By Patience Merriman
WEST DOVER- Ho-hum, pizza and burgers again. Fried chicken. Hamburger Helper.
Wouldn't you like something different? Something exotic and tantalizing? With the scent and spice of a faraway land?
Then take a passage to India, via the Austrian Haus lodge here in West Dover, where proprietors Ketan and Sheetal Kinkhabwala are now serving a traditional "home-style" Indian dinner on selected weekends, featuring foods not usually found on Vermont dinner tables. Like papadams, crispy, feather-light disks of bread. Samosas, warm pastry turnovers with savory fillings. Golden fried chick pea balls and all kinds of vegetables cooked with ginger, pepper, curry, and coconut. See Sheetal's Dalmathani recipe below.
"We thought an Indian dinner would be a nice change of pace for Vermonters," says Ketan.
It's also a way for the couple, who met and married in India in 1994, to fill their kitchen with the familiar aromas of India, where Sheetal was born and raised, and where Ketan's family emigrated from in the 1960's.
Writer Santha Rama Rau, who authored the Time-Life cookbook, The Cooking of India, has written that "two of the most important preoccupations of Indian families in marriage and food."
Enjoying a dinner prepared by the Kinkhabwalas, you begin to understand why.
Countdown to courtship The story of Ketan and Sheetal, and how they came to be host and hostess of a Vermont country inn is proof - if anyone needed it - that the boundaries of the "global village" extend to the woods of Vermont.
Theirs is a tale of a very modern relationship - firmly rooted in tradition.
Ketan, an energetic man in his late twenties with a megawatt smile and enormous eyeglasses, was born in the United States and grew up in Manhattan with his parents, both practicing physicians. He's gregarious and chatty, with an ever-ringing portable phone never far from his side.
"I'm basically a New Yorker," he says. But after graduating from college with a degree in business, and a stint as a banker, Ketan decided the pace of the Big Apple was not his cup of tea, and in 1992 he purchased the Austrian Haus, a comfy, unpretentious lodge on Route 100 here.
Being an innkeeper was a full-time, 365 days a year job for Ketan. Free time was rare; time for a personal life (i.e., a romantic relationship) virtually impossible.
It's a scenario familiar to many entrepreneurs. But while young Americans often must resign themselves to years of dating disasters, frustrating love affairs, and lonely nights in front of the TV (or computer), young people from Indian families don't have to go through this tortuous process. From the time a child is born into an Indian family, his or her relatives are enlisted in the quest for a suitable mate. This search will provide family members with decades of absorbing, interesting, pleasant work. When children mature into young men and women, the families' search becomes serious and concentrated. Meetings are arranged, introductions made. Much visiting and snacking takes place between families.
All of this is done under the supervision of the family. Grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins are not only willing to but expected to, be a part of the screening process.
They can also, if they think it's necessary, give a gentle push. Which is what happened to Ketan.
"When I was 27, my mother and father decided it was time for me to get married," he says. It was not an unpleasant thought for the young man, but where would he find a nice, clever, urbane, pretty, kind Indian girl of good family in Vermont?
And so, in May of 1994, Ketan found himself in India with his parents, who had put out the word to their large family there: keep your eyes open for someone for Ketan.
"I went along with it," Ketan smiled, remembering a whirl of visits and introductions. He was courteous and open-minded - but none of the young women he met stirred any interest. He reserved a seat on a flight back to the states.
And then, four days before his departure, his mother and aunt said, "There's one more person we want you to meet." They had themselves just met this young woman, but both of them had a hunch about her and Ketan.
And so, to please them, Ketan went visiting. He knew it would be only a formality: after all, he had his plane ticket. How could he seriously court a woman in three days?
"I'm not marrying this person."
Unknown to him, Ketan was not alone in his nonchalance about this introduction. The young woman herself had already dismissed him as a realistic possibility. For one thing, he had his suitcase packed to leave India. For another, he was Sheetal's very first "gentleman caller."
Sheetal explains: "I had graduated from college and in India this is a traditional time to think about marriage. But meeting a partner in India is not like it is here. In India, families introduce you to people they think you will like. Sometimes you meet many people, but the final choice is up to you."
