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An Intern's Notebook - An Evening with Niloufer Ichaporia King at Foreign Cinema  
  by Eloise Melzer  
     
   
     
 

I had been interning with the Kitchen Sisters for several months learning the ropes of radio production—transcribing interviews and researching stories—and took a break to travel to Vietnam for the summer. It was a heavenly sojourn that consisted of hopping from food stall to food stall, sampling the country’s culinary delights.  My trip had also been one of my first forays into recording and documenting, and on my return to the Kitchen Sisters, I was full of sounds, flavors, colors, and stories to share.   Davia had just the project for me; a continuation of the exploration of the exotic, but in the Bay Area. She handed me the cookbook, ‘My Bombay Kitchen’ and told me about the author, her Parsi friend Niloufer Ichaporia King, a trained anthropologist, street food explorer, a hunter of exotic ingredients and plants who had compiled the a cookbook/memoir about her culinary and cultural heritage as a Parsi. As always with the Kitchen Sisters, I found myself engaged and captivated by the project.

 
     
  It was a serendipitous twist that the restaurant where was working, Foreign Cinema, would be devoting an entire night to the culinary delights of Niloufer.   Foreign Cinema’s menu is always an exciting combination of flavors from all over the world and they were naturally smitten with the flavors in My Bombay Kitchen (there’s always at least one cook walking around the restaurant with her cookbook tucked under their arms). They transformed their entire menu into a Parsi feast fit for Zoroastrian kings and queens.  Gayle Pirie, one of the executive chefs and the force behind the collaboration with Niloufer, was gracious enough to let me come along for the ride.  Armed with my recording equipment and some tips from the Kitchen Sisters, I set out to document the event.  
     
  Day 1: Shopping  
     
 

With mike in hand, I met Gayle and Niloufer at Vik’s, an Indian grocery/café in Berkeley.  We started in the morning and had a full day of searching for the ingredients for the Parsi feast.  I tried to keep up as Gayle and Niloufer navigated the narrow aisles of the market, bouncing from one ingredient to the next, hoping that the Banghra music playing in the background wouldn’t obliterate their voices.  Shopping with them truly was a treasure hunt…packages of bright red lentils were purchased, bright green curry leaves, basil seeds that Niloufer described as looking like ‘little frog eggs that make you feel cool and happy,’ exotic unknowns to me like a cone of jaggery, unrefined cane sugar, and coconuts that were inspected with utmost care.

 
     
   
  Papadam - We were almost out the door at Vik’s Indian Market when Niloufer exclaimed ‘Papadam!’ and rushed to load up with the Indian flat bread.  Made with chickpea flour and dotted with black pepper, the papadam is cooked over an open flame until it changes color and is a wonderful, crunchy accompaniment for the Parsi feast.


 
  Day 2:  In the Kitchen at Foreign Cinematop  
     
  I meet Gayle and Niloufer in the kitchen at Foreign Cinema. Gayle has a long list of what needs to come together before the restaurant is transformed into a Bombay kitchen. I check my recorder and hope that the kitchen fans won’t be a problem.  Gayle and Niloufer have a huge task ahead of them, but today it’s still fun.  The treasure hunt for ingredients still has everyone excited and eager to experiment and create with them.  Pomegranates are being juiced for desserts and a glaze for the quail, the cardamom cake needs to be tasted, dal needs to be started, beef tongues that have been simmering for 8 days need to be examined.  
     
 



 
     
  The kitchen is alive with wonderful whacking and chopping sounds and I try to record it all. The kitchen is compact and is full of narrow spaces, which makes it a bit of a dance trying to follow Gayle and Niloufer as they go through their list and move through the kitchen.  I attempt to mike them near their chest, so their voices resonate, but as they chop and stir and move it’s difficult to keep up.  
     
   
     
  Everything on the menu is discussed and Gayle and Niloufer brainstorm how the feast will come together.  There’s an energy buzzing through the place already and I can’t help but be inspired watching the two women work.  Niloufer puts herself to work right away peeling garlic. Soon the colorful ingredients purchased yesterday are simmering and sizzling away on the stove.  
     
   
 
Gayle Pirie and Niloufer discuss the menu.
 
     
  I stay in the background mostly, observing the process of prepping (getting things ready) for the feast.  When I can, I interject questions about recipes, ideas, ingredients, and Gayle and Niloufer don’t hesitate to delve into descriptions. They are both clearly excited by the collaboration. 

 
     
   
 

The end of the day brings one last treat, a run through of one of the most eye-catching recipes: ‘Eggs on Potato Chips.’  Niloufer describes it as being quite common in India, but she also used to think it was a joke: a way of making fun of the Parsi propensity for eggs on everything (There is a recipe in her book called Eggs on Anything).  Gayle wants to make it perfectly and plans on using house-made potato chips.  For the run-through, Niloufer has brought a bag with her and soon onions, ginger and chiles are sizzling away in ghee.  Next the crunched up potato chips go in and some fluffy coriander Niloufer brought from her garden.  A nest is made in the crackling chips and the eggs are cracked into the center.  Gayle and Niloufer discuss the best way to finish the eggs and I try to wait patiently for a taste.  We try it and it’s delightful: crunchy, flavorful and rich.

