Conserve Natural India

Sustainable Development in Northern India

Cooking, Chai and Community Relations in Punjab

Me with a local migrant girl living near the Janauri community

Me with a local migrant girl living near the Janauri community

Getting to know your local community is vitally important to your project, your comfort and security, and to the organization’s survival as well. The purpose of our projects is three-fold:

  1. To benefit the organization that is ConservEN and EduCARE India, providing information, examples and platforms for further development in the project area and helping us achieve living and working sustainability
  2. To benefit yourself, the Project Manager/Assistant Project Manager and Intern, by providing you with a new experience, an expanded skill set, and the knowledge and resilience to survive and thrive in your chosen field of study and work.
  3. To benefit the local community, by providing alternative living, sustainable techniques for everyday life and work and an opportunity for education and develop for all.

Sometimes the smallest gesture can create big waves. As well, even a selfish motive can bring upon a wealth of hospitality, knowledge and compassion. One day I simply wanted to learn to cook some local Punjabi dishes. The food served in homes cannot be compared to by what you find in a local restaurant- the cool Floria dish of curd, mint and legumes, the spicy and hearty dal, the never-the-same dishes of curried mixed vegetables, and of course Chapatti and Chai! A woman I had visited a few times prior served me and two other interns a fantastic meal one lovely evening and I instantly requested if she’d be so kind to show me how she cooks a few dishes. She gladly accepted.

Swati my new "sister" showing me how to cook curried vegetables

Swati my new “sister” showing me how to cook curried vegetables

On Sunday afternoon I walked to this woman’s home, whose name is Sudesh. She had a few of her friends over which I quickly gathered were both to help instruct me but more so for the amusement of meeting and watching a foreigner learn to cook these complex Indian dishes. First task: cutting vegetables. Great, hand me a good knife and a cutting board and I am ready to roll! Ummm, no. Let’s try a semi-sharp knife and no cutting board. The women cut their vegetables very quickly in their own hands, and never seem to get cut. I, however, found it to be nerve-wracking and a slow and laborious process. Soon I was drenched in tomato juice with lots of little nicks and scratches that were BURNING like crazy from the chilli oils and juices coating my hands. I tried to be tough and not show my misery, but it must have been evident as the ladies often plucked things out of my hands to quickly finish/show me again how to best cut the vegetable. What should have take a mere 20 minutes took me more than an hour! But the women were enjoying our visit, as was I, and we had warm, sweet milk and cookies mid-prep time.

What I was finally able to do was shuck what felt like a million pees, help cut about 10 carrots, 3 pieces of ginger, one head of garlic, numerous tomatoes and grind up about 10 chili peppers. Great, ready to cook! Ummm, not quite. Out comes a bowl full of whole spices: two kinds of pepper and jeera, which I believe is whole cumin seed, and who knows what else. I was handed the pestle and left to grind away for another half hour. It’s hard work! Pounding the spices over and over to make them powdery. Out comes chai and more snacks, and I was able to pick up a few Punjabi words while I worked, so it was altogether an enjoyable experience. I don’t wonder that the women are generally in good shape, cooking is a workout! I found out later I made garam masala spice mixture, which I generally just buy pre-mixed in a box. The pre-mixed version is not even close to the real thing! I definitely must purchase a pestle…

Grinding away at the garma masala spices

Grinding away at the garma masala spices

Finally, after nearly two hours of chit chat and prepping, we enter the kitchen. Numerous pots and pans and bowls are brought out. It was a whir of heating oils, adding spices, cooling the oil, reheating, adding the vegetables  adding more spices, heading to the garden to pick fresh herbs to add to the veggies and dal dishes. So much movement and so many steps and layers to the dishes! I eventually just had to sit down and jot notes and try to commit to memory the process. Then it’s mixing, kneading and rolling chappati dough, igniting a fire and making 25 chapatti… wait, 25? I thought we were just cooking for us? Oh no, this was a meal not for the family, but for MY family- all 7 interns in the house at the time as we had 4 who were visiting. Wait! I said. This is too much, really, can I at least pay you for the ingredients? But no, that would not be heard of. So unbeknownst to me I helped generate this incredible meal for us interns, all freely given, labor included. I discovered the women would begin cooking again in an hour or two for the men of the house who would be coming home from work and prayer. I was shocked, saying, “You must spend all your time cooking!!!” This got a lot of laughter and I soon learned that what took me nearly 4 hours was generally an hour process for the women. Ooopsies, ok, so I have a LOT of practice to do. The day ended with us marching to my home with 6 dishes in tow to present to the newly arrived interns and my housemates. Boy were we grateful! We sat down to a delicious meal compliments of these kind, talented and giving ladies of the Dholbaha community. I am so lucky!

It smells sooo good

It smells sooo good

But that’s what community is here. You meet one person and you must also meet their aunts, sisters, brothers, uncles, grandparents, cousins, children, nieces and nephews. Then as your eyes grow big at the some 30 people you have just met and 6 different houses you have visited, you realize all neighbors are aunts/cousins, uncles/brothers and so on. When you are in the community, you ARE family, blood or no. I have now been designated a Didi, or sister, by many of the families and so have become part of the family. It’s both heartening and overwhelming, as there is a lot of pressure put on for me to visit family, share a meal, have a chai, etc. The children can be a bit possessive and demanding to see you on a daily basis. Boundaries have to be set, cultural norms have to be maintained, men must be kept at a distance for the threat of being seen as flirty or inappropriate. It’s an exhausting experience and everyday I learn something new about community, Indian culture and myself. But on the other hand, I feel secure and welcome, with many people watching out for me and on call to help me if I encounter any troubles or situations I don’t know how to handle. Of course, one must always be careful to accept friendliness unconditionally, as past experience has shown that not everyone (though this is definitely the exception, and generally rare at that) will have good intentions. You must be wary of people using you for status, generating false rumors to benefit him or her, or even having designs to steal from you. Still, it will be hard to leave those persons I have come to know and trust, my family.


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This entry was posted on March 18, 2013 by in ConservEN.
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