Dig-In Meals – A column highlighting Indian spices in recipes that take traditional Indian food and add a western twist!
Every time I think about changing up my diet and incorporating more clean foods, I tend to put it off. All I can think of are buddha bowls and raw salads. Do I really have to suffer through several meals of incorporating raw kale into my meals to enjoy a delicious, eco-friendly diet?
Earth Day prompted me to rethink my approach to clean, healthy eating and cooking.
I figured it didn’t have to be all or nothing to reduce my ecological footprint and to start being more environmentally conscious in the kitchen. I began with seasonal organic and locally sourced ingredients -earth-friendly cooking doesn’t mean endless amounts of tofu or raw veggies. Instead, I hit up my local farmers’ market for some seasonal bounty. Wasting less food and cooking a tasty meal was paramount.
Spices are such an integral part of our Indian meals, that I wanted to find single-origin spices that are equitably sourced from countries with the best growing conditions, climate, and expertise to make sure that even the smallest pinch packs the biggest punch.
My friends who are chefs highly recommend Burlap and Barrel. I spoke to Ethan Frisch, cofounder of Burlap and Barrel, who used to be a chef and is working towards ending inequality and exploitation in food systems that disenfranchise skilled farmers.
“Mainstream conversations around food sustainability rarely consider the people involved in growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, and cooking food. Sustainability is discussed in terms of environmental impact, or the comfort of livestock providing meat, dairy, or eggs. We believe that the standard measures of sustainability must evolve to consider the conditions in which the farmers who drive global food supply chains earn their livelihoods. Single-origin ingredients draw attention to the unique environments in which incredible ingredients grow and to the farmers with the expertise and commitment to grow them well.”
With all the pieces in place let’s cook with sustainable recipes that benefit the earth, are delicious and beneficial to both our health and the environment.
Mix together organic peanut butter (I used crunchy), honey, vinegar, olive oil, sriracha sauce, soy sauce, pepper, minced garlic, and salt.
Heat a nonstick pan and add oil. Crumble the tofu or the Veggie Smart ground into the pan. Sauté the tofu/smart ground over high heat until the mixture starts to turn a light golden brown color. About 6/10 minutes.
Lower to medium-high heat. Add the onions, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and ginger/garlic. Sauté until the onions start to soften.
Season with salt & pepper.
Garnish with cilantro leaves
Layer two leaves of lettuce on top of each other and spoon the tofu filling in the center. Top with peanut sauce.
In a stand mixer, mix together the softened butter, sifted confectioners’ sugar and cardamom till it’s a light and fluffy light golden color.
Mix in the flour and salt. Then add in the pistachios. At this point, you can mix with a spoon.
Once the nuts are thoroughly incorporated roll the dough into a log, wrap in plastic wrap and chill. The dough can remain in the fridge for a 1/2 hour or even overnight.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
To bake, roll into 1″ balls. Place about 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet (I lined it with parchment paper). Bake until set but not brown, for exactly 8 mins (depending on your oven, but no more than 10 mins).
While still warm, roll in confectioners’ sugar. Cool. Roll in sugar again if you want a nice even coating of sugar. I didn’t do that to cut down on the sugar.
Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Valley Verde to sell culturally-meaningful and hard-to-find seedlings for families to ensure food security and comfort during pandemic and economic uncertainty
Today, Valley Verde launched a new offering of seedlings for culturally-preferred produce at a price point that communities can afford (even offering a discount to low-income shoppers). With unemployment and the cost of living high and a crisis like COVID-19 hitting our community, a backyard or porch garden can provide economic security and a nutritional safety net for families in need.
“Families want to grow healthy, fresh, organic, and affordable culturally-meaningful organic produce like Thai basil, bitter melon, chayote, and chili peppers in their own gardens. We are here to help them every way we can,” said Raul Lozano, Founder of Valley Verde. “People can grow their own food and eat it, share it, or even sell it to other families in the community.”
Diverse South Bay communities can have difficulty finding seedlings for the healthy, culturally-meaningful, and organic produce they would like to grow and eat. When families must rely on big stores and corporations for food access it can be easy to feel disconnected from their cultural food roots. With this new effort, Valley Verde is making it easier to grow the vegetables that our communities want.
