ceremony, I’m picturing a wedding with another man.

Similarly, I wish I could find more ways to celebrate my Indian heritage in a queer context. I still crave representation of queer desis, or specifically queer half-desis. I see the float of South-Asians at Pride and wonder what their stories are. How many of them also opt to just say “no” when asked about prospective partners? How many other boys on that float had to conceal their childhood fascination with Madhuri Dixit as a “crush” and not early-onset gay idolization?

These are questions I don’t have to ask with the McPhee side of the family, in part due to the relative (so to speak) distance, but there’s also less of a cultural wall. For one, my dad’s brother openly identifies as bi, and at a recent family reunion (is it still a “reunion” if you haven’t met 95 percent of the attendees?) a distant cousin introduced me to his boyfriend. So I’m not exactly a trailblazer here.

My dad was also one of the first people I came out to and has gone on to meet a handful of significant others, spice-rack boy included. Perhaps it’s because of this I associate my queerness with my white/Irish background, even though my sexual and racial identities are not mutually exclusive. And perhaps it’s because of this I place an undeserving barrier between my Indian and white identities, even though, as I am living proof, they are not mutually exclusive either.

In recent years those two identities have started to mingle more, at least in my kitchen. My dabbas have Indian ties, but they’re capable of far more than curry. Dried chiles and coriander and cumin seeds join caraway seeds, paprika, and other players in the spice rack to create a batch of harissa. Spiced baked goods get a twist with a pestled blend of cardamom, star anise, and fennel. Any number of dabba components can find their way into a pickling or brining liquid.

In this recipe—pieced together from both of my families—pestled coriander, cumin, and fennel seeds join other spices and herbs to form a crust for pork tenderloin, which gets a quick sear before finishing in the oven. Meanwhile, mustard and caraway seeds pop and sizzle in hot butter, serving as the backdrop for cabbage and apples. The final touch comes from garam masala, acting here as a savory apple pie spice blend. Think of it as an updated pork chops and applesauce. It’s spicy, but in a warming sense without that eye-watering heat often associated with my mother's cuisine.

As Gujarat is primarily a vegetarian state, meat never comes into play in my nani’s cooking, and it rarely does so when my mom cooks. Instead, our homestyle Indian meals revolve around shaak, or, veggies-as-mains. The side in this recipe resembles a popular shaak: kobi batata, or cabbage and potatoes.

There are three main distinctions, however. One, potatoes get substituted for apples, offering that sweet, familiar pairing with pork. Two, the spices are different, with caraway nodding to Irish flavors and a notable lack of turmeric. (You know what? It’s messy and doesn’t do much for taste. Sorry, Nani.) Three, and most importantly, gone is the method of steaming or braising the cabbage in liquid, preventing the sad, soggy texture I find in most kobi and in the cabbage you’d normally get alongside corned beef. Instead, chopped leaves linger in the pan until caramelized, their sweetness coming forth as they brown, the edges crisping.

I’m learning to let my various cultures and identities coexist openly. I’ve succeeded in celebrating them separately, but they deserve to sing together. Because when I allow myself to do so in the kitchen, new flavor profiles awaken, creativity takes the spotlight, and I feel at home.

I deserve that in life outside the kitchen, as well.

Both the boyfriend-bestowed spice rack and the mother-supplied masala dabbas are vital tools in my kitchen today, just as my queerness and Gujarati heritage are integral yet distinct parts of my identity.

On a Sunday afternoon a few years ago, I held my boyfriend’s hand as we navigated the aisles of a Patel Brothers supermarket in Jackson Heights’ Little India. With pride, I pointed out some of my favorite items you wouldn’t find in your usual American grocery store: tindora (they look like adorable baby watermelons!), chakli (the ultimate crunchy snack), chhundo (a sweet and tart pickled mango relish), and the like. Perusing the back wall, I identified a few spices in my limited Gujarati, tossing a few into my basket as we went along.

He and I have since broken up (we still keep in touch and, yes, I have co-opted a couple of his sweaters). The spices I grabbed then have been restocked in my pantry. But when I make this dish and those spices combine, I’m brought back to that sense of harmony, where all aspects of me are seasoned just right.

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Ryan McPhee

Written by: Ryan McPhee

If he's not in his kitchen or at a Queens grocery store, you'll likely find Ryan roaming the theatre district as Playbill's Managing News Editor.

5 Comments

nofunatparties October 31, 2019
Not usually a pork fan, but your writing is so compelling and delicious that I’m definitely going to be trying this recipe!
 
Eric K. October 23, 2019
Great piece, love the words, I'mma let you finish.

But the RECIPE was one of the most delicious things I've eaten in a while. Video of the year.
 
SPat October 23, 2019
Really good article. I can't wait to try this recipe out. I too am gujarati, and I am sorry that is difficult for you to be open about your lifestyle. Know that there are people like me who feel love is love. Maybe one day you will have the strength to be open.
 
GeorgeMc October 23, 2019
I enjoy your writing style, Ryan. Great to listen to you express your passion for cooking, and combine it with personal reflections on family heritage and self identity. :) (... U.G.)
 
Annada R. October 23, 2019
Such a thoughtful piece, Ryan, again re-confirming that food reflects the story of life. So much fun to read about shaak, masala dabba and kobi batata!
I grew up among Gujarati people, and am always impressed by their work ethic and love for food. American kitchens so need masala dabba.