aimee nezhukumatathil books the grub street diet top story

Aimee Nezhukumatathil Picks Up Taiyaki for the Train


Illustration: Sarah Kilcoyne

“I’m a poet from Mississippi — this is, hilariously, not my usual life,” says Aimee Nezhukumatathil, who typically spends late spring at home with her husband, their two teen boys, and their tiny chihuahua. This year, she spent it on a book tour across the South and then to New York, New England, and D.C. for Bite by Bite, her new collection of essays that digs into beloved foods such as watermelon, gyros, black pepper, and lumpia. “Usually we’d be just finishing up our teaching for the semester and plotting what kind of bee balm to add next for our native flower gardens around our property, but it was my last week of the tour,” she says. “I want to give a big kiss to my husband, Dustin, who figures out meals and transportation and general various chauffeuring to sports practice for the boys, who have been taught from a young age that the world does not revolve around them and know how to help in the kitchen and clean and do yard work. To their future possible partners: You’re welcome.”

Tuesday, May 14
I land at La Guardia from Memphis and head straight to the West Village. My dear pal Joseph has scored a 5 p.m. reservation at Semma. It’s the only South Asian restaurant in the city with a Michelin star, and as someone whose Keralan grandmother is the best cook I know, I was eager to see if it lived up to the hype. Joseph, my friend Sarah, and I ordered family style, but as I had been traveling all morning, I wanted a summery, light cocktail to toast my beloveds, whom I hadn’t seen since Sarah’s 50th jamboree in September. The charming and delightful head bartender didn’t disappoint with a gin and Cynar-pineapple concoction. I asked him to name it so I could order it again and he demurred, so I told him I’ll just call it the Dennis, his name, and he smiled. An unexpected highlight was the Mulaikattiya thaniyam — a chilled mung-bean-sprout salad, with sweet coconut tempered with a dash of chile. I love when cold food gives a punch of heat. In hindsight, I should have ordered two of these just so I could have one all to myself, a happy Mississippi rabbit munching on sprouted mung beans.

We also shared a gunpowder potato dosa, shaped not in a cylinder or flattened into a rectangle, as at other dosa shops, but in a perfectly folded equilateral triangle. Sambars that accompanied it packed a tiny pop of heat, but nothing the Dennis couldn’t cool.

We ate spoonfuls of a light and creamy payasam pudding for dessert, chilled in a half coconut shell set on a bed of ice. Cashew pieces and dried fruit were crumbled on top. Such a lovely finish to our meal, which was filled with loud bursts of laughter and quiet tears from sharing our various despairs, and then back to laughter again as we stepped out into the drizzly night.

Wednesday, May 15
When I was shopping around my first essay collection, I remember one editor asked if I “had any addictions” to make the tone darker. I said the only addictions I have are (1) school supplies and (2) fancy bars of soap. He passed on the manuscript. But it’s all good — that book went on to be a best seller. So when I’m in a city, I head to whatever stationery stores I can find. I didn’t have a whole lot of time because the rest of the day was packed and my book event with Roxane Gay was that evening at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. I walked over to Paper Source at 30 Rock and stopped into the Cafe Grumpy for a small Tahitian vanilla latte.

I wrote about how this is my favorite kind of vanilla as it reminds me of one of the fragrances from my sons’ childhood. When my almost-17-year-old was in kindergarten, we made homemade vanilla for our friends using Tahitian vanilla beans that we carefully split and scraped into dark tiny bottles filled with vodka. I remember that sweet mess during a blizzard when we lived in western New York. And now that kindergartner whose head smelled like the sea and vanilla … is looking at colleges? How can that be? After I stocked up on various notecards and pretty teal and coral envelopes, I met a college pal nearby at Breads Bakery for a mini chocolate rugelach and an iced chai.

My glorious and elegant agent Laura and I had never met in 3-D as she took me on from frantic phone calls after my previous agent vanished the year before World of Wonders published. I was ecstatic to hug her in person at Osteria al Doge, where we met for lunch. It’s an old-school Italian space with tall ceilings frequented by chatty folks heading to the Wednesday matinees on Broadway. We both had ravioli with prosciutto and Caesar salads splayed like a green blossom. I finished with a latte with a white mini-meringue the size of a quarter and biscotti the size of my pinkie finger on a doily-lined plate.