Valley Verde has provided participants in gardening courses with homeland seedlings for four years, and is now expanding this opportunity to meet community demand. This includes opening an in-person nursery at 59 S Autumn St. on Saturday, March 27th where families can buy seedlings and have access to resources for new gardeners.
Lozano added, “Food unites our communities and nourishes our souls. Planting seedlings in a home garden or community garden is a critical first step to food security. Harvesting foods from our heritage is also a way of investing in the future and creating the community we want to see.”
To tell this story, we can offer media:
Interviews with Valley Verde representatives (Languages: English, Spanish, Punjabi, Hindi)
Interviews with local growers/gardeners (Languages: TBD)
Site visits to the nursery, including on the day of its grand opening – Saturday, March 27th, 9am
Photos and b-roll of gardens and people working in their gardens
Seedlings will be available for sale at:
59 S Autumn St., San Jose, CA (Tuesday-Sunday, 9am-4pm)
Homeland seedlings for sale (at prices ranging from $5.00 – $10.00) include:
Chinese bitter melon
Alok – bottle gourd
Satsuma long eggplant
Squashes and zucchinis
Thai hot chili and other peppers
Habanero, jalapenos, and serranos
About Valley Verde
Valley Verde is a San Jose-based nonprofit focused on increasing self-sufficiency, health, and resilience through a culturally informed community based food system. We own greenhouses and help local residents plant gardens to promote food security. We offer monthly workshops and one-on-one mentorship in a variety of languages (including Spanish) to help home gardeners have a successful harvest. We want to support our community as they build resilience through food sovereignty by providing culturally preferred vegetable seedlings, environmental education, and supporting the development of edible gardens.
Viruses are smart, they are masters of survival. They can hijack our body’s own mechanisms to live and multiply. During a productive infection, viruses hijack, multiply and destroy the cell that they call home for a very short time. Bacteria and parasites have also devised various intelligent and opportunistic methods of attacking the human body. To protect ourselves from these infectious agents, the immune system is the frontline of a preemptive defense, while some infections may be controlled by therapeutics.
Vaccines are the most overtly and urgently effective route to control these infectious agents as they specifically direct the body’s immune defenses against these intruders in multiple ways. However, we can take the initiative to maintain a strong healthy baseline. In addition to stress alleviation and staying active, we can consciously incorporate a few things in our diet to hone our intrinsic defenses. One aspect of this could be accomplished with a few spices, herbs, and condiments that we are familiar with.
Spices and herbs have fragrant oils that impart the flavors that we know and love, but they also pack alkaloids and other compounds which can have specific effects on the human body. Although detailed ayurvedic knowledge about the effects of these dietary inclusions exist, this article is meant only to raise awareness, and not delve into the depths of beneficial and harmful aspects of the few spices mentioned below.
Dubbed the ‘queen of spices’ and ‘black gold’,pepper is native to the Malabar coast of Kerala, and was the original spice that fueled the European spice trade. It was the mainstay for introducing pungency and heat in Indian cooking until the Portuguese introduced chillis to India in the 16th century. Among other effects, pepper has antipyretic properties. However, another important property of piperine, an alkaloid in pepper, is to increase the bioavailability of other compounds. That is, it increases the absorption of other chemical entities that are by themselves not readily absorbed. This leads us directly to the next spice, turmeric.
Hailing from the ginger family, the root ofturmeric is used as a spice with a familiar hue. In addition to imparting a rich yellow color to food, turmeric is known for its antiseptic and anti-infective properties. Curcumin, an alkaloid in turmeric, also has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties and has been studied extensively for its properties in ameliorating diseases, and in promoting general health. However, curcumin is not easily absorbed by the body, and combining its use with black pepper improves its absorption.