Sheetal's family thought that meeting Ketan _ whom everyone liked, but whom no one considered a serious candidate for suitor - would be a learning experience for her, a sort of practice run for the months ahead.
Sheetal smiles as she remembers her thoughts before meeting Ketan. "I thought, this is not such a big deal. I'm not marrying this person."
So the families met. Ketan and Sheetal chatted. Both felt comfortable and at ease. There was, after all, no pressure.
Sheetal remembers her surprise at Ketan's courteous manner and kindness.
"I thought, you know, being American, he might be not so considerate, but he was just so nice!" she said.
As for Ketan, he was delighted by this very pretty, very articulate and lively young woman. It was too bad he couldn't get to know her better.
All the same, there was no reason why they couldn't have coffee together the next day - Friday. They even discussed marriage, but somewhat obliquely, and always in the hypothetical sense.
Friday's date was so enjoyable that they decided to visit again on Saturday. Sheetal came to Ketan's family's house, and as they sat and talked (as always, under the fond but watchful eyes of family members), Ketan's uncle cut to the chase.
"So Sheetal," he said suddenly, "What do you think? Will you get engaged?"
It was on the table. And suddenly it seemed so simple.
Made for each other
That afternoon, Ketan and Sheetal went into town and bought an engagement ring. That night there was an engagement party, where all the relatives met each other. At first, Ketan and Sheetal assumed that he would still go back to America - and return in November for the wedding.
But that seemed pointless to their families. They all agreed: this match was perfect. The two grandmothers met to compare the young people's horoscopes and confirmed it: they were made for each other.
And so it was that on Sunday morning, the two families planned a wedding. With food, flowers, music, and dancing. A pavilion hung with flowers, a golden umbrella, all the traditional dishes and symbols. And a guest list of four hundred. It was to be splendid, gala, traditional Indian wedding. And it was all scheduled to take place the very next day.
It was impossible. But it happened. On Sunday afternoon, just 36 hours after their engagement, Ketan and Sheetal married in an outdoor ceremony at a restaurant that their families had rented for the day. Sheetal was radiant in flaming red, gold and green silk, with heirloom silver sandals, and delicate jewels, her hands henna-painted with elaborate designs, according to Indian bridal tradition.
The groom was also resplendent in a coat of silver silk, with a jeweled turban covering his hair.
Both Ketan and Sheetal confessed they had very little to do with the actual wedding logistics. "We just did what they told us to do," laughs Ketan. "They said, 'Be here, say this, do that,' and we did."
A few hours later, the new Mr. and Mrs. Kinkhabwala were in Vermont. For Ketan, life resumed its normal pace. For Sheetal, it was a time of wrenching transition.
"I had always thought I would come to America one day," she says. "But I don't think I realized how hard it would be to make the adjustment. I was lonely the first year."
Today, though, Sheetal appears relaxed and happy. "It's better now," she says, "I have met so many nice people here."
The feelings are mutual, especially among Valley vegetarians, who look forward eagerly to Sheetal and Ketan's Indian dinners.
"I think people like our dinners because they're different," says Ketan. "So many people think of vegetarian food as pasta and salad, but there's much more to it. It doesn't have to be bland - it can have a lot of variety and taste."
Sheetal says that spices are the real secret of Indian cuisine: turmeric, red pepper, ginger, garlic, coriander. She also uses such exotic ingredients as mango pulp and tropical patra leaves, which Ketan's family brings up from New York's Indian markets.
The Kinkhabwala's next Indian dinner is tentatively planned for a weekend in early March. So, if you'd like a taste of India, call the Austrian Haus for dates and times.
In the meantime, if you'd like to add an Indian flair to tonight's dinner, here is Sheetal's recipe for Dalmathani _ a nourishing, gently spicy dish. It's easy to prepare, low in fat, and full of fiber.
Saute onion and garlic in oil. Add spices. Combine lentils, spices and two cups of water, and cook on low to medium heat until softened. This could take an hour or more. Salt to your taste.