Cooking With Elf Gas

Everyone said we would get sick of Indian food. Everyone was right.

For the first several months we were in love with butter chicken and naan bread, saag paneer, navratan korma, chicken 65 and dal . We happily ate vegetarian thalis served on banana leaves from steel buckets. I learned to cook biryani and chitranna (spicy lemon rice) and chapati. We learned to eat with our right hands, while keeping the left one on our laps. We approached meals with excitement, hoping each time, to discover a new favorite dish.

It took about six months for the thrill of Indian cuisine to expire, but expire it did. Phil lost his appetite first, and it happened overnight: One day we were happily eating chapati and aloo gobi, and the next day his whole body recoiled when he sat in front of a plate of chicken curry. I’ve since caught up with him; now we only eat Indian food when absolutely necessary.

There are very few restaurants in Bangalore that serve good western food. Actually, I’m lying: really there is only one, but it’s on the other side of the city, and very expensive.

Our only hope of not starving was to cook our meals myself.


All my life I’ve cooked like an Alzheimer’s patient: I start with the best of intentions, then wander out of the kitchen and forget what I’m doing. Then, ten minutes later when the pan on the stove starts crackling and the apartment fills with smoke, I act surprised, like this is the first time I’ve ever caught dinner on fire. But back home, even a careless cook can be a good cook.

San Francisco has an abundance of amazing grocery stores, offering every delicious, organic, vegan, grass fed version of anything you want. Our vegetables, fruits, eggs, and grains arrive every Saturday morning in a wooden basket from a biodynamic farm. In summer we get fresh corn and heirloom tomatoes, baby lettuce, snap peas and sweet carrots, served with fresh salmon that my brother pulled out of the ocean. In the fall and winter we eat roasted potatoes with turnips and rutabagas, we have mixed greens cooked in garlic and virgin olive oil with grass-fed organic beef, or roasted free-range chicken, or tri-tip drizzled with truffle oil served with caramelized leeks and roasted fingerling potatoes.

When I don’t feel like cooking we can go out for sushi, or tacos, or (beef!) burgers, at one of several dozen restaurants within walking distance. We can drop into a bakery at any time of day and pick up a fresh buttery croissant or a sticky warm cinnamon roll and a soy latte.

But here in Bangalore, due to the challenge of cooking food we can safely eat in a country that eats food we can no longer stand, I’ve been forced to actually seek out, read, and follow recipes. Which, in turn, has forced me for the first time ever to actually become interested in the process of cooking. I now spend hours browsing searching for recipes that fall within my strict perameters.


I have a two burner stove that’s a cross between a camp stove and a Wolfe range. The stove is powered with Elf gas. The Elf gas travels through a blue rubber tube, up three floors from the gas canister. When the canister is empty I go to the Elf store and exchange it for a full one. I still think it is funny. Elf gas.

I also have a small toaster oven. But the only baking pan I could find that fits inside the toaster oven is heart-shaped, so every lasagna, and cornbread, every macaroni and cheese casserole, every batch of lemon bars becomes a de facto Valentine. I like this almost as much as I like saying Elf gas.

Aside from the obstacles presented by cooking with Elf gas, a single heart-shaped pan, an Easy-Bake toaster oven, and the things we won’t eat, there are the things we can’t eat. We can’t eat any unpeeled fruit. Raw vegetables are out and salads are a death wish. The reason for this is as disgusting as it is simple: Elf gas! Kidding, kidding; the real reason is: Poop. Both the irrigation water and the drinking water are often contaminated with human waste. As well as the water being dangerous to ingest, the many hands that food passes through are also very likely contaminated.

Getting sick in India is just part of being in India. It isn’t just Westerners who get sick, either: every year, more than two million children die from preventable diseases, and most of these are from waterborne illnesses such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, or jaundice. The statistics are stunning, and make it hard to keep off the soapbox. More than 70% of the Indian population lack proper toilet facilities. Public toilets, when they exist, often don’t have running water, rarely have toilet paper, and rarely have soap to wash your hands. The farm irrigation water is contaminated from human waste runoff because the fields serve as de facto toilets. In Bangalore, a city of 6.5 million, the sewage treatment plants only treat sewage in limited areas of the city. Sewage that isn’t treated is simply pumped into the Thenpennaiar River, which flows to Krishnagiri Reservoir, which contains the city’s supply of drinking water. I’m not sure why India keeps choosing tradition and superstition over science, but it’s really pretty simple. People, don’t poop in your drinking water. This isn’t new information, and it isn’t being kept a secret.


The fruit and vegetable wallas push their carts through our neighborhood each morning, along with the man who sells long-handled dusters and aluminum water jugs, and another whose bike is towering with woven grass mats. Each vendor has a unique, bird-like cry that we’ve come to recognize. These cries, often overlapping one another, with the horns and whistles and the rattle of scooters starting, the insane dog yapping across the street, and the call to prayer from the neighborhood mosque, all together signal the beginning of another day in Bangalore.