Otherwise calledHoly Basil (appropriately called Ocimum sanctum in latin), tulsi is more associated with religious ceremonies and Ayurveda than with cooking. It is related to, but distinct from, the basil used popularly in Thai cuisine. I have often wondered why tulsi is not used in Indian cooking given its amazing flavor, but it appears its religious associations preclude its use in something as mundane as food. Tulsi is an adaptogen, in addition to having several other medicinal properties, including antibiotics, and blood pressure control to name a couple. As an adaptogen tulsi is advocated for general wellbeing and stress reduction. Tulsi when added to tea imparts a soothing flavor, and occasionally adding a couple of fresh leaves (for those of us who have a plant at home) or a pinch of dried tulsi leaves while brewing a cuppa makes for an excellent beverage.
Since we are in the age of fast food, and Italian food can be a popular healthy option,oregano is a spice that we are all familiar with although it is not commonly used in Asian cuisines. In terms of flavor, it is a close cousin to ajwain belonging to the cumin family that is used in Indian cuisine, but the plants are not related. Oregano packs an intense flavor and has several essential oils, including thymol, which are thought to be antiseptic among other properties. Oregano can also be taken for general well-being, and both tulsi and oregano can potentially boost the immune system. Not surprisingly, they belong to the same super-family of fragrant herbs, Labiatae.
The medicinal properties ofgarlic were known to several ancient cultures, and its health benefits are thought to range from digestive to respiratory and circulatory systems but, of current relevance, it is anti-microbial. The pungent odor and taste of garlic are due to sulfur-containing compounds that are released when it is cut or crushed, and the best known of these is called Allicin. In addition to being anti-bacterial, allicin is also thought to haveanti-viral properties. Other members of the garlic family, including onion, share the same compounds, but in reduced amounts.
This article is not advocating the ingestion of these spices at the level of a therapeutic or dietary supplement, but only regular inclusion of these as spices in day-to-day cooking. It is also not an exhaustive list of all the benefits these spices are thought, and known empirically, to confer. Several other spices and condiments that we are familiar with also have beneficial health effects: cumin (jeera– anti-parasitic), ginger (anti-inflammatory), fenugreek (methi seeds– anti-bacterial and laxative), yogurt (pro-biotic), cardamom (blood pressure control), cinnamon (anti-microbial), green and red chillis, and so the list goes on. Finally, it should be mentioned that cooking could destroy a percentage of the active principles and the ensuing health benefit, and frying (including seasoning or tadka) would inactivate a higher percentage.
So, a periodic shot of rasam may not be a bad idea. In fact, variations on the theme of this thin soupy concoction are found in most Asian cuisines. Mix in different spices for variety: pepper, turmeric, lemon, cilantro, lemongrass, oregano, basil, neem leaves, garlic, red chilies, and others to complement your daily creativity and menu. It adds variety, in addition to providing an excuse for an excellent sinus-clearing aperitif!
L Iyengar has lived and worked in India and the USA. A scientist by training, she enjoys experiencing diverse cultures and ideas. She can be found on Twitter at @l_iyengar and at www.liyengar.com.
Dig-In Meals – A column highlighting Indian spices in recipes that take traditional Indian food and add a western twist!
Today I was perusing my cookbook, an old notebook. In it, I have recipes that follow the arc of my life. Handwritten recipes by my Mom and me — of foods that I love — newspaper or magazine clippings of recipes that caught my fancy at some moment in time. And post-it marked pages of recipes that I make again and again.
One such recipe is Falafel and Hummus by Yotam Ottolenghi. My dad loved his deli in Notting Hill known for its inventive dishes, characterized by the foregrounding of vegetables and unorthodox flavor combinations, he was and still remains the driving force behind the vegetarian Middle Eastern cuisine trend.
After every visit to London, Papa would ask my mom to re-create hummus and falafel at home, which she did, and her “Indianized” version of falafel bhajias and “sauce” is a flavor that I still crave and create. However, the authentic taste is what I was after. So, I took a master class with chef Yotam Ottolenghi and here I share the joys of the perfect mezze of hummus, falafel, and pita.
Sahtein! (Enjoy the meal).
