Susan Feniger's necklace

Photo: Burcu Avsar

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I received this necklace as a gift about 25 years ago, on a trip to India. I'd gone to visit a good friend who lived on an ashram, where we helped out in the kitchen for about a month. I was at the beginning my career as a chef—I'd spent a year training in the south of France—and this was completely different from any cooking experience I'd had. When I say we worked in the kitchen, I mean we squatted around a stone block with a fire underneath it, and helped eight women grind spices and make naan and paratha. It was really rustic. But it was magical. We'd get up at 5 in the morning and make a big pot of tea before the produce and buffalo milk arrived by bicycle. Then we'd sit in a group and the women would joke and laugh as we prepped vegetables and made curry pastes, yogurt, and ghee. I couldn't understand a word, but they were so warm and welcoming. Sometimes they'd take me into town and fix me up with all these beautiful cottons and pretty colored bangles. We developed a wonderful relationship without ever speaking a word. When it was time for me to head home, they presented me with the necklace, and I felt like they were asking that I not forget them. I haven't. Not only have I gone back to visit them at the ashram five times in the years since, but I've never forgotten what they taught me. Meeting these women changed the way I cook. My palate became more eclectic. I started focusing on stronger flavors like turmeric, curry, and tamarind, and on the simple dishes people eat around the world. I even put a tandoori oven in one of my first restaurants. But cooking with them also showed me how we can communicate with food, regardless of what language we speak. Whenever I see the necklace, I realize how important that time was for me. Being there opened my eyes to the world.

—Susan Feniger, chef and author of Susan Feniger's Street Food (Clarkson Potter)
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