The smell of various spices filled my nose as I walked into the Cornell Dairy Bar to attend the Asha Cornell Spring dinner. Asha Cornell hosted this dinner in order to raise money (each ticket costs 12 dollars) for their projects aiming to promote the education of underprivileged children in India. Asha Cornell is completely volunteer-driven, and they work to hold local fundraisers and raise community awareness of their projects.
The line for food was at least 50 people long and extended through the main hall of the Dairy bar. The line moved fast as there were two different stations serving the same dishes. Once at the front, I was given a cafeteria-like tray, and Asha volunteers filled it with a variety of vegetarian foods. Next to the food station was a table serving both mango lassi, a yogurt-based drink usually blended with some type of fruit, and plain mango juice. I grabbed a cup of mango lassi, as it has always been one of my favorite drinks.
After receiving my platter of food I walked into the main area of the Dairy Bar long tables were set up. There were people of all ages and nationalities enjoying the food and each other’s company. The room must have had at least 100 people in it. My friends and I found three seats nestled in between other groups of people. It was a little cramped, but it felt more intimate sitting next to other people at the event.
Before we started eating, my friend explained to me what each of the foods were. His family is from Andhra Pradesh in South India, and he grew up eating a lot of these same dishes. Other people around us starting listening in, also curious about what each food actually was. There were leaflets along the table; the name of the chef and each dish we were eating were written on one side, and Asha Cornell’s mission was written on the other side. There was no mention of what was in each dish, however, which would have been useful to include.
I started eating the Bhel Puri, which is puffed rice mixed with vegetables. It had a very refreshing and light taste. Next, I ate the Tawa Pulao mixed with the Chettinad Aviyal, which was the main dish. Tawa Pulao is another sort of rice which was heavier and more filling than the Bhel Puri, and Chettinad Aviyal is a mixture of root vegetables and coconut. The two dishes together were a great combo. At first I thought I would miss having some sort of chicken curry which is what I’m used to eating when I order Indian food, but this dish was very filling and tasted just as good, if not better, than any chicken dish.
Also on my plate was Dal Er Borar Ehol, which is made of lentils and potatoes. It had a similar texture to falafel. The Paneer Makhani — a dish made with cottage cheese simmered in a creamy sauce — was too cheesy for me; I could only eat a couple bites. The Khaman Dhokla is a yellow sponge-like cake made from chickpeas and covered in a black spotted sauce. At first I thought this was the dessert but it did not have a sweet flavour and was very bitter. It was the one thing I really didn’t like and the smell of it alone made me feel sick. My Indian friend said he used to hate eating it as a kid but had grown to like it. The flavor was very different than any food that I’ve experienced; I could see how it would take some getting used to. The dessert was called Rasmalai and is made out of sugar, chhena (which is a type of cheese), and cream. It was very sweet and cheesy tasting. I wouldn’t normally choose this as a regular dessert, but it had a refreshing flavor to end the meal with.
As people began finishing their meals, two women rose to talk about what Asha Cornell is. I was happy they did this because to be honest I didn’t know anything about Asha Cornell before this event. They also explained that this event was made possible by Cornell organizations such as the Food Science Club and the Bengali Student Association. They ended by telling us we were welcome to get more food and drink if we wanted, so naturally, I went to get another cup of mango lassi.
My food was definitely worth the 12 dollars I paid, and there was the bonus both of discovering new authentic Indian dishes and knowing you are donating to an organization that promotes education throughout India.