Last year, when Ajay Bhatt was a freshman at the Illinois Institute of Technology, he looked forward to meals as a chance to relax and socialize with his friends from the dorm. The one thing he didn't do too much of was eat.
"I would be hungrier after going to the cafeteria than I was before," he says.
Ajay, now a sophomore premed student, is a vegetarian, and often got by on tortillas and boiled vegetables that tasted like leftovers from the night before. Other times, he filled up as well as he could on salads and desserts. On really bad days, he steered clear of the cafeteria altogether. The neighborhood around IIT's main campus at 33rd and State has few restaurants--much less ones with vegetarian food--and once in a while during the week Ajay would go hungry.
His mother, Darshna, was appalled by his descriptions of dorm food. On weekends, if Ajay was coming home to Schaumburg, she prepared four-course meals of roti, an Indian wheat bread; shaak, spicy combinations of vegetables; basmati rice; and dal, a lentil soup. Often, he'd bring some of his Indian classmates home with him.
"All of Ajay's friends became like my children," says Darshna, who's a senior chemist at Unilever. "When they go home, they are their parents' children, but when they are in Chicago, they are mine."
When Ajay couldn't make it home, his mother spent Saturday afternoons shopping for groceries and preparing food for him, plus a little extra for her husband and older son, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
She would drive into the city from Schaumburg to meet Ajay in the dining hall, which is on the first floor of the only dorm on campus. They arranged it so that she arrived at off hours, before either lunch or dinner. If she came during regular meal times, she'd be inclined to give everyone some of the food.
So, in the deserted cafeteria--in partial view of the surrounding hallways--Ajay helped Darshna unload plastic grocery bags packed with Tupperware full of curries, rice dishes, and breads, and Darshna sat with Ajay and a few of his friends while they scarfed down the food. "People are passing by [the cafeteria] all the time there, so if they saw me, they felt so comfortable they joined us without us calling them," she says. "Sometimes it wasn't enough food for a whole meal but everyone gets their share, enough to taste."
Although sharing meant Ajay wouldn't have leftovers to eat during the week, he says he didn't mind. "I had the opportunity of going home whenever I wanted. A lot of my friends, however, were from out of town and didn't eat home-cooked food nearly as often."
This year, Darshna wanted to continue cooking for her son and his friends, but she wasn't looking forward to another year of commuting. While helping Ajay move into his dorm room, Darshna and her husband, Anil, discussed the food dilemma with the parents of Ajay's new roommate, Sarjan Patel, who was from San Diego and was also Indian-American and a vegetarian.
"Last year students were saying there were more vegetarian foods but they didn't like the taste of it," says Darshna. "That's when we realized that our taste buds are developed with Indian spices. That touch was missing. But we also knew that no one can use Indian spices unless you have some Indian cooks there."
Then and there Anil and Hemant Patel, Sarjan's father, called the cafeteria and were connected to Keith Pitner, general manager of IIT's Sodehxo campus dining services. Pitner, who's worked for Sodehxo for five years, installed a vegetarian counter last year, but he was still getting complaints about the food. He was delighted that parents were stepping up to offer advice.
A few minutes later, Pitner met with Anil, Hemant, and Rekha Patel, Sarjan's mother, leaving Darshna in the dorm room to help unpack. Sitting at a table in the cafeteria, the parents expressed their concerns about the vegetarian food at IIT and explained the nutritional needs of vegetarians, noting that they rely on beans and lentils for protein but that students wouldn't eat the food if it didn't taste good. This led Pitner to ask the right question--what do vegetarians like to eat?
In years past, he said, "We'd serve rice and beans and maybe an eggplant. There was no thought process involved when thinking about vegetarians."
That's slowly beginning to change, and that day Ajay and Sarjan's parents proposed a solution: Darshna could teach Pitner's staff to cook Indian food.
Darshna's been cooking for nearly 30 years. Along the way, she's encountered some of the problems IIT cooks might encounter, says Anil. "When Darshna and I first came to the U.S., she was a new wife and she wanted to make kobi nu shaak [cabbage curry] for us, so she took out a big green cabbage and when we sat down to eat it, it did not taste good at all. It was not cabbage, it was lettuce."
Lettuce wasn't grown in most parts of India until recently, he says. Just as Darshna was unfamiliar with American produce, IIT's kitchen staff might have trouble identifying Indian spices and ingredients. Having Darshna oversee the cooking would make a real difference, they told Pitner.
