Magazines and shows centered around food typically like to boast that the recipe they are showcasing is “just how Grandma makes it.” They teach you how to make something that brings back those special childhood memories, but when your family is ethnically from a different country, those magazines and shows don’t cater to you. Instead of inducing nostalgia, they can serve as a subtle cue that you’re different.
But then someone says to you something along the lines of, “Hey, I had Indian food last night and it was the best I ever had. Can you teach me how to cook it at home?” and you’re immediately reminded that being different is pretty darn amazing.
I was brought up on Indian food. When I was two, I excitedly told my doctor that my favorite dish was chawal, daal, and qeema — rice, lentils, and ground beef. My mom experimented with American dishes often, but they were always Indianized: traditional Indian spices were added to pasta sauces, pizzas had an extra kick to it, and turkeys were cooked tandoori style.
I would see those magazines with the headlines about home-cooked comfort foods while waiting in line at the grocery store and wondered if I was missing something. I couldn’t help but feel left out and oftentimes I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t grow up on meatloaves, mashed potatoes, and chili.
The transition from Indian food to American food every day was rough during college. My taste buds were crying for some real spices because the occasional garlic was not cutting it. But as with everything in life, I adjusted after some time. (I probably adjusted too much because my mom had to dial back the amount of pepper she uses in her food because it was too hot for me when I moved back home.) I bought those magazines, DVR-ed the Food Network, and scoured the internet looking for the best recipes to make typical American dishes. I ended up starting my own cookbook with printouts of basic recipes.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how beneficial it is to know how to cook a good traditional Indian meal. My parents just went to Saudi Arabia to perform hajj, the holy pilgrimage for Muslims, and my brother and I stayed behind because of school and work obligations. After the first couple days of pasta, we were hungry for some “real food.” So I called up my Grandma and asked for recipes. I frantically took notes and then got cooking. It was so comforting to have some chawal, daal, and qeema again.
In my diversity class a couple of weeks ago, we started talking about the experiences of first-generation Americans. The topic of food came up and it was so validating to find out that others from different backgrounds not only understood what it’s like to not know how to make chicken noodle soup “the way Grandma makes it,” but that they also had the same experience as I did. I find it so amazing that America is made up of individuals who have such unique upbringings but can still reach out to one another for reassurance.
The face of America is rapidly changing in such a positive way. In a time when biracial couples are on the rise and the marrying of cultures is prominent, it is vital to hold onto to the tiny things that are a part of where you came from. Our history defines us and our upbringing and traditions make us irreplaceable. Yes, it’s a treat when we cook up a dish of amazing lasagna at home, but nothing tastes better than eating a meal that’s been prepared following your family customs.
I’m currently in the process of making a new cookbook full of traditional Indian recipes that have been carried through generations and narrated to me by my parents and grandmother. I would love to turn it into a family heirloom of sorts so that future generations know how to make biryani the exact way our family has always made it.