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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Chaat Masala, Ripe Cantaloupe, and My Bubba

Canary melon and cantaloupe
I hated cantaloupe as a kid. The smell was musky, like a damp armpit, and it was a fact that I hated all melons. Even watermelon. But every time my brother and I were sent to our Bubba and Papa's house for the weekend, there was sure to be freshly sliced cantaloupe on the breakfast table. Bubba loved it with a little salt, and a side of cottage cheese. Sometimes, I would be polite and take a bite, but mostly, I made it clear I wasn't having it.

My melon revolution started in the spring of 2000. It was around that time I met my friends Ana from the Ukraine and Ravi from India. They were long time pals who willingly bounced me into their fold. Ana and I worked together for a short time in a computer and packaging center, and Ravi owned an Indian restaurant in town.

I was also the young mother of a newborn and a toddler; the latter of which had embarked on a journey with solid foods that I didn't want to impede.

It all collided near the fall, when Ana called me and said Ravi had gone to prison. I wasn't sure what he had done, but it had something to do money and dishonesty. Ana was left to clean out Ravi's apartment and invited me to help her. By the time the afternoon was over, I had a new painting of Saraswati, a woven tapestry of Krishna and Radha, two pots, four plates, and a dozen or so boxes of masala mixes from Ravi's kitchen.

I loved Indian food, but had no clue how to cook anything outside of Mattar Paneer, a sweet and savory tomato broth with peas and chunks of fried Indian cheese called Paneer. Masala was a new word in my vocabulary at the time, but cooking was an old friend who revved my excitement for the new supplies I'd brought home.

One masala, or spice blend,  in particular was a package called Fruit Chaat. Cubes of ripe, juicy melons and what looked like sliced cucumbers were piled high in a bowl on the package label with a generous sprinkling of brown spices.
Another variety of Fruit Chaat
I opened the metalic pouch and took a sniff - a hard sniff, which caused me to sneeze three times. I was overwhelmed by the burn of pepper and confused by the other smells I couldn't place. The label listed ingredients that sounded more familiar as herbs or even fruits to me; things like dried mint leaves, dried mango powder, dried and crushed pomegranite seeds, cinnamon, ajwain, asafoetida powder, red chiles, cumin, black salt. Huh?

I licked my finger for moisture before dipping it cautiously into the sandy-brown powder with whole chile pods flecked throughout. Then I tasted it, head on, no fruit to canvas the sensation.

I was shocked at how much I liked it and how odd it tasted. It was salty-ish, but not too much, and spicy, enough to make your mouth tingle and your lips burn. But the depth went beyond those tastes, as sour and then nutty, sweet and then smoky, citrus then Christmas-y enveloped my senses. What could it all mean? But something told me I wasn't supposed to answer that question, rather - I was to enjoy the moment and the barrage of new flavors I'd been introduced to.

I knew I liked this spice mix, but I wasn't sure how I could use it. Certainly I wouldn't put it on melons, those detestable rounds of smelly, squishy fruit that made my stomach turn. Or would I?

My husband had bought a cantaloupe a few days prior because he loved them and he also wanted to teach our oldest son to like them too. If left to me, my son may never have known what a melon was. If not for Ravi going to prison, I may not have had the chance to learn to love cantaloupe too.

Eager to test the chaat on fruit, I grabbed the ripened melon off the counter and went to slicing. I annhilated the poor globe of sweet orange flesh. I'm pretty sure at least 75% went into the garbage, but the remaining few chunks were all I needed. I sprinkled the masala over the wet sunshine wedges and took a bite. The once unpleasant muskiness of cantaloupe somehow turned sweet in my nasal cavity. The squishy, unpleasant texture felt juicy and nourishing in my mouth. The spices of the chaat hit every tastebud I had and smacked my head backwards with flavor.

Freshly sliced cantaloupe sprinkled liberally with spicy Fruit Chaat
I was in love with cantaloupe. Chaat cantaloupe that is.

Fast foward to 2012 and you'll find a variety of ripening melons on my counter top. Except watermelon, I still hate that one. And close by, there'll be a jar of spicy Fruit Chaat, waiting to perk up my palate.

But cantaloupe has a special place in my heart. After my Bubba died in August of 2011 from a stroke, I found myself connecting certain foods with my memories of her. Cantaloupe is no exception. When I slice the skin off the fruit and take that first whiff, I am reminded of Sunday mornings in her and Papa's home, a warm place that offered bowls full of love and sweet ripened cantaloupe for the taking.
Papa and Bubba 1978
Of course, she'd probably have puked if she ate my kind of cantaloupe, but it's the thought that counts.

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