Love in the Time of Coriander

Thoughts on food & more.

Friday, March 25, 2005

My Parents Immigrated from India

My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s from South India, a time when finding now-ordinary items like cilantro were very scarce. They traveled many miles, often to nearby metropolitan areas to stock up on dhals, rice, spices, and Indian vegetables. These treks were rituals, searches for my family and our Indian friends, against the grain of American cuisine, to recreate the familiar tastes and flavors of their childhood.

What I ate in the home as a child might still sound foreign and unappetizing to many Americans who are more accustomed to steak-and-potato palates. To other, more adventuresome types, my mother's cooking can be elevated to the level of haute cuisine and is quickly becoming inspiration for the opening of restaurants and the writing of Indian cookbooks. Friends who were fed Hamburger Helper meals too many times in one week say they envy the Indian-food-every-day diet.

But I was (and still am) the stubborn child who always craved something other than Indian food. Don't get me wrong. I liked Indian food. But I wanted more than just Indian food. Could my mother maybe make the Sloppy Joe's that Katy's mom made once a year? Or, could we have french toast with strawberries on a Sunday morning instead of idlis and coconut chutney?

My father had always cursed me for this exploratory tongue, though he was also a food taster and lover. After coming home from a long day of work, he'd ask spontaneously if my brother and I were craving noodles from Peking Palace or Thai red curry with chicken. These were rhetorical questions, for if we answered no, he'd have overwritten the veto. I remember once, on a family vacation, we dined in an all-American middle-of-the-road chain establishment. As the meal was coming to a close, my father eyed the captivating apple pie a la mode on the menu and asked if we'd go in for a share. We all refused him, and he sat stubbornly with his arms crossed and huffed like a child who'd been just denied a toy.

Despite this kinship that we shared, my cravings frightened him. They were a metaphor for something much greater--that I might forget who I was and where my family had come from. If not for the smells of cumin and coriander wafting through the house, who would I be? If I chose burgers over dosas, was I saying, unconsciously, that I was assimilating all too quickly into the fabric of America? For myself, I know that my desire to taste the world has never meant that India has no place in my heart. It's just that, like I said, I wanted to taste the world.


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