There is no shortage of vegetables in India, but I have no idea what three-quarters of them are. Pale green serpents and foot-long blistered reptilian gourds lay in neat rows on the wooden carts, beside a pile of okra and ridged cucumber things. Small mountains of tiny purple eggplant, too bitter for words, fall over themselves. Giant round squash, in translucent white and orange, crowd into one corner of the cart, and are available by the hunk. There are things that look like prickly pears but aren’t, and deep brown orbs the size of elephant droppings that I refuse to believe are edible.

I’m sure there are dozens of ways to prepare these exotic vegetables, and they might even be delicious, but they would also be Indian. And I’d be more inclined to experiment with this exotic bounty, but getting my husband to eat vegetables of any sort is a careful dance. I’ve been known to resort to blending, trickery and lies, and stop just short of an airplane spoon. The only local vegetables familiar to us are: Roma tomatoes, red onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes, green beans, cauliflower and small green chilies.

The fruit cart usually comes around right after the vegetable cart has left. I run back down three flights of stairs and buy fresh pineapple, watermelon, and papaya that are available year round. I buy oranges that are green and limes that are yellow. Starting in February, the mangoes arrive; a new variety hits the carts every couple of weeks until the summer monsoons come.


I buy what I can from the street vendors, but for the rest of our supplies I go to the grocery store. Nothing I could have read or done before coming to India could possibly have prepared me for an Indian grocery store. To me, they are a hub of cultural insanity, a place where logic and common sense collide and are both knocked unconscious. It’s a place where Phil and I both lose all our cultural sensitivity and end up behaving very, very badly.

Every store seems to be overstaffed to the point of confusion. Moving through an aisle, I slalom past a person sitting barefoot on the floor amid a mound of cellophane packages, dusting each one with a rag before carefully replacing it on the dusty shelf, while another employee stares at me with an armload of small cookie packages. Two more workers lean against the shelves talking, while another paints the bread shelf with toxic black paint, while the bread is still on it. And no matter where I am, a woman with a coco broom is trying to sweep under my feet.

I buy mostly from the shop around the corner, even though their workforce is made up primarily of children, and the place looks like a farm museum. The shelves are lined with packages of mystery grains and seeds and jars of red stuff, and plastic bags of cooking oil, and pouches of milk, plus boxes and boxes of spice mixtures with the word “masala” included on the label.

Then, when I want to buy milk I don’t have to boil before using, or real cheddar cheese, or a five-dollar can of imported refried beans, or actual salami, I go to the HyperMart. They also have fish, but you can smell it from the parking garage three floors below, so I’ve never even considered buying it. They sell beef, but that scares me too. When we’re feeling really flush, these trips to this magical place will include an eight dollar package of Philadelphia Cream Cheese. At least half of the time it’s gone bad by the time we buy it, but that doesn’t keep us from trying. Hope springs eternal in our pursuit of familiarity.

When I’m finally done with the shopping, I step into the checkout line. Then someone steps in front of me – then someone else, and someone else, and so on, until finally I hold onto the counter and wedge myself into any remaining space between the formica and the cashier. This is standard behavior in India.

Once I make it to the front of the line, I have to check my attitude. In the States, grocery store clerks are a shining example of efficiency. Their magic fingers fly across the keyboards like lightning, they ask if you’re having a nice day, and they listen when you say, “No, not really.” Here and now, my cashier behaves as if this is his first day on a job he wasn’t trained for. He seems confused about the cash register, the concept, and what it is he is actually supposed to be doing. He wanders away from the register midway through the transaction and doesn’t return until another one of his befuddled co-workers goes and finds him. After everything has been rung up, he walks to the other side of the store to swipe my credit card, finds a pen and hands it to me with the wrong receipt to sign. He then finds the correct receipt for me to sign, and rifles through a drawer to find another pen because the first one doesn’t work. Then, when the transaction is complete, and I am positively homicidal, I walk ten feet to the exit where I am stopped by a guard who insists on seeing my receipt. He counts my bags then stamps and punches a hole in the receipt before letting me out the door.

This scene, or one very much like it, plays out every single trip to the market, and by the end of these experiences I have lost all faith in India.


Once back at the flat, with my painfully sourced ingredients, I can now make pasta with marinara or Bolognese sauce. I cook green Thai curry and Vietnamese Pho. Fresh flour tortillas, salsa made with blanched and peeled tomatoes, red onions, coriander, green chilies and lime juice. Pinto beans I’ve been cooking all day, ground chicken with onions and garlic and non-Indian spices. Fresh watermelon juice and lemon bars. I cook Southern fried chicken and green beans sautéed in butter and garlic, and sweet cornbread. I make crepes and shaksuka, and banana bread.

By now I have surrendered to the reality that it takes at least an hour, and usually two, just to make a simple dinner. To occupy my brain while my hands are busy, I listen to episodes of This American Life, or old podcasts from my Pirate Cat Radio nights; I find myself laughing because even from the distance of 8,700 miles and a full year, Pixie and Maggie are still pretty damned funny. It was a phase of my life that started with research for a book, ended five years later with a massive hangover, and I can’t wait to get back on the air when we get back home.

For now, though, I have become the domesticated housewife that our mothers struggled not to be.