1 1/2 cups/250 g dried chickpeas
1 teaspoon baking soda
6 1/2 cups
1 cup tahini paste
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 cloves crushed garlic
100 ml ice-cold water
Soak the chickpeas overnight in a large bowl with enough water to cover by several inches. Note: they will double in size so use a large bowl and lots of water
Drain and rinse, then add to a large pot with enough water to cover by 2 to 3 inches with 1 teaspoon of baking soda and salt to taste. (You can use the Instant Pot or a pressure cooker which is what I do)
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then lower the heat to medium, cover with a lid, and cook for 45 to 60 minutes, until the chickpeas are soft enough to crush between two fingers. Pressure cooker: 4 whistles. Instant Pot: Pressure Cook setiing:12 mins
Drain and set aside until ready to use.
Preparing the Hummus:
Place the chickpeas in a food processor and process until you get a stiff paste. Then, with the machine still running, add the tahini paste, lemon juice, garlic, and 11/2 teaspoons of salt. Finally, slowly drizzle in the iced water and allow it to mix for about 5 minutes, until you get a very smooth and creamy paste.
Plain hummus can be made ahead of time and refrigerated, but cover it with plastic and gently press down on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Best served at room temperature.
My mom’s “Sauce” recipe
4 cloves garlic
1 red bell pepper
½ cup of sesame seeds
¾ tablespoons of yogurt
Salt and pepper to taste
Put everything in a blender and whir till combined.
1 ¼ cup (225 g) dried chickpeas *soak for 24 hrs.
1 cup onion, diced
⅔ cup mint, roughly chopped
1 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
1 cup curly or flat parsley, roughly chopped
⅓ cup scallions, roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 1/4 tsp ground coriander
1 1/2 tsp salt, plus more for seasoning
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp chickpea flour
Soak the chickpeas in water for 24 hours so they soften up. When the chickpeas are soaked, drain the water, rinse the chickpeas thoroughly. Do not cook the chickpeas.
Place all the ingredients into a food processor and pulse until the chickpeas are finely minced. Do not over-pulse – the mixture should be coarse, not smooth or paste like
Using a cookie scoop (for even balls), shape the falafel mixture into small balls. Arrange in a single layer in your air fryer basket and air-fry for about 15 minutes at 370-380°F. Rotate till all the falafel are golden brown and crisp.
My mom’s Indianized version
¾ cup black-eyed peas
½ cup split green peas
3 tsp sesame seeds
Cilantro (one handful)
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp garlic
¾ green chili
1 tsp lemon juice
Salt to taste
Place all the ingredients into a food processor or blender and pulse until everything is ground into a smooth paste. Deep fry by scooping balls with a spoon and dropping them in hot oil.
Homemade Pita Bread
Servings: 8 pitas
2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
1 3/4 cups warm water about 95 degrees F
1 tsp granulated sugar
1 1/4 tsp salt
3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
In the bowl or a stand mixer, combine the warm water, yeast, and sugar. Use a small whisk to thoroughly combine. Let the yeast proof for about 5 minutes, until the mixture is foamy and bubble. If using Instant dry yeast add yeast, sugar, and warm water to the flour directly.
Add the kosher salt to the bowl, and 1 cup of the flour. Mix on low or by hand, while slowly adding the rest of the flour, until it is fully incorporated. Knead the mixture for about 5 minutes. The dough should look sticky, and should just form a loose ball.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for about an hour and a half until the dough has doubled in size.
Place a pizza stone or a perforated pizza pan into the oven. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F.
Flour your work surface and slowly pour out the dough onto your work surface. Flour your hands and gather the dough into a ball, tucking the edges under. Use a bench scraper or sharp knife to cut the dough into 8 equal pieces.
Roll each piece into a smooth ball with your hands, and place it on the floured board to rest for 5-10 minutes. Dust some flour on the top of each ball, and cover loosely with a piece of plastic wrap.
Roll out one ball at a time into a flat 6-inch circle, making sure the dough doesn’t stick to the rolling pin or work surface. Quickly place 2 pitas on the hot pizza stone at a time.
Make sure that they’re totally flat. Bake for 4-5 minutes, until the pita bread puffs into pillow-y pocket.
Cool on a rack. Once all of the pitas are baked, place them into a plastic bag. The little bit of steam actually keeps the pita bread soft and moist.
Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Dig-In Meals – A column highlighting Indian spices in recipes that take traditional Indian food and add a western twist!
