Dal, baby.

If you've spent much time at all with me, you know that I love to cook. A perfect day for me usually involves a long bath, a good cup of coffee, a trip to an ethnic market, hours in the kitchen and a meal with friends.

Four outta five ain't bad. After procuring a stopper for the bathtub at our hotel, I took my first actual bath since leaving America three weeks ago. And while good coffee is impossible in this town, I settled for some delicious Darjeeling tea. 

Yesterday was a market day in town, so Pak and I walked down the hill from the Silver Oaks hotel through the crowded streets of Kalimpong with Sunil and Amber, Asia's Hope India directors, into the Himalayan hill station version of my hometown's North Market. 

Spices for sale in the Kalimpong market.

My staff here has been working hard under often-stressful conditions over this last year, and I wanted to make them a meal as a tangible expression of my appreciation. I wanted to do something "American," and ruled out pizza pretty early in the game — none of our kitchens have ovens. Hamburgers seemed trite, and so I opted for tacos. 

Indians and Mexicans alike love chilies, limes and cilantro, so I figured I could find most of the ingredients. I must admit I was a bit overwhelmed by the options offered in the countless spice stalls, green grocer carts and butcher stands. But at the end of the day, I had burdened my companions with satchels of spices, bags of vegetables and newspaper parcels of meat.


We returned to the kitchen of our Kalimpong 1 Children's Home and began prep in earnest after dinner. Shambolic mise en place aside, I was able to get a dry rub on half of the meat and a wet marinade on the other half thanks to the effort of various kids, moms, dads and aunties. We whipped up a couple gallons of pico de gallo, sautéed some mirepoix and chopped up a few bowls full of cilantro, chillies and shallots — just in case. I built a savory pork bone broth and soaked a couple kilos of red beans for what would become what I told them was "Mexican dal" (dal being India's iconic and ubiquitous lentil stew).

Applying the wet marinade.

This morning, I arrived at KP1 shortly after finishing breakfast with my family, fired up the two-burner propane stove and started cooking the meal with the assistance of Punam and Radha, wives of Sunil and Amber. As noon rolled around, a couple dozen staff members, a relative or few and a handful of kids who had finished school for the day assembled to taste my approximation of authentic Mexican grub. I didn't have time, energy or ingredients to make tortillas, so we made do with chapatis. 

After demonstrating how to fill, roll and eat a taco, we prayed and dug in. To be honest, this wasn't a culinary masterpiece. Each dish was only about 70% as good as I had hoped. In my own kitchen, I know where everything is and how it all works. And when something doesn't taste right, I can reach into my own pantry and find whatever it takes to bring it into line. Today, I had only what I bought at the market and a few ingredients I didn't really know how to use.

But it was honestly one of the most satisfying meals I've made all year. All present expressed sincere appreciation of my efforts and curiosity of my methods. And though I suspect some of them merely feigned enjoyment of the actual food, everyone understood that I was doing it to serve them, to thank them. 

The rest of my day wasn't nearly as exciting — meetings with lawyers and a few hours of research. But I'll go to bed happy, knowing that I've enjoyed something wholesome and meaningful. May God bless my family, here and at home. Good night.

John McCollumComment