Chapattis are a round, flat, soft bread. Served puffed with steam, they are part of a standard North Indian meal.
My first chapatti was… creative. Its shape resembled the island of Australia. My second one was better. It was the shape of India.
“At least I’m in the right country now,” I muttered, wiping more flour onto my black Punjabi suit. At that point, I resembled a dairy cow—mostly white with black spots. “How do people make these things so round?”
Pranthas are an Indian breakfast food. They’re a bit like chapattis; round and thin, but stuffed with spicy mashed potatoes. The first time I made pranthas, I made two assumptions. The first was that it would be easy. The second was that it would be wise to experiment with fillings.
Wrong on both counts.
I cheerfully assembled the ingredients, grabbed a handful of dough, and stuffed some tomatoes inside. This was mistake number one.
“Indians don’t put tomatoes in pranthas,” a friend told me later. Oops.
Next, I used my rolling pin to squeeze all the filling out the sides of the dough ball. I peeled this wad of mush off the counter and plopped it into the frying pan. Then I used my fingers to squish it down.
My second prantha was more successful. I just made two giant chapattis, slathered on some filling, glued the chapattis together with water, and threw them on the pan. The prantha was bigger than the pan. So I had to push in the edges. It turned out like a really hard, dry pizza.
That night we had popcorn for dinner.
Fast forward to a few nights later. I was a frantic flurry of onion-chopping, pot-banging, and spice-mixing. North Indian cooking a performance art. One doesn’t begin actually cooking things until the guests arrive, so all the food is served hot and freshly-made.
When our guests arrived, I tried to seem like a confident hostess. We exchanged Hindi greetings, and I left Joshua to do the small talking while I escaped to the kitchen to cook. Joshua looked just as bewildered as I felt, having used up his entire Hindi vocabulary in the first ten minutes.
I tried to make a round chapatti. It turned out like a map Madagascar. U felt a little like when I was seven and taking a ballet class. I knew I was clumsy, and now everyone else was about to think so, too.
Just as I was beginning to panic, our female guests bustled into my kitchen. They rambled to me in Hindi. I was pretty sure they were asking to help. I spent most of that evening looking up the words for “boiled” and “spinach” as they rolled the bread, cooked the rice, and doctored the vegetable dish I had made, which apparently was not spinach after all. It was a great learning experience for me. I learned how much our new friends loved us, got to watch them make the bread and was invited over two days later to learn how to prepare actual palak paneer, a tasty Indian cheese-and-spinach concoction. They were also quick to assure me that the dahl (lentils) I pre-made did taste good.
They were very generous.
The one phrase our mission organization drilled into our heads was “earn the right to be heard.” Part of earning the right to be heard is showing that we’re vulnerable—that we’re willing to learn language, culture and even cooking. In the years to come, when I was tempted not to be vulnerable, not to be a learner, I thought back to that day when I learned to cook Indian food. And I smiled to myself. It was worth it to be the one who doesn’t know. If even one of my friends would one day join me for that feast in Heaven, where the chapattis are all round and the palak paneer is perfect. It was worth it.