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From Madras to the White House: Idlis come full circle

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New York, Jan 18, 2021-
When was the last time we took the names of fluffy, white idlis, sambar, okra fry and the White House in the same sentence? On January 20, we’ll get there.

Seen through a culinary perspective, the travels of US Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ mother Shyamala Gopalan from Madras (now Chennai) and father Donald Harris from Jamaica nearly 60 years ago set in motion a blended kitchen culture that Kamala Harris brings with her to the Vice President’s home in Washington D.C.

With it come idlis, sambar, okra, roast chicken, tuna melt sandwiches and a Veep who’s an unapologetic food connoisseur, for Kamala Harris the act of cooking is meditative and joyful in equal measure.

Kamala Harris writes in her memoir: “My mother cooked like a scientist.”

She describes the “giant Chinese-style cleaver that she chopped with, and a cupboard full of spices” and loved that “okra could be soul food or Indian food, depending on what spices you chose”.

As a young girl, Harris began by loving okra either fried to a crisp with a seasoning of oil and mustard seeds or floating in tamarind stew, in her mother’s kitchen in a yellow stucco house in Oakland, California.

Later, among a diverse group of friends and family came new ways to cook the vegetable and an appreciation for soul food, a term that swept into America’s collective vocabulary right around the time that Harris’ parents met and later married.

In an ask me anything session on Twitter, Kamala talks about how idlis “with like, really good sambar” are among her favourite South Indian foods. Harris recalls how her mother, during trips to India, sparked a “love for good idli”.

Harris is both indulgent and minimal, depending on the context. The idli fits neatly within that construct, it’s survivalist cuisine or heavenly, depending on your approach.

Idli is a traditional fermented rice and black gram-based food which originated in South India and makes an important contribution to diet as a source of protein, calories and vitamins, especially B complex vitamins.

The idli and its cousin the dosa are as much about Shyamala Gopalan’s roots as they are about Kamala Harris’.

Long before the Kamala connection transported Chennai’s Besant Nagar into international fame, the neighbourhood has been a go-to for the city’s prime real estate, the softest idlis and famous Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Ganesha, the elephant headed god of good luck and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth – from where Kamala gets her first name.

The location of Kamala Harris’ grandfather home in Chennai, in Besant Nagar, is dotted with plenty of big and small idli shops, with Murugan Idli being among the most popular. An idli is an idli, wherever you go – soft, round, white and fluffy but like Kamala Harris says, “with like, really good sambar” is the secret.

In Indian homes, this round, white rice cake is staple fare, it’s available for a few rupees at food carts on street corners, it’s the first thing that goes on the stove in millions of Indian homes every morning, it’s now firmly on the all-time favourites menu of the first Indian American Vice President of the US.

Plenty from Kamala Harris’ network have vouched for the straight A student quality she brings to almost everything she does. She took it seriously when her mother told her not to do anything “half-assed”.

In the kitchen too, her joy and involvement with the particulars of what she puts on the table has served to define Indian American-ness in more granular terms, the way things show up in recipes. It’s no longer generic curry or Indian food.

The idli has come full circle. (Agency)

Indian names bloom in White House power circle

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