At this point in my career, being able to offer cooking advice is a big part of my job. It doesn’t matter that I feel like an impostor sometimes — there’s an expectation that I’ll be able to handle any cooking question. I deal with this by openly admitting when I don’t know something and then letting in-depth research guide me to a satisfying answer. (It helps that I’m usually genuinely curious to find out.) I used to frequent libraries and stand at the shoulders of cooks, furiously taking notes, then call with follow-up questions. I would often visit immigrant communities to eat the same dish at several restaurants to learn about variations.
But the pandemic has changed how I can pursue answers. The flavor touchstones and other sensory cues I once scavenged for in my reporting aren’t available to me right now, because I’m not observing other cooks or tasting their food before I sit down to write. Because I can’t use firsthand experience to guide my storytelling right now, I’ve started to depend on the vibrant taste memories of others instead.
I had to rely on this new way while recording an episode of “Home Cooking,” the podcast I started with my friend Hrishikesh Hirway to offer listeners a little quarantine levity. Hirway, a talented musician and podcast creator, chooses from among the questions our listeners record and send in for me to answer. When he played a question from a listener wondering what she could cook one-handed — she had injured her wrist shortly after taking up roller-skating as a new stay-at-home hobby — I suggested she use a rice cooker to make khichdi, a dish of rice and lentils, versions of which are found across South Asia. It’s often the first solid food babies eat in India. Though I didn’t grow up with it, I think of it as a comfort food and love eating it with generous amounts of yogurt and mango pickle.
“Can I tell you about my favorite kind of khichdi?” asked Hirway, who is Indian-American. “You can’t make it one-handed, but it’s called sabudana khichdi, and it’s made with tapioca. It’s one of the things I crave most.”
“Oh, my God!” I interrupted, “I’m Googling my butt off right now!” I love tapioca, and though I’ve always wondered what a savory tapioca dish might be like, I had never actually cooked or even tasted one. The images I found were of a pilaf with medium-size tapioca pearls, toasted peanuts, potatoes and a few spices. “This looks so good!” I told Hirway.
“It’s spicy but simple,” Hirway said. “All of its textures make it incredibly comforting. When I was little, my mom would make sabudana without peanuts for me, since I was allergic, and I hated it because there was no crunch. But I eventually grew out of the allergy, and now, when I go home, I eat ungodly amounts of it because it is so addictive and delicious. It’s one of the top five dishes that make me happiest in life.”
Hirway forwarded me the recipe his mother, Kanta, makes, and I set about testing it right away. After a failed, gluey first batch using the small tapioca pearls I had in the pantry, I bought medium-size sabudana at an Indian grocery store. Then, while I let the tapioca soak, I took to the internet to learn more about the dish. Hirway had never prepared khichdi himself, so he couldn’t offer me any of the sensory details I like to gather when cooking a dish I’ve never tasted. I watched videos and read every recipe I could find online. While Kanta uses a microwave to cook the tapioca, nearly every other recipe I found called for a nonstick pan or a wok. I tried five different stovetop methods, all of which resulted in clumpy, overcooked tapioca, before realizing I needed to ask Hirway to call his parents for guidance.
For this call, I wanted to know: Why the microwave? Surely that wasn’t the traditional way to prepare the dish? “Because it’s the best way to keep the sabudana from clumping,” said Hirway’s father, Sumesh, a retired food scientist.
“My mom never needed to cook until she moved to the States,” Hirway added. “Microwaving the sabudana is our family tradition.” And with that, I went out to the shed and dusted off my microwave. Unlike every previous batch I’d tried, this one cooked evenly, without clumping. As soon as the pearls were translucent, I adjusted the seasonings and garnished the bowl with a healthy amount of chopped cilantro. The khichdi smelled so good I couldn’t wait to start eating, so I stood at the kitchen counter, spooning it into my mouth. The chewy pearls and creamy bits of potato were studded by the crunch of golden peanuts and the occasional cumin seed. A hint of sweetness was balanced by salt, lemon and the alternating flames of ginger and green chile. I couldn’t stop eating it.
This might not be how I would’ve learned to make a new dish before the pandemic. I hope one day I’ll visit Kanta and Sumesh and watch them prepare sabudana khichdi for me. And maybe someday I’ll even make it to Maharashtra, Kanta’s home state in India, to taste other variations of it. But for now, this is more than good enough.