I can’t help but feel a sympathetic twinge of pain when I see the spice rack. The entire powdery spectrum is on display: cardamom to ginger, crushed rose petal to black mustard seed. And then, on their own special rack, are the chili peppers. Nestled at the center of the rack, like a newborn, is a single jar with a hand-written label: garam masala.
Fubric Kelnitnac cradles the jar as he pulls it off the shelf. Though he has invited me into his kitchen, he is reluctant to let me hold it myself. “This is my essence,” he says. “This is why I live.”
Garam masala is a blend of ground spices often found in Indian cuisine. It has no fixed recipe, often varying from region to region, or chef to chef. Chili peppers are a common ingredient, but Kelnitnac is not a common Indian chef: he is a Nabarac and landed on Earth only twenty years ago.
“Many people think that my work is dangerous,” Kelnitnac observes. “Even stupid. Do you want to know a secret? They’re right.”
The Nabarac people are well-known for their extreme reaction to the chemical capsaicin, which is responsible for the distinct heat created by chili peppers. Capsaicin works by irritating any tissue that it comes in contact with. That spiciness you feel when you eat peppers is actually a low-level burn. Most humans can shrug it off with nothing worse than a few runny tears. The Nabarac, however, react so violently to it that they literally burst into flames.
“All spicy food is dangerous to my people,” Kelnitnac notes. “We all know this, but it was a very hard lesson.”
‘A hard lesson’ is a vast understatement. When the Nabarac first descended to Earth, they did so in Mumbai, India. They were greeted with lavish hospitality, which included several traditional Indian dishes.
Kelnitnac becomes emotional as our conversation reaches this topic. “We thought that it was an attack, a trap sprung by your people to kill mine. At first, we asked ‘Why would you do this? Why would you set your guests aflame?’ In time, both sides understood our mistakes. Perhaps we were all too friendly at the start.”
As Kelnitnac puts it, he only looks to the past for inspiration. That is why Indian food has become his intense passion. His greatest desire is to transform a day of immense grief into a life filled with joy. His quest is made even more amazing when you consider that he has never once tasted his own cooking. Even the scent leaves him with a terrible pain, which he often carries home with him.
Kelnitnac handles what amounts to a hazardous material. Try to imagine a human cooking with sulfuric acid. Just going to work in his small kitchen necessitates a head-to-toe protective layer, essentially a hazmat suit. He mitigates his severe appearance as much as possible with an apron and a jaunty toque.
“It makes my cooking slower, which I hate,” Kelnitnac explains. “The rubber keeps me from fully rotating all of my arms. The hood makes my orders hard to understand.”
Clear orders are important, because he does have help. Though his family operates the business side of things, he refuses to employ other Nabaracs in the restaurant. “I couldn’t bear to expose them to this level of danger. I may be crazy, but I’m not crazy enough to risk the lives of others over a little curry.”
Kelnitnac is more than capable of cooking on his own, but he does need a wait staff. He has two employees for this, both human. Kim Hays and Manny Castaneda often share a bemused glance or three when on the job.
“It’s a great place to work,” Hays notes. “Easily the best work environment I’ve ever been in.”
“Fubric really knows his stuff, which is absolutely incredible,” Castaneda adds.
Kelnitnac relies exclusively on feedback from humans to determine how his dishes taste. “What I find really helpful, though, is watching the facial expressions, the body language. And,” he adds with a laugh, “how quickly they clean their plates.”
Many people tell Kelnitnac that his cooking transports them. They say that the taste of his food zaps them across the world to India with every bite. Some even claim to get a little taste of the Nabarac homeworld.
He considers this high praise. After the tragedy of the Nabarac people’s initial encounter, Kelnitnac moved his family to India for a time. He fell in love with the verve and colors that permeated the culture. He wanted to touch upon it so that his people could see that there didn’t have to be any hard feelings on either side. He had saved for a restaurant ever since hatching on his home planet. Though, as he himself will joke, he never expected to specialize in a cuisine that he can never eat.
It is nearly time for the restaurant to open for the day. Kelnitnac expertly chops an onion with one pair of hands while stirring a pot with another. He has adapted so well to his small kitchen that he never has to move a single inch. Everything that he needs in the course of a day is easily within reach.
“I’ve taken a bite out of life,” Kelnitnac explains, smiling through his protective hood. “Even if I can never taste it for myself.”
Brett Shaw lives in Pennsylvania but spent several years traveling the eastern United States as a professional archaeologist. He occasionally writes while his beagle is sleeping. This is his first published story.