Pitner thought it was a great idea: "Parents are busy. For her to take the time, to make that sacrifice, was amazing and my supervisors and I were fine with it.
"The diversity at IIT is unlike that of other colleges and universities I've worked in," he says. "The smallest population here is probably North American." Of the 825 students who live on campus and eat in the dining hall, about 40 percent are Indian and another 7 percent are Southeast Asian. About half of these students are vegetarian, in addition to vegetarians in the general dorm population. Thus, Pitner realized, a proportionally large number of IIT students have a taste for either spicy food, vegetarian fare, or both.
In addition, he notes, rice or vegetables are cheaper than meat. The only potential obstacle was insurance liability for Darshna, who would be in the kitchen but not on the payroll. When Sodehxo gave Pitner the go-ahead, citing a clause that covered guest cooks, he called Darshna and gave her the good news.
Darshna immigrated to the U.S. 23 years ago from Gujarat, a region of India notorious for adding sugar to every dish, whether it's a dessert or not. For IIT, she chose Gujarati foods that would be easy to prepare. Pitner used a computer program to convert the recipes from five-serving dishes to ones feeding 50 and ordered the needed ingredients.
After promising Unilever that she would complete her work as usual, Darshna was given permission to volunteer at IIT every Tuesday and Thursday. She figured she would need to help out for at least a few months.
She says if the cooks didn't have a knowledgeable guide, "the food could have not been to the right taste and consistency....The recipes didn't translate exactly, so you would have to add more or less by looking at the color and by tasting it. I was the only one familiar with it." Plus, she says, "The staff there are so busy with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, one after the other, that they don't have time to think about it."
Pitner chose Darrain Bowdry, a cook who had some experience with international cuisine, to work with Darshna, learn her recipes, and eventually be responsible for all the cafeteria's vegetarian food. Bowdry, the resident dining hall's lead cook, lives in Woodlawn and has 17 years of kitchen experience. This April he'll graduate from the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago. He compares cooking to chemistry, explaining that it requires lots of experimentation to succeed. His response when asked to learn how to make Indian food: "I'm never scared of a challenge." Like the other eight IIT cooks, all of whom are African-American or Latino, Bowdry knew very little about preparing vegetarian food and even less about Indian cuisine.
"I'm black, so we think of vegetarian food differently," he said. "If someone gave you vegetarian food, you'd say, 'I need meat, something with flavor.'" But he was eager to learn. He had some of the vegetables cut and ready to go the first day Darshna joined him in the kitchen.
On a warm Tuesday afternoon in September, it was hot and slightly humid in the crowded kitchen, where the staff had just finished serving lunch. Darshna, armed with jars of spices, got there four hours before dinner, which turned out to be barely enough time for her to walk Bowdry through the recipes chosen for that night: potato and tomato curry and spinach rice.
In that first session, Bowdry learned the basics: "Indian cooking mostly needs spices and is made more with beans and vegetables," says Darshna. "The beans you have to make spicy and unique; otherwise they have a flat taste to them. The vegetables can be made dry, like a dried curry, or you can make it a soupy curry--a puree. If it's dry, you need to substitute something for the moisture like yogurt or some sweet puree to dip it in. You eat the vegetables or beans with homemade or ready-made bread or with rice." The basic spices and seasonings needed are turmeric, chili powder, cumin and mustard seeds, salt, sugar, and lemon.
Different vegetables can be swapped in some of the recipes. "They can be cooked and curried the same way," she says. "The main variety of taste comes from the different vegetables, and the spices enhance that flavor."
"Darshna would go step-by-step," says Bowdry. "She'd say, 'Add this,' and explain how every spice or ingredient would change the flavor of the dish or what items would overpower others. I've been cooking for years, but this is a whole different concept."
Without Darshna at his side, Bowdry says he wouldn't have been able to master the intricate steps involved in making even some of the simplest Indian foods. "If they gave me the potato curry recipe, I'd put all the ingredients in a pot. But with her there, I learned to make all the aroma and spice come out. With the cumin and mustard seeds, you cook them in oil to give flavor to the oil. This process allows the flavor to sprout out of the seeds before you add the vegetables."
Bowdry wasn't the only one learning. Darshna recalls being overwhelmed by the sheer size of the kitchen and the gleaming steel equipment, some of which she didn't recognize at all.
