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A spice box and a cookbook got her started

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When I set off to graduate school in the US, the Internet had not yet taken over the world. I actually spoke to people to gather information about life in America in general and my destination, New Orleans, in particular.

I was delighted to find a woman whose son was an undergraduate at the university I was headed to. "My son had some problems initially with the food, but you should be fine. You are a girl, no?" she said to reassure me.

Biting back my foolish but proud claim that I would be as useless in the kitchen as any son of hers, I focused on the issues at hand. What was the weather in New Orleans like? Did I have to drive around? Was there public transportation? Food, in fact, was my last concern.

Newly arrived and equally clueless, two other Indian students joined me in the lounge of the chemistry department. We were inseparable in the initial weeks.

Pointing to this and that, we tried various items in the cafeteria. Determined to be vegetarian, my new friends stuck to whatever was green, such as Brussels sprouts floating around in brine or salads with rusting iceberg lettuce.

Tabasco sauce, a dash of which was supposed to perk up every meal, did nothing for us. We exhausted all the combinations of toppings in the nearby pizza place.

Soon, we found a furnished apartment close to school and signed the lease. As I began to unpack - a pressure cooker and a year's supply of spices materialized from my huge suitcase.

So did a round stainless-steel box with seven circular cups within. It was a gleaming replica of my mother's spice box. Instinctively, I began to fill the containers with turmeric, cumin, coriander, black pepper, Bengal gram, red chilies, and mustard seeds.

As I was about to take my suitcase down to the basement, I found a thin cookbook in its cavernous depths.

Inside there was a simple inscription in my mother's neat hand: "From Amma."

Flipping through the pages, I decided that tomato rasam, chicken soup for the vegetarian soul, seemed like a good place to start my culinary career.

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