A tribute to Sangeeta, our magical cook in Chaparda – by Marta Koszo, Chaparda volunteer 2020
My first encounter with vegetarian Indian cuisine was back in the ‘90s when as a teenager I came across some devotees of the Krishna Consciousness Movement. It was love at first sight. I was blown away by the richness of flavours, combinations of dishes, variety of spices, many of which I have never heard before. That love got even stronger when I travelled through India for a month back in 2007. Ever since, blending spices has been the essential part of my cooking. Even if the dish is not necessarily Indian, it would still have a hint of Indian flavours.
When I got selected to be a member of the 2020 team of acupuncturists to volunteer in Chaparda, I was over the moon! It really meant a lot to me to be able to help and provide care for people from disadvantageous communities. A small part of me was also super excited to go back to India and enjoy the flavours of my favourite cuisine. I’ve been told by some of the team members who have been there in previous years that the food prepared in the ashram is divine. I just couldn’t wait to taste it!
Gujarat is a dry state and predominantly vegetarian but there are also communities which incorporate non-vegetarian food in their platter. The ashram in Chaparda, the village where we stayed during our project, prepares strictly vegetarian food. The property spreads across a large estate with several facilities such as two guest house buildings, dormitories for college boys, elderly homes, a home for children with partial or total visual impairment a small temple etc. There is a large stable with cows producing enough milk for the entire ashram, acres of land where crops, fruit and vegetable are grown- all organic!
Our breakfast was seemingly simple but lush with fresh fruit from their farm such as papaya, bananas, guava, medlar, and freshly baked roltli (type of flatbread). We would also often get caramelized peanuts for dessert or sweet balls made of dates which we would wrap up and take with us to the hospital to enjoy during our short tea breaks. Walking back from the hospital, either for lunch break or at the end of our working day, we would all wonder with excitement what Sangeeta had prepared for us. And we would be in for a treat every single time! Our lunch and supper were always cooked and comprised of rice, dal, fresh home made yogurt from the cows farmed on the estate, 3-4 different vegetable dishes (shaak or curry), a fresh salad, papadoms and rotli and ladu-sweets. The dishes would be served in a buffet style and we would carefully put two-three spoonful of each so as to be able to try them all. The abundance of taste and the mixture of spices would just explode in our mouth making every mouthful such a joy! Even if some of the dishes were spicy, we always had the homemade yogurt to extinguish the hotness of spices.
During our first week in Chaparda on one of our lunch breaks, a cook came out of the kitchen and started serving something orangey that looked like a pumpkin potage from a distance. Then someone said “Oh, it’s mango purée, it’s delicious!” Well, I never heard of mango purée before but having tasted all the food so far, I knew it had to be nothing but delicious and I was so right! This delight in a bowl is one of the best things I have ever tasted and it has made it to the top of list of my favourites! Made out of their organic mangoes, so sweet, creamy and cooling, I was in culinary heaven. Gujaratis eat it with a bit of powdered ginger sprinkled over it and it gives the purée a little kick in taste and helps to digest it. Sadly, we couldn’t have it as a regular dish but on those few occasions we did, it was everyone’s highlight of the day, food wise.
The second most memorable meal treat was a special dinner when Sangeeta and her little army of cooks made a South-Indian pancake- dosa feast for us. That experience was literally out of this world! Served fresh and hot off the pan, crispy on the outside but soft on the inside, filled with a vegetable mix and couple of cool chutneys on the side, she took us all again on a heavenly culinary journey. That was one of those moments that made you think “why do we have a limited stomach capacity” because we just simply couldn’t get enough of them!
Sangeeta is a wonderful woman who would always greeted us with a smile, always positive and always very determined to fill us up with food! A few minutes after we would help our selves from the buffet, she would waltz out of the kitchen in her beautiful sari and take the big dishes from the buffet and start making rounds from one table to the other and try to sneak in on our plates another spoonful of curry, salad, a piece of rotli or some sweets. As you can imagine, I was among those who usually couldn’t say no to her cheeky smile and swift hands. Often she would just slide a piece or a spoon of something without us noticing it at all.
I wholeheartedly appreciate her cookery skills because she would make at least one new dish for us every day. Her creativity in combining ingredients in not just one delicious dish but 6-7 different ones every day twice a day is worth every admiration and respect and I’m sure our whole team would agree Sangeeta is a 5 star cook! She definitely made our stay in Chaparda even more memorable!