Immediately, I retracted my silver-sandaled foot, and stood to attention outside the door.
With her eyes closed, Roshan raised the brass plate in her hands. It was laden with orange and red flowers, a small silver pot full of red powder, a candle, and a pile of rice with—of all things—a raw egg sitting atop it.
Holding the plate in both hands, she circled it seven times in front of my son and me, chanting lightly under her breath. Using the index finger of her right hand, she took some of the red powder to make a round mark on each of our foreheads. She then set the plate down on a small chair to her right, removed a plastic bag from the pocket of her smock, and set it down on the floor.
Next, she extracted the egg from its perch, and resumed her chanting, this time in a louder voice. She held the egg high above our heads and then, before I could blink, expertly cracked it with one deft twist of her right hand, and deposited its gooey contents into the plastic bag on the floor without soiling either my hair or her palm.
“Come,” she said, smiling a radiant smile. “Welcome to our home.”
I took the hand she extended, and with my 2-year-old son on my hip, entered my husband’s ancestral home in Mumbai for the first time as a married woman and a mother. Roshan, my husband’s favorite aunt, had welcomed me into her family in the traditional manner, with flowers, light, and, as is the custom in my husband’s community, an egg, symbolizing life, prosperity and new beginnings.
Yet that egg, lying cold in the plastic bag, also stands for the cultural differences between my husband Farshid’s family and my own, differences that crop up every now and then—not least during this very important visit to India, when my parents and I are meeting my husband’s extended family for the first time—and make for awkward moments.
My in-laws are Zoroastrians. Not only do they practice a different religion from us (we are Hindu Brahmins), but they are also used to a diet that, with very few exceptions, is almost entirely meat-based (we are strict vegetarians). My in-laws can devour vats of meat curry, black with spices and thick with oil, two or three times a day, and they love to sop up the gravy with soft slices of fat bread. They relish such delicacies as chicken gizzard curry and brain cutlets. More often than not, their vegetable dishes feature eggs or meat, or both.
Not only are my relatives strict vegetarians, but we also believe in moderate eating. We cook with little salt and virtually no oil, and stick to a diet of green vegetables, grains, and lentils. While the male members of my in-laws’ family are known to have walloped 16-egg omelets in a single sitting, my family cringes at the mere mention of an egg. Indeed, we seem to have a gene that can detect the smell of an egg even when it is deeply buried within the confines of a fluffy cake.
In the four years that we have been married, my husband and I have managed to juggle our families’ culinary differences quite well in our own New Jersey home.
When my in-laws come to visit, the freezer is stocked with all manner of carcasses for their cooking and eating pleasure. We buy them fresh kingfish and jumbo prawns from Chinatown, and a host of goodies they wouldn’t find so easily in India, like hot dogs and corned beef, prosciutto and pate de foie gras. My mother-in-law spends her days happily stirring up steaming pots of family favorites like curried liver, spicy eggplant topped with scrambled eggs, and minced meat and deep-fried fish liberally smeared with chilies and spices.
When it is time for my parents to visit, I take out the cooking vessels I have kept aside for their use, and give them a good clean. We make sure we are stocked up on plenty of green vegetables, tofu, a variety of lentils, fruits, and fresh yogurt.
In India, though, things are not so simple, particularly when vegetarians and meat eaters get together. There, cultural peculiarities prevail, and the divisions between castes and communities, vegetarian and non-vegetarian, are firm.
The greatest torture for a vegetarian Hindu is having to eat a meatless meal in a meat eater’s house; even the carnivores will agree. That’s why, during our trip to India, my parents were so happy to get to my aunt’s house in the southern city of Bangalore, where they can eat the simple South Indian vegetarian food they like best, off plates they know are clean and pure. There, we feasted on idlis with mounds of fresh, spearmint-green coconut chutney; crisp dosas stuffed with knobbly squares of soft potato curry, and traditional rice with buttermilk, flavored with a handful of chilli and spices.
I have always loved this food and I tried hard to entice my small son with it. I rolled warm, buttery balls of rice with plain yellow lentils, and tried to pop them in his mouth; I coated an idli with sugar, and dipped pieces of dosa in a deliciously soothing mixture of homemade butter and molasses, hoping to tempt him. But my efforts were futile.
So I screwed up my courage and asked my aunt the dreaded question: Could I scramble an egg for my son?
After a moment of silence, she opened a kitchen cupboard, and reached deep inside to pull out a faded skillet with a loose handle and an old wooden spoon.
“Use these,” she said, also handing me a new sponge with which to clean the pan after use. Then, in true Brahmin style, she instructed me to wash the pan and the spoon, set them to dry on a small sun-soaked shelf at the far end of the kitchen so that the egg smell might fade away in the sunlight, and to throw away the sponge.
Most Brahmins, of course, are polite when they visit a meat eater’s home, but they are loath to truly relish a meal (albeit vegetarian) for fear the dishes it has been prepared in were also used to cook meat. For whatever reason (perhaps because there are no dishwashers in India, or running hot water is scarce) Hindu vegetarians believe the smells and flavors of meat linger on dishes even after they have been washed.
That’s why, upon our return to Mumbai, my parents and I were relieved to receive a call from my mother-in-law, canceling a dinner at their house. My father-in-law was ill. He had diarrhea and was throwing up.
We were free! We ordered tomato soups and salads from room service. Later, my mother-in-law called. My father-in-law was a bit better, but still needed to eat something light and give his stomach a rest. As such, he was going to eat fried eggs and sausages for his dinner.
A writer in New Jersey, Savita Iyer covers topics ranging from food to finance.