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A spice box and a cookbook got her started

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I kept some spicy V8 handy, just in case the rasam lacked the bite we were used to, but did not have to open the can at all.

With this book in hand, I did not dread my weekly turn at cooking. Three months later, I even offered to bring a dish when a professor had us over for Thanksgiving dinner.

One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was that a secret to south Indian cooking, the technique called "tempering," cannot be picked up from any book, no matter how well written. You lay out a spoonful or less of spices on a plate. It is tempting to blend them but you cannot do that. Popped, one by one, into a small quantity of hot oil, each spice yields its distinct flavor at a particular temperature. A tiny miscalculation and you'll end up with a semi-charred mess. But done right, the redolent mix gives vegetable dishes a nutty, crunchy flavor.

The dance of the mustard seeds in the hot, smoky oil during this process can easily get out of control, and many a time I had to put a lid on its wild frenzy, sometimes - unfortunately - not before the smoke alarm went off.

But a "mastery over the seasonings can make all the difference," the author of my cookbook emphasized. Learning to temper spices efficiently in an American kitchen was tough, but the procedure paid gastronomical dividends and taught me the virtue of patience.

Initially, when I walked down the produce aisles of the neighborhood grocery store, I could name only some of the vegetables.

JalapeƱos, the pleasantly plump relatives of the tiny Indian mirchi, looked deceptively harmless. My roommate decided to bite into one to check if this chili was "hot," and ended up doing a crazy jig in Aisle 6 until I rushed back with a bottle of blue Gatorade.

It took a sniff test to distinguish between curly parsley and cilantro, and one roommate always brought back the wrong herb. Humongous eggplants, which neither looked nor tasted like the aubergines back home, called for an entirely different treatment than the cookbook's suggestions.

Broccoli, a cousin of the cauliflower, is not amenable to spices, I found. Asparagus is as easy as green beans; fiddleheads are not fussy either. With some thought and effort, I could eventually handle most of the produce.

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