Cooking with Gold: Kusuma Rao of Ruchikala
I met Kumi almost four years ago now, the same way I meet most of my favorite food people these days - on instagram. Kusuma is an Indian-American chef whose PDX kitchen is inspired as much by her Indian heritage as it is her Tucson childhood. She is a haven of diasporic nostalgia and warmth, creating the cuisine so many of us have only ever dreamed of- beautifully combining patra and cream, or habaneros and sourdough, or dahi vadas and avocados *swoon*. The kind of aching culinary excellence I've come to expect only from a certain subset of feelings driven, immigrant, or first gen food folks.
I know legions of fellow angsty Indian-Americans across generations and definitions will agree with me when I say that navigating the relationship to Indian culture as a member of the diaspora is often a heart wrenching pursuit. Kusuma's food articulates this layered struggle beautifully- you can taste depth and nuance and ancestral knowledge in every bite. But today, I asked her to share some of her feelings on turmeric, on food, and on this very struggle in writing, in the hope that it inspires you all to make the trek to her kitchen and taste it all for yourself. Thank you for sharing with us, Kumi! We adore you.
When I was a kid, I was a weird hodge podge of subversive grunge-punk-goth. I was also the only person of color on my block. I would enter the neighbor kid’s homes with trepidation- I could hear everything the grown ups on the street would say about me, and my family. We were different and that difference was met with suspicion. In my early years, I remember trying so hard to replicate the golden haired girls, and their effortless oozing of america-ness.
It soon became clear to me that I was not to going to win the ultimate prize of American passibility, so I found comfort in the agency of willingly othering myself as a misc. hodge podge grunge-punk-goth misfit. I would soon find myself surrounded by a different set of golden haired girls dying their hair with bottles of manic panic. My dark hair would not pick up any of those colors so even the rite of manic panic passage was out of reach.
If couldn’t dye my hair, I needed to do something. Something on me needed to be colored differently. I reached into amma’s spice pantry and began covering my arms and legs in turmeric paste. When I showed my friends at school the next day - I would return home with no additional cool points. My yellow tinted skin did not impress anyone, and my JNCOs would be forever tinted yellow.
But that was our life - our countertops, our clothes, they are always forever stained yellow. Sometimes iridescent with a slight green tinge like a highlighter, other times dark orange and red. Every item of clothing my mother owned had permanant turmeric/dal stain on the front. I cringed over that stain for years. Only after many years of healing did I beginning to embrace it - to let it embrace me.
These days, after a 12 hour day of reducing masalas, I lay onto my pillow only to wake up in a cloud of yellow dust - it feels like a shield, protecting me and feeding me in equal measure. This is who we are.
I was never able to shake my fascination with the kitchen. All the spices, preparations, sounds of sizzling, clanging pots, grinding, pounding. It all felt like some kind of alchemy I needed access to.
When I was a kid - I would come home from school with 3½ hours to spare before my mother would come home from work. Those 3½ hours were my time to pull everything out of the spice pantry and make giant, inedible mess and then immediately clean/remove all traces of my wasteful experimentation before amma came home.
The kitchen was my mother’s place and I was supposed to be studying when I got home - spending all of my time reading in the hopes that I would become some great doctor, or engineer. Not a cook, not a chef, and most definitely not a whimsical traveling food artist doing popups around the country.
The kitchen was a complicated place- it was the center of responsibility, obligation, artistic expression, oppression, love, anger, frustration, exhaustion, endless anticipation and undying ritual. It was the space where I could observe my mother being her most incredible, full, and complicated self. Every dish that she made was a story of survival. Every dish had been honed for decades, trying to please the palates of generations of demanding eaters. Her father, her caretakers, her father’s colleagues, aunts, uncles, her husband, her children. She would watch carefully as each one would taste her sambhar and scan their face for her errors. She would make a mental note, and next time she would right the wrong.
To me, this process felt like the only way to bridge the difficulties in connecting intimately with someone. My inclination has always been towards introversion, but I longed to share gifts in the same way my mother had. Spending multiple days and nights prepping for a dinner party, her friends would be wowed a the table, commenting on the endless number of dishes to which my mom would say “Nothing, nothing, just five minutes of cooking!".
This line, was frustrating and simultaneously fascinating. All the work, the dishes, the exhaustion, the love and care, and yet- all that could be seen on my mother’s face was a glow. Taking care of people is what she did best. She is so good at it.
I found this irresistible urge to place myself in the kitchen - and when I was there everything just fell into place. I could feel this comfort of a language that felt made for me. The ability to explore, be curious and interact, with a medium that I could feel in my bones. It all feels so personal to me, it all feels like an a extension of my mother, a connection to those that came before me, whom I never got to meet.
- Kusuma Rao, January 27th 2018.