From the Root

Learning, Eating, and Teaching: My Journey from India to America

I was born in Mumbai, India, and I have spent most of my life surrounded by the rich culture and the glorious and exquisite cuisine of the largest city in India.

Three generations ago, my family migrated from Gujarat, another western Indian state, and settled in the thriving metropolis of Mumbai.

Mumbai is one of the most prosperous and business-friendly cities in India, so many people have migrated here from all over the country to work and make this city their home.

My neighborhood where rickshaws and fruit and vegetable vendors are the norm.

 

I’m one of 22 million people that call Mumbai home.

 

Eating in the region  

Indian cuisine is incredibly diverse and can vary significantly by region based on crops and food availability and the influence of culture and religion.

Although I readily identify as a Mumbaikar, I almost always follow a Gujarati diet. The majority of people from Gujarat – the birthplace of Gandhi – are vegetarian, in large part due to the dominant religion of Hinduism. Grains and legumes grow in abundance, so the population eats a lot of dals (a cheap vegetarian source of protein such as lentils, peas, or beans).

Everyday meals are served on a ‘Thali’- a round-ridged plate – with a dal, a lightly spiced seasonal vegetable, chapatti (an unleavened flatbread), some rice, and a kachumber (a distinctly Indian side salad).

This is a typical restaurant Thali ‘plate’ served with multiple dishes. At home I would eat rice, dal and a seasonal vegetable from a Thali.

 

Regional fruits of Mumbai: star fruit (top left), fresh cashew nut fruit (top left), tamarind (top right), guavas (bottom)

 

Moving abroad and broadening my taste buds

When I was in my 20s, I set off for America to complete my PhD. My first stop was Buffalo, NY. On my way to a new country, full of cultures and experiences that I could only imagine, my main question was – what do “real” American families eat every day? Surely they don’t subsist on just burgers, pizza, and barbeque!

In India, almost everyone carries a “tiffin box” (or lunch box) to work. That didn’t seem to be the case in America. I saw people mostly eating homemade sandwiches with layers and layers of meat, large Tupperware boxes of salad, slices of pizza, and absolutely humongous burgers. That answered what the typical American brought for lunch at work, but I still couldn’t help but wonder – what do they eat at home?

My typical lunch is a chapatti with a dry seasonal vegetable that I carry with me to work in a tiffin.

 

While my curiosity burned, I was steadily exposed to a huge variety of New York food.

First, I tried the city’s famous Buffalo wings – chicken smothered in a spicy, red, vinegar sauce served with bleu cheese and celery. I’d never had anything like it before, and I thoroughly enjoyed the burst of different flavors in my mouth.

Next, I enjoyed the quintessential American dish – huge, greasy burgers piled high with tomatoes, onions, and crisp lettuce. In India, our lettuce wilts immediately, given our warm and humid climate and the lack of refrigerated trucks to transport food from farms to market. I was surprised by even this small condiment.

I miss the size and depth of taste of an American burger.

 

There were also monstrous slices of pizza, bagels, and kosher deli food – all of which were tasty – but I still had no idea what Americans ate at home.

Correcting assumptions

A year later, my PhD studies brought me to the University of California, Irvine in Orange County. Taking in the oceans, beaches, and palm trees from the plane window, I instantly felt right at home. And as I walked out of the airport into the blistering heat, I knew for sure that I was back in my element.

Living in Southern California was one of the best times of my life.

 

My colleagues at the university were always curious about my lunch. Every day, someone new asked why I brought pita bread and vegetables, or why I insisted on eating unsweetened, natural yoghurt at lunch time. (Pita bread was a substitute for chapattis which I didn’t know how to make).

“Karishma, you’re Indian… can you make Chicken Tikka Masala?”

“No, we eat that only in restaurants.”

“Well, how about Tandoori Chicken?”

“No, we go out to eat that, too. Nobody really makes that at home.”

Chicken tandoori was what my friends in California knew of Indian food.  

 

I realized that most people, understandably, have only experienced Indian food at restaurants. It’s a cuisine of its own, but certainly not authentic. It was developed mainly by migrants who made the most of ingredients that they had readily available. It’s tasty, but it isn’t anything like what we have on a daily basis back in India.

One day, my best friend peered into my lunch box and asked, “Is that curry?”

I almost lost my mind. What about yellow rice and peas could be considered curry? There was no liquid, just a plain, dry rice.

She very gingerly took a bite and said, “Hey, this isn’t too spicy… did you use a mild curry powder?”

The fact is, we don’t really eat curry everyday. Honestly, my definition of curry is a vegetable or meat stew.

To me, curry (or, more appropriately, “Kadhi”) is a lightly spiced yoghurt soup with cheap pea flour used to give body to the dish and stabilize its consistency. It’s made differently in different houses and is never actually called “curry.”

A yellow dal dish not to be confused with a curry.

 

From that moment on, I made a point of cooking my Gujarati-style food for potlucks and dinners. I wanted to introduce my American friends to a new interpretation of Indian food – the kind that I grew up with, straight from my mother’s kitchen.

And by that point, I’d expanded my taste buds and learned how diverse the American diet could be.

Living in SoCal, I got to sample Vietnamese food, Korean food, and authentic Chinese food. I learned that even though they all used similar ingredients – cilantro, shallots, etc. – the style of cooking and choice of spices made all the difference and allowed the chefs to create an entirely unique taste.

And don’t even get me started on the Mexican food. The reverence for rice and beans is so close to Indian, but it’s altogether a different beast.

As for the “American” cuisine, I also got to eat the most amazing baby back ribs, sweet potato fries, and – best of all – the whole Thanksgiving smorgasbord.

Over time, I realized that the food I ate in California is so similar to food in Mumbai. It’s the food that immigrants brought with them and then adapted to their new home. They made the best of what ingredients were available, but it had a touch of the place the family was from.

Bringing newfound tastes back home

Eight years later, I returned home to Mumbai, a city swaddled by the gentle Arabian Sea and teeming with the life and culture that I’d been so nervous to leave behind.

Like a happy bee flying home laden with pollen, I took the marvelous diversity of American cuisine back home with me. Those tacos, mac n’ cheese, and American-Italian-style meatballs are now forever a part of my kitchen.

I miss my midnight comfort food of American Kraft mac n’ cheese.

 

I’m so lucky to have had the opportunity to experience American cuisine firsthand and bring true Indian cuisine to a different corner of the world.

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