An Indian kitchen in Hagerstown

April 06, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Born in Surat, India, Maniben Solanki was only 5 when her family moved to Kenya.

As a little girl, her mother taught her how to make rotli (also referred to as roti), a traditional Indian flatbread.

By the time she was a young woman, married with five children, Solanki was living in Uganda and was raising her family on Indian cuisine.

Today, Solanki, 68, is continuing the tradition from her home kitchen in Hagerstown.

"Every Monday, my day off, I cook and everyone comes over," Solanki said, on a recent Monday evening after finishing a batch of rotli.


She prepared a meal of chicken, basmati rice and seero, a bread pudding-like dessert she makes by roasting cream of wheat grains in ghee, and then adding warm milk and freshly ground nutmeg and cardamom.

Utensils are not used when eating traditional Indian fare, Solanki said. During the interview, we used the rotli to eat the chicken and rice. Solanki slid me a spoon for the seero.

"It's what we eat every day," Solanki said.

Solanki doesn't measure anything, which makes it hard for her daughter Mina Messner to re-create some of her mother's dishes.

"I'll cook things for my husband, but it's never quite the same," said Messner, the mother of two teenagers.

Solanki started and raised her family in Uganda, but had to relocate during the rule of Idi Amin, whose reign was marked by extreme nationalism. Amin expelled all Asians from his country in 1972, according to U.N. documents found online.

Messner said the Red Cross evacuated the family to Austria, where they lived for a year. A Hagerstown church sponsoring displaced families abroad offered them an opportunity to live in the United States.

Solanki, with her husband, who is also from India, and their five children, moved to Hagerstown, where they have lived for 35 years.

The Herald-Mail caught up with Solanki and Messner to chat about cooking and Indian cuisine.

Q&A with Maniben Solanki and her daughter Mina Messner:

Q: So you guys have tasted various cuisine, I'd have to imagine. What was your impression of American food?
Messner: It was bland - no taste.

Q: Has it grown on you?
Messner: Yeah.
Solanki: I don't know how to make American food, but I make chili, I know that.
Messner: She makes it spicy. She adds a little red pepper, stuff like that.

Q: So, what are some typical things you'd make on a normal weeknight?
Solanki: I make rice, sometimes. Fried potatoes ...
Messner: She makes chicken, fish, shrimp.
Solanki: Hamburger, sometimes.
Messner: It's all made Indian style.

Q: You've grown up a considerable part of your life in Africa, and you've grown up many places. How did you go about keeping up with Indian cooking?
Solanki: My mom. (When) mom teaches, you better listen. Then if you're married, you've got to cook for your husband.

Q: That's what I'm afraid of. I can't cook.
Solanki: I've got to find you an Indian man so you can cook.

Q: (Laughing) My, so what were some of the first dishes you remember making on your own?
Solanki: I made the rice ...
Messner: You were making rotli when you were a kid.
Solanki: I'd make some cauliflower and peas, mixed together.

Q: Is it hard when you go out to eat, finding a good Indian restaurant?
Messner: Yes. See, in India, not everybody cooks the same way. Like here, Southern people have different foods. Different areas have different methods, but it's basically the same thing. So, we're used to my mom's cooking. So when we go to D.C., they have Pakistani and different areas of India that I'm not crazy about, but we have found a restaurant where the cooking is like ours.

Q: Where do you go?
Messner: Langley (Va.), Silver Spring. There's a restaurant in Frederick. Rockville, Md. has a couple of them.

Q: So what's your favorite thing to eat?
Solanki: Everything.
Messner: Her favorite is fried chicken and mashed potatoes, American style.
Solanki: And fish sandwich.
Messner: You bring her a fish sandwich, she's happy.

Q: When was the first time you had fried chicken and mashed potatoes?
Solanki: Austria.

Q: So Austria was the first place you ever had fried chicken, American style?
Solanki: Yep. It tasted so good.

Q: So is there one food you would never eat?
Solanki: Hot dog. I don't like it.

Rotli (also known as roti)

1 cup wheat flour
1 tablespoon canola oil
Water, as needed
Butter, to taste

Mix together the flour and the oil, adding enough water to form a doughy consistency.

Roll a small ball of dough flat and thin. In a skillet over medium heat, lightly toast for a couple of minutes on each side.

Remove the skillet and place the flatbread directly on the raised grate for a couple of seconds. The flatbread will inflate like a balloon. Immediately remove the flatbread from the heat. Flatten the rotli with a spatula and butter each side. Repeat process for the remaining dough. Yields about 10 rotli.

Cook's note: Maniben Solanki cooks on an electric stove, but she places a grate from a gas stove over one of the burners when she's making rotli. During the cooking process, Solanki places both the skillet and the rotli on the grate.

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