Friday, March 15, 2013

The Fatherland Tastes Like Curry



Laugenweckle.  I stumbled over the cumbersome names of the rows of soft pastries lining the shelves at Keim’s, but the beautiful, exotic Ingwer, Rosmarin, Basilikum, and Kirkuma rolled off my tongue with languid ease.  The smoky sweet scent of the paprika, the texture of the multicolored peppercorns, and the taste of the free Turkish marshmallow candy always lured me back.               

The front door of the spice store, the one I usually came in, opened into a bright, airy room, painted gold, and stuffed with rugs, plants, masks, baskets, and tiny elephant carvings.  Massive walnut chests and tables held everything from the everyday to the exotic:  Italian seasoning, vanilla sugar, dried chilies, flavored salts like basil-rose and citrus, dried lavender, sage, bright round peppercorns, powdered mango, garam masala, big green cardamom pods, graceful saffron threads, five types of mustard seeds, curries, and anything else you could imagine.  

I would pick up each of the little plastic bags, tied neatly with twine.  The printed label with the regal camel announced the name and the contents.  I would excitedly examine the list of spices sounding the strange names out, recording the ones I couldn’t recognize to look up later.  I would then turn the clear package over to marvel at the swirls of color and texture it contained.

Chests and baskets on either side of the tables held huge bags of rice, lentils, noodles, and some canned goods –like coconut milk, straight from India.  In the back of the store, Kashmir tea, honey, marmalade, vinegar, and Walker’s shortbread kept stacks of gourmet chocolate bars company.  The cash register sat on another huge walnut table, flanked by baskets of what would become my favorite sesame wafers.  The friendly shopkeeper taught me to steep my teas in ein halbes liter wasser, and did his best to explain to me what some of the unfamiliar spice names meant.  He knew I would always buy a new loose tea bag to try. 

While the other Americans ate crepes or schnitzel with their beer, I measured spices and learned to eat saffron colored rice, drenched with sauce, with my hands.  You have to pull the cardamom pods out first.  My friends would congregate in the kitchen, tasting and critiquing.  My lentil daal earned praise from SH, my Bangladeshi neighbor who fried eggplants dredged in curry and ginger and cooked his weekly rice all at once.  My orange-rind cookies found skeptical purchase with D, who countered with his own macadamia-nut and vanilla-sugar version.  SA cooked me gewürzte pancake soup on sick days, and gamely tried my sea-salted chocolate cake, even though she hated sweets.  A decorated her daily pasta with mozzarella and basil, and tolerated me snatching bits here and there.  We built our community in the kitchen, chatting over plates full of both the exotic and the local.         

When I packed my bags, the last thing I did was carefully set my box of spices in the communal cupboard, ready, perhaps, for the new einwohnerin of Fichtenweg 25, zn 8.  I let the door to the empty kitchen shut behind me a final time and walked down the bleach clean hall.  At the airport, I ate slices of paprika-marinated pork steak and then carefully washed the container clean so as not to set the customs dogs off in the US.  I walked through the tiny shops in the Stuttgart airport, passing over the candies and keyrings that didn’t hold a single memory.  Searching desperately for, but not seeing, an authentic memento of the past six months.    

To me, the Fatherland tastes like curry and paprika, ginger and cardamom, vanilla sugar and basil.  On days like today, when I miss it so much I can’t breathe, I open the spice drawer to take comfort in the flavors of home.

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