On our first night in our first apartment in Portland, Oregon, I cook chicken curry while my husband, Mike, hauls boxes and suitcases in from the car. During our three-day drive from Missouri, we ate pizza, burgers, and artificially colored and flavored snacks. We are exhausted and already overwhelmed by the work that lies ahead of us, the unpacking and the arranging and the getting settled. We need a home-cooked meal.
While Mike trudges back and forth, filling empty rooms with our possessions, I start frying onions in olive oil. As the diced onions become fragrant and translucent, I add chopped garlic and ginger and lean in over the pot for a deep breath.
Back in Missouri, as we prepared to sell our former home, many people told us we should bake cookies to make the house feel cozy and inviting for prospective buyers. I had followed this advice, but I always wanted to fry onions with some ginger and garlic instead.
The sweet smell of cookies is nice, but to me, the smell of home comes on stronger than that. It’s warm and sharp and not at all subtle. It doesn’t just draw you in; it grabs you.
After a few minutes, I add the spices: cumin, coriander, cayenne, a dash of turmeric, and a dusting of garam masala. I add the chicken, and stir to coat it in spices. Then I add the tomatoes, turn down the heat, and let a low simmer bring the separate elements into one delicious whole.
When we first walked into the apartment that afternoon, it smelled of fresh paint and wood, that blank, faintly chemical smell of new construction. Now, every room starts to smell like dinner, and I start unpacking boxes in our new home.
The first time I made chicken curry for my husband, he was my new boyfriend, and I was 19 years old. It was the first meal I ever made that required counter space and a sharp knife. I called my parents for the recipe, and they gave me vague measurements and not-so-helpful tips, like “Fry the spices well, but don’t burn them,” and “Add tomatoes until it looks like enough.”
It was my freshman year in college, and I lived in a dorm room with my best friend, Betsy, a toaster oven for bagels, and a mini-fridge full of Cokes. Mike lived in an old house with five other guys and a kitchen that was mostly used for nuking burritos and abandoning bottles of beer.
Mike and I spent much of our time together eating out at downtown bars, bistros, and my dorm cafeteria. But after we had been dating for a few months, we decided to take our relationship to the next level. We tried cooking for each other.
Although we had grown up on the same street in the same Missouri town, our dinner tables had been worlds apart. He comes from generations of Missourians, while my Indian parents immigrated to America in the 1960s. He grew up eating tuna casseroles and meatloaf, while a few blocks away I was eating chicken biryani and chapatis.
When we cooked for each other, we learned things that hadn’t come through in our dinner dates or late-night conversations. Mike made me the hearty, creamy meals of his childhood, and I made him the spicy dishes of mine. He made me beef- vegetable soup, chicken and dumplings, and something that sounded so bizarre and foreign that I was a little afraid to try it: creamed chipped beef on toast. I made him chicken curry.
What had been a quick and easy weeknight meal for my working parents took me hours to prepare, and it was almost midnight when we finally sat down to eat. It was Mike’s first taste of Indian food, and I wasn’t sure what he would think of the heat and the spice and all the cilantro. He said he loved it, and went back for seconds.
Over the years since then, we’ve cooked chicken curry countless times. Making it taught us how to chop onions efficiently, how to add spices without measuring spoons, and how to taste for salt. I made it for his birthday, and we made it together for parties and potlucks. When I went to India to buy clothes for our wedding, he made it for himself in the little white cottage in Missouri that would be our first family home.
There are food traditions you choose to participate in, like Thanksgiving turkey and Valentine’s Day chocolate, and then there are those you create, like pancakes every Sunday and special birthday treats. Even better, there are those that seem to create themselves, the ones that become so embedded in your lives that you don’t know when or how they started.
As I sprinkle fresh cilantro over our pot of chicken curry this first night in our first apartment in Oregon, I remember that this is one of the first home-cooked meals Mike and I ever shared. We talk about the times we’ve made it in the past, like the time I used way too much cayenne pepper, and the time I forgot the salt. We count all the different places we’ve lived since we started dating, and we can remember making chicken curry exactly like this in each one of them. We talk about this new apartment in this new city, and we wonder if we’ll have kids here or if we’ll move somewhere else first.
We decide that we should always make chicken curry on our first night in a new place. It’s a perfect first meal because it’s easy and only requires two pots — one for the chicken and one for rice to go with it — and because it makes the place smell like ours, like we live here.
We sit on the floor and eat chicken curry, basmati rice, and cucumber raita on plastic plates as we watch a movie on a laptop computer propped up on a pile of phone books. We are almost two thousand miles away from where we grew up, and where we met, and where we vowed to take care of each other forever. And yet this place already feels, and smells, like home.
Sona Pai is a writer in Portland, Oregon.
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