 
   
  Day 3: The Day of the Feasttop  
     
 


I had to buy more minidisks as I had run through my supplies already, and I wanted to be ready to record everything and anything that happened on the big day.  I arrive in the morning and Gayle and Niloufer are already busy in the kitchen. Pots are clanging, knives are chopping, palm fronds are beginning to decorate the dining room, and jars of green chiles, banana leaves, coconuts, and fresh turmeric line the kitchen counter. There is a palpable energy present and I contemplate the best way to capture this energy with my microphone. 

 
     
   
     
  Listen - The Menu Meeting at Foreign Cinema  
     
  This is the day of fine-tuning everything. Gayle is wrapping her head around every detail and going over the menu taking notes.  She still has a million questions, questions that she needs to be able to answer herself in a few hours.  The menu has to be explained to the sous chefs and to the line cooks—who need to learn to prepare everything flawlessly over 100 times, and then, later, to the servers so that they can in turn describe it to the customers, all 300 of them.  Needless to say, stress levels are beginning to mount, and being an extra body with a microphone recording and not someone chopping mounds of garlic presents a bit of a challenge at times.

 
     
  Chiles are being soaked and Niloufer is going through banana leaves that will wrap ling cod steamed in coconut milk with her green chutney (delicious!).  She begins to talk about the days before she could easily find banana leaves in the market.  In those days, Niloufer would scout for the best-looking banana trees and hop fences and hide in bushes to gather them.   
     
   
     
 

Meanwhile the restaurant has undergone a transformation; it’s been “Parsified.”  Marigold garlands frame the fireplace.  The servers are dressed in bright colors and all get flowers to wear.  Bright saffron menus are printed that are dotted with Parsi stencil drawings.  Rose petals have been sprinkled around the entrance.  Dusk sets in and the whole restaurant begins to glow. 
Gayle and Niloufer sit down with the servers right before service to go over the menu once more.  The room is hushed and Gayle and Niloufer speak, both exhausted.  It is evident the amount of passion and energy both women have poured into this evening and as the staff applauds them and their menu, Gayle is in tears.

The Kitchen starts putting up ‘tasters’ of the entire menu—each dish is cooked so the chefs and staff can see them and taste them and last-minute tweakings can be made.  As the Parsi creations appear from the kitchen, I wish my mike could allow people to see and smell as everything looks so lush and smells delicious.  John Clark, Gayle’s husband and executive chef at Foreign Cinema is good enough to describe some of the dishes: A beautiful heirloom chicory salad is bejeweled with ruby red grapefruit, coconut and crab, Niloufer’s braised duck leg is setting on a bed of farro with braised turnips and onions and a nest of braised haricots vert from John and Gayle’s favorite green bean farmer; it’s a gorgeous plate.  Everything coming out of the kitchen is colorful and exquisite.

 
     
 
 
     
 

The restaurant begins to fill and soon murmurs and clinking glasses echo off the walls: the feast is underway.  Gayle and Niloufer float around the room greeting people and describing their collaboration.  They are all smiles.  I turn my recorder off and join a group of my friends, vicariously exhausted myself, ready to sample what my mouth has been watering over for days.  We sample a bit of everything and we all fall silent as the heady flavors delight us.  Niloufer stops by the table and gives us tips how to make ‘Eggs on Potato Chips’ at home.  The dinner is a lovely event and a delicious success—the taste of Gayle and Niloufer’s cooking still lingers on my tongue.

 
     
  Postscript: A Beginning Documentarian top  
 

I relive the event again as I transcribe my recordings.  I’ve transcribed dozens of Kitchen Sisters interviews and heard the graceful way they gather sound and cull the story from the interviews.  I note the places where I did a good job asking questions that illicit strings of the story I was trying to capture, and where I was silent and the story fell silent too. It comes to my attention that there was an equipment problem that released static that I hadn’t been aware of while recording and cringed at while transcribing; some wonderful story elements have been compromised by it.  

I note how mike placement is crucial for voice clarity—it’s so clear when I could maneuver near them and when I was just holding my mike out hoping to catch something.  The kitchen fans are so much louder than what I heard in my headphones at the time, it’s something Davia warned me about but is hard to get around when recording in a professional kitchen.  A lot of what I recorded has decent sound quality, but not great—the sounds of the kitchen overwhelm the sound of the story. My recording adventure didn’t yield perfect results, but I feel they did tell a story and  what an amazing thing to have the opportunity to record. 

 
 
– Eloise Melzer
 
 
 
   
 
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