The kitchen "was about 2,000 square feet," she says, "and it had a stove with much bigger flames that cooked everything much faster for cooking in bulk. All those pots and pans were thicker to avoid burning. I found they had nice steam kettles to boil things like rice and vegetables in a short period of time. There are various choppers...one stove with four burners, two steam kettles...two big steam ovens with various shelves, many baking ovens, and blenders and mixers to make dough."
Darshna would explain the way she'd cook something at home and Bowdry would point her to the equipment that might work in the institutional kitchen.
"If I said I have to use a food processor for something, they would show me some other equipment to do the same thing," she says. On her first day, she says, "the food went so quickly. We were tired but we decided to make it again to refill the vegetarian counter because we were so happy."
As she helped make the second round of Indian food that night, a group of students came up to her and simultaneously chimed, "Thank you, auntie"--a common Indian term of respect--and asked her to come back often.
To accommodate Darshna's recipes, Pitner began regularly ordering certain spices, vegetables, and nan bread. But there were ingredients that Darshna had to do without, leading her and Bowdry to find creative substitutes. For instance, Darshna normally prepared one of her curries by adding eggplant, potatoes, and water to mustard seeds fried in a small quantity of vegetable oil. While the seeds simmered she would add turmeric, red chili pepper, salt, fresh lemon juice, and gor, a raw brown sugar used in many Indian recipes. The cafeteria had neither lemon juice nor gor so she used lemonade powder and a dash of sugar instead. Together they've made kichdi, a yellow lentil and rice dish; pan-fried mung bean sprouts; bhaji pown, a curry of about six vegetables, mashed and served with toasted and buttered buns; Italian bean and eggplant curry; a dry cabbage and potato curry; cabbage and carrot salad; yogurt from scratch; and quesadillas, Indian-style, with chili powder or garam masala.
The IIT staff started with 50 servings of Indian food twice a week and is now making 250 to 300 servings of the food nine times a week--sometimes twice a day. But the larger quantities still don't meet demand. The Indian food is often the first to go, Pitner says. Some staff members complain they've never had a chance to try it because there aren't any leftovers.
"I miss hot food," says Abhinav Reddypamulaparthy, 17, a freshman from Hyderabad, India, eating a spoonful of eggplant and potato curry.
Abhinav, who is majoring in aerospace engineering, says his mother used to make fresh chapatis--round, unleavened wheat bread--every morning for breakfast at home. Although he still misses spicy south Indian foods--dosas, for example, and yogurt, and mango pickle with rice--Abhinav said Darshna's dishes are "getting better daily." Ed Moy, 21, says the food in general and the vegetarian dishes in particular are better this year. He's not a vegetarian, but he has found himself heading for the vegetarian counter more often. He says that in the past the cafeteria staff would make "one-sided attempts" at creating ethnic foods--Chinese food adjusted for a Western palate, for example--but that Darshna's recipes are more authentic.
There are a few critics: "The nan is so hard you can cut it by hitting it against the table," says Ian Jon Albert, 20, who's from Kuala Lumpur. He demonstrated, triggering peals of laughter from other students at the table. Nan is typically made by slapping dough against the inside wall of a clay oven, then letting it bake as it sticks there. If a clay oven is unavailable, one can bake the bread in a regular oven.
Since the nan is bought ready-made, Darshna and Bowdry aren't responsible for its quality, but Darshna admits the food suffers when prepared in such large quantities. "When they tell me to take the food home for dinner, I say no. I just go home and make food for Anil and me," she says. "It's not the same."
Overall, Pitner is impressed with the students' response to the food. Once every two weeks he holds a forum to hear student concerns and ideas about dining services. After the Indian food was introduced, representatives from the Muslim Students Association began requesting more south Asian fare and Halaal meat. With Darshna's permission, Pitner's sent her recipes to Sodehxo's executive chefs. If approved, they may be adopted at about 850 college campuses across the country.
Darshna recently cut her visits to campus from twice to once a week, and she's slowly phasing them out completely. She says Bowdry has come a long way. He's in charge now, sometimes getting help from his coworkers or consulting with Darshna over the phone or via E-mail. He says working with Darshna gave him experience that he couldn't get in the classroom.
"It opened my eyes to a different cultural food," he says. "I'm surprised you can get this many dishes out of vegetables. I'm planning on opening a restaurant in the future. And it's gonna have vegetarian food."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.