Even the traffic to Brooklyn and light drizzle didn’t stop the force of wonder that is Roxane Gay. We hadn’t seen each other since before the pandemic and we had a standing-room-only audience. It turned out to be a kind of This Is Your Life gameshow, which pretty much no one under 45 even knows anymore. But for example, the people in attendance included poet pals, classmates from MFA days, my second cousin whom I haven’t seen since she was in elementary school, and former students (now with babies!). My high-school crush Billy, an architect, surprised me at the end.

Billy and I headed across the street to Endswell, where I had a citrusy Pink Lady, a mezcal negroni meets lo-fi amaro. The Pink Lady is not dainty, though: It’s made with mezcal, Cocchi Americano, lo-fi gentian amaro, saline, Peychaud’s, grapefruit expression, and a big rock of ice. All this attention and promotion the last month is a lot for this country mouse, so I requested that instead of toasting to my new book, as Billy wanted, we toast to the year 1989 — not a Swiftie reference, but that actual year, when a nerdy sophomore class president with pink plastic glasses swooned over one of the captains of the football team and they went to Homecoming together.

Thursday, May 16
My publisher had a car waiting for me in Midtown to take me to various bookstores to sign stock copies of my book, and even from just two Pink Ladies the night before, I was in dire need of breakfast and a coffee. My driver found the delightful 787 Coffee Company and I offered to get him something too. He chuckled like he’d never been asked that before and patiently waited while I grabbed a quick tres leches latte with just one shot of espresso instead of their usual two. 787’s coffee beans are soaked in rum for 48 hours after they’re roasted, and since alcohol evaporates during this process, it was a fine and fragrant hot drink. The barista slid a slice of banana-nut bread (still warm!) into a glassine envelope and I was good to go, but not before I also bought a packet of rum-infused coffee beans because they smelled that dang good.

After the signing, I asked the driver to take me back to my midtown hotel so I could pick up my roll-on luggage and to use the free Wi-Fi to upload a letter of recommendation for a former student applying for a fellowship. I couldn’t wait to get to Koreatown’s elegant and moody barbecue spot Yoon Haeundae Galbi with food writer extraordinaire and fellow half-Filipina Ligaya Mishan. I had never been to Yoon before and was happy to let her do all the ordering: a starter of japchae — glossy glass noodles — tossed with diced short rib, peppers, mushrooms, and sweet onions, all with the tiniest cuts of chives the size of a capitalized-typed O in a book. We also shared a Busan neighborhood pancake made of galbi, shrimp, and egg. But the centerpiece (literally) was the lunch barbecue, where a small volcano-shaped grill is sunk into the table. We opted for the extra-juicy, extra-tender Haeundae cut of marinated short ribs, sliced thin and arranged around the base upwards to the top where the caldera of the volcano would be. Around the cone-shaped grill were beautiful little pottery bowls, darkly glazed and filled with veggies, eomuk (stir-fried fish cake), onions, and one tiny bowl full of a bright chile-pepper sauce to dot on your barbecue if you want more heat (I did).

I loved the icy-cool refreshment of our dessert so very much I want to try and recreate it this summer in Mississippi. It was served in a long rectangular dish with two bowls on top. One cradled Asian-pear sorbet topped with a small curlicue of pear on what looked like a white scoop of shave ice, soaked through with yuzu honey. In the other bowl was a serving of cinnamon punch, and it included a tiny brass spoon for you to drizzle the punch as much (or as little) as you’d like over the whole icy mound. It was perfection after a belly full of lightly spicy and tender barbecue slices! At this point, I was very happy that my linen pants had an elastic waist.

I had a stint in Andover, just outside of Boston, as the Isham Fellow in Poetry at Phillips Academy, a post previously held by my friends Ross and the current U.S. Poet Laureate, Ada Limon. I wasn’t sure if I’d be hungry on the train and didn’t want to risk the food choices, so I picked up a sweet-potato taiyaki to save for later on the train. Turns out it was buy-one-get-one-free, so I had not one but two fish-shaped Japanese cakes. I loved the idea of two fish waiting for me in the darkness of my backpack for later.

