Food & Drinks, Life

I’m a white American, but masala chai reminds me of home

When my heart aches, I make it because it is the only thing that will soothe my soul

I was born in Bogota, Colombia, in 1990 during my mother’s first overseas assignment as a US diplomat. Every move we made after we left Colombia has made its mark on me, particularly with regards to food.

At two I loved Nasi Goreng (Fried rice) and Roti Canai (soft, buttery flatbread) from Malaysia. By six I was challenging my father to see how many types of Namibian game I could get on one plate. At 10, I learned to make a Guatemalan corn tortilla by hand, pressing it into a hot pan with my palm, and piling it high with smooth black beans straight from the can.

I am pale, freckled, and ginger. I am the whitest of girls, but underneath, my identity is wrapped up in the cultures I grew up in. I am a paradox created by the US Department of State. In the age of widespread cultural appropriation, I struggle to express just how important this global conglomeration of different foods is to my sense of who I am. I am a Third Culture Kid – a name that’s given to children who grow up somewhere neither they nor their parents are from. In my case, the list of places is long and that is why my relationship with food and identity is so complicated.

I do enjoy “regular” American food. I actually set up a brownie stand on a corner in Windhoek, Namibia, in 1997 and had to explain what they were to everyone who stopped to see what I was selling. I was an American food evangelist! For me though, the food from my home country wasn’t commonplace. It wasn’t there for me when girls were mean to me at school or when I sat at the cafeteria for lunch, so I didn’t form the same kind of attachment to it as I did local dishes wherever I was living. My hearts swells when I have kofta kebabs or fresh Egyptian bread. I stay in on the weekend and make Brazilian brigadeiros, a kind of chocolate truffle, because sometimes that’s the only thing that will do.

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite food, but butter chicken and sweet masala chai taste like home to me. I actually didn’t move to India until I was 16, but my father had also lived in New Delhi as a teenager and his favorite food is butter chicken. It represents both of our memories of being a TCK.

When I sit down to really good murgh makhani I’m transported to being with my family in Delhi, where I felt so connected to the city and my identity as an expat who comes from generations of expats. I switch into a different mode when I grab the naan and start scooping away with one hand. It’s something I’ve done since I was a kid and it feels like a secret part of my identity that surfaces when I have North Indian food. Chai is something I was determined to learn to make before I left Delhi. I knew that once I turned 18 and went to college, I would yearn for things that would remind me of India, which has played an outsized role in shaping my identity.  Sometimes I think that masala chai will never taste exactly right until I’m back in Delhi or up in the Himalayas, but when my heart aches I make it because it is the only thing that will soothe my soul.

I’m not the only TCK who associates home with food from faraway places. My TCK friends all have similar experiences. Anna-Sofia, a Danish-Turkish friend of mine who spent some time in Nepal, is a huge fan of momos, warm, delectably juicy, Nepalese steamed dumplings. Her Kathmandu elementary school served them and she fell in love.  Her “I ❤ Momos” t-shirt has followed her across continents. “No matter where I am,” she says, “from Kathmandu to Copenhagen or Charlottesville, I seek out dumplings, hoping to find a momo.”  

Haley Kemper, who lived in Bangladesh as a kid and then in India as a teenager, still adores Dal. She finds herself making it over and over because, after all this time, it reminds her of home. When home is a nebulous concept, it’s a pretty amazing thing to be able to find it in a little bowl of lentils anywhere in the world.

There are also the cases where our tastes are formed in extraordinary circumstances, like my friend Tony Walters, who used to love the fresh caught tuna his family would eat when they lived in the Comoros Islands, but rarely had the chance to have anything but the canned version as he moved around from place to place. His family also always sought out the local options for pizza where they were living. It became a kind of ritual. It’s one I understand. As families abroad it’s nice to have something that feels constant when things are always changing. Susanna Ly partly grew up in Germany and then moved to California with her parents, who were Chinese/Vietnamese immigrants to Germany. She told me about the sweet and sour pork her mum would make all through her childhood. It’s a meal that has come to represent her family being together, regardless of the country they are living in.

Third Culture Kids, like the name suggests, don’t have a single cultural touchstone from which we get our sense of identity and history. There are as many kinds of TCK identities as there are TCKs, and though it’s hard to point to home on a map, we can always find it on our plates.