Connecting to my Indian culture through food


I have never had the privilege of knowing where I belong.

I’ve always had each foot in a different country – I’m too Indian for America and too American for India. But unlike most of my other first-generation friends, I have one more nuance in my relationship with my culture: language.

For the first time in twelve years, my two grandmothers from India came to visit my family in Maryland at the same time this summer. They mainly speak Tamil, a South Indian language, and while they can get by speaking English, they struggle to understand American accents.

It doesn’t get any easier if I try to communicate in our language. I’m fluent, but when I speak Tamil it’s accompanied by a sharp-edged accent that makes the words sound fake coming out of my mouth. Instead, I ended up speaking slow, simple, articulate English to my grandmothers, with an approximate 80% pass rate on core subjects.

But what I realized, especially after seeing my maternal grandmother for the first time in five years, is that he is a language in which we can all communicate freely: food.

When I was in kindergarten in suburban Baltimore, my mother used to tell me everything twice, once in Tamil and once in English, so that I could start learning English translations to talk to my classmates about class and to my teachers every day. But what never had to be said twice were the names of the foods. Paneer is just paneer, and as my English vocabulary started taking over my Tamil vocabulary, paneer stuck without me even realizing it.

Soufflé with carrots. (Courtesy of Laya Neelakandan)

One morning after my grandmothers arrived, I went to the kitchen for an early breakfast. My maternal grandmother was watching the cricket match in the family room – West Indies were beating, and it was not going well for India. My paternal grandmother was sitting in the kitchen, probably scrolling through countless WhatsApp messages from her family in India. I started telling my mother about the meetings I had that morning and how they went.

“Ni yenna will solicit?” asked my paternal grandmother. What are you saying? But I didn’t have the vocabulary to translate “find a lede for the article I’m writing” into Tamil.

My maternal grandmother turned away from the cricket match to ask me what I’m going to eat. “Yenna sappida porai? »

I shrugged and flipped through the freezer.

“Adhu Ennadu? she asked, pointing across the room to the frozen box of Trader Joe’s I had chosen. What is that?

“Noodles!” I answered. Immediately, a connection was created. My grandmothers came and sat next to me and we started reminiscing about the time when they cooked spaghetti for me when I was little, visiting Bombay and refusing to eat Indian food another day.

Although it is difficult to explain to my grandmothers the smallest details of my work or the courses I plan to take at university in the fall, food has allowed me to create a special bond with them. . Both married at the age of 17, thrown into the world of housewives and learning to cook for their husbands. One of them even likes to say that cooking is her meditation. But deeper than that – and maybe she doesn’t even realize it – cooking is her communication.

As the visit from my grandmothers continued, my unease with my own culture began to lessen. Every morning, our first conversation was about breakfast: idlis or upma? Halfway through breakfast, we were already discussing lunch plans: I would reheat a frozen meal and the grandmothers would eat last night’s leftovers. In the afternoon, the smell of spicy sambar or crispy dosa wafted through my room, and we spent dinner talking about how the dish was made and the family stories it reminded us of.

Dosa, idlis and vada with chutney, sambar and masala.  (Courtesy of Laya Neelakandan)

Dosa, idlis and vada with chutney, sambar and masala. (Courtesy of Laya Neelakandan)

At the table, “enough” or “I’ve had enough” is almost never an accepted response for my grandmothers. My paternal grandmother’s love language is to pile more food on my plate after several servings. Even if she has nothing to say to me, just watching me eat gives her the greatest joy and satisfaction. Most of my grandmothers’ conversations with each other also revolve around food: how their recipes differ in each family and what dishes they most often cook at home in India.

For the first time since my childhood, I felt a sense of belonging to my hyphenated identity. Making naan pizza for lunch connects my disparate experiences without compromising my rich culture. Talking about why we make appams for holidays allows me to find a meaningful connection to my grandmothers even when I don’t feel comfortable speaking my native language.

In South Asian communities in particular, food is often seen as a source of connection, with mealtimes being important times to come together and focus on your body.

This summer, I got to see how true that rings with my family. Cooking, eating and talking about food connects me to my grandmothers in a way that English or Tamil – or even a mix of the two – doesn’t quite seem to do. It opened small windows for me into the lives and minds of my grandmothers, and I am immensely grateful that it provides me with priceless moments of connection that transcend the normal boundaries of language.

Besides that, it showed me that there is is a way in which my relationship with my mother tongue is not as complicated as I thought. And on that note, I’m just going to check out what’s for dinner.


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