Ligaya walked with me to Penn Station, where I saw my book for the first time in a train station! I shouldn’t have been worried about the dinner served on the train: I chose a lamb tagine that smelled of apricots and tomatoes served over basmati. I also downed a Pellegrino and tried the dessert — Key-lime pie in a jar — but it was too sweet, and also is it really pie if it is in a jar? I only had a couple of bites before I nodded off and woke up in Boston.

Friday, May 17
Morning in Andover was a quickie breakfast of simple hotel coffee while I took a walk on campus (right across from the hotel) to check out the dazzling display of lilacs and poofy witch alder that seemed to have blossomed wide open overnight. I met with about 50 writing students and posed for selfies and answered all their burning questions about poetry and writing.

Members of the incredible English department faculty, Kate, K, and Leo, took me to downtown Andover and there was a buzz in the air because apparently Andover was set to turn into something called Clown Town the next day. Clown Town is exactly what you think it is: a mini-carnival. With clowns. At La Rosa’s, I had a caprese sandwich — fresh mozzarella, basil, and EVOO with grilled chicken on top — and what I thought would be a side dish or a cup but was instead a giant bowl of pasta e fagioli soup.

I didn’t get a chance to hang much with my editor, Sarah, during my Brooklyn event, and since she only lives 25 minutes away she joined me downtown for coffee. I took my first nap in about a month after that.

At night I read to around 400 high-schoolers who renewed my faith and excitement for the future — they were whip-smart and funny and determined to make this place better.

Saturday, May 18
My Uber came at 5:40 a.m., so it was DD coffee and a plain croissant in the Boston airport. Miracle of miracles, my hotel in D.C. let me check in early so I DoorDashed Basebowl because it had the highest ratings for soup dumplings.

That afternoon I had an event with another wonder of a human: Jason Reynolds. His questions in front of a packed bookstore made me laugh as he dissed one of my fave desserts — tres-leches cake — but we agree on tiramisu as our all-time fave.

He was gracious enough to wait around for another hour-plus-plus of book signing and more selfies and then he took me to Copycat, where we sat at the bar and talked about our mamas. On the menu: double-fried ribs with chile powder and Sichuan peppercorn over rice and a side of some greens the bartender stir-fried up just for me. “We don’t really do vegetables here,” he said, and he and Jason chuckled together over that. I washed it all down with a Probation Sling: lime, cassis, Bénédictine, passion fruit, and gin.

I had been talking almost a week straight and my voice was scratchy and pretty much gone, so for late-late dinner I ordered some arroz caldo soup and a side of atchara papaya salad from Purple Patch, just like my mom makes: heavy on the ginger. A cure-all physically and mentally; I miss her and my dad so much. Retired immigrants who worked most of my life, they still don’t quite get exactly what I do, but they try: That night, my dad sent me eight pictures of the wacky-looking Muscovy ducks he saw on his crepuscular walk. I laughed and admired the audacious red of their faces and beaks while I caught up on some work and tended to the weedy garden that is my inbox these days.

Sunday, May 19
My last day in D.C. would not be complete without seeing my cousin Rekha; her husband, Andrew; and her beautiful family of four kids all under 12. They made a reservation outside for Sunday brunch at the Belga Café. I had the signature waffle with poached pears soaked in red wine, served with pear syrup crème brûlée cream on the side and a Speculoos crumble over everything. I shared a tiny silver bucket of Jamaican jerk turkey bacon with their kids as I just wanted a taste.

Last time I had a Belgian waffle was in Brussels with my mom, so I missed her even more. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History was calling to me for the afternoon — maybe it was before the pandemic when I last had this kind of time for museum-ing. I spent the whole rest of the afternoon there, oohing and ahhing over rocks and bones and butterflies and breaking only for coffee, which I procured in the Ocean Terrace Café. I drank it with a 52-foot-long model of a female mega-toothed shark dangling over my head. I read that it once patrolled the shallow seas including perhaps the exact place the museum stands now, back when the capital was covered in water millions of years ago. If I stood quiet enough, I could almost pretend what was in my coffee cup might sound something like small waves sloshing nearby.

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Rima Parikh , 2024-05-24 12:00:53

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