I’ve always believed that using freshly ground spices elevates a meal, even everyday food, so I blend whatever combo a recipe calls for almost daily. My trusty Secura grinder stays on the countertop, at attention. However, this daily grind is not always the best option, especially now, when we are all working from home and eating multiple meals a day. Slaving, even for a few hours, in the kitchen is a thing of the past.
However, I wasn’t really enthralled by what I found in the supermarket or at my local Indian store. Buying a jar of McCormick’s Perfect Pinch Cajun seasoning or Shan’s Chana Masala was anathema. How long had it been sitting there, I wondered? When we peruse supermarket spices, do we really think about freshness in the real sense of the word?
My best bet was to buy from a company with the shortest supply chain possible—ideally, one that sources spices straight from their origin and sells them directly to the consumer. Freshly ground, small-batch spices and blends with clarity of flavor and no additives. To my surprise, I didn’t really find too many places selling them, but I did find a renewed interest in single-origin spices. Individuals that had formed small companies with a strong commitment to social and economic equity, promoting sustainable agricultural practices and supporting the just treatment of farmworkers and food pricing that provides the farmers with a livable income. Once I tasted these, I was hooked! Flavorful, fresh, high-quality spices…now there’s no looking back.
So, during this holiday season, a very different one due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there are still plenty of ways to make the evening feel special for you and your family. Whether it’s a Zoom dinner with friends or a nice sit down with the people you live with, here are some recipes that are quick and easy showstoppers.
Roasted Cauliflower Soup
1 large head of cauliflower chopped into small pieces
16 spring onions, cut into thin angled matchsticks
Start with the tofu. Cut into thin cubes and toss them in corn flour or rice flour. I use a combination of both, I find the rice flour gives it a nice crunch. Shallow fry or air fry till they are crispy and golden on all sides.
In a separate pan, add butter. Once it melts, add the shallots, chilies, garlic, and ginger. Sauté on low to medium heat till they turn soft.
Add the soy sauces, caster sugar, and crushed black pepper. Stir to mix.
Add the tofu to warm it up in the sauce for about a minute. Stir in the spring onions.
Inspired by the recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty
1 cup dry chana (chole)
2 tea bags (earl grey or any black tea that you have)
Soak the chole in water overnight till they double in volume.
Add them to your Instant Pot or pressure cooker. Add the tea leaves, salt, baking soda, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves.
Cook the chole over high heat for about 5 whistles, or 14 mins in IP. Once done allow the pressure to release naturally.
Once the pressure is released open the cooker and remove the tea bags and all the other whole spices. Discard.
Strain the chole, mash them a bit. Make sure to keep the water, we will use it as it is very fragrant.
In a pan heat some ghee, add the ajwain and jeera seeds, once they crackle add the tomato puree and the pureed onion. Cook for a few mins till the raw smell is gone.
Add the Chana masala, tamarind pulp, and 1 cup of the reserved water.
If you want some more gravy in the chole then add another ½ cup of water and cook on high flame for 2-3 minutes.
In a small pan oil, once hot add the finely chopped garlic and green chilies. Be sure to watch carefully as garlic burns very fast.
Once the garlic turns golden brown, add the red chili powder and cook for another 30 seconds.
Pour this tadka over the chole. Garnish with julienned ginger and cilantro. Serve Hot.
3 Ingredient Almond Cookies-Flourless almond butter cookies
1 cup Almond Butter (I use homemade)
6 tbsp sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten (to make it eggless: reduce the sugar and add half a banana)
In a medium bowl, mix the almond butter, sugar, and egg until well combined.
Take a small cookie scoop or a large tablespoon and spoon the mixture 1 inch apart onto baking sheets.
Flatten the mounds with the tines of a fork, making a crosshatch pattern on the cookies.
Bake at 350 degrees for 10 mins.
Easy Lemon Cookie
Makes 12 large or 16 small
18.25 ounces lemon cake mix
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon
powdered sugar for garnish
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Pour cake mix into a large bowl. Stir in eggs, oil, lemon juice, and zest until well blended.
Refrigerate the dough for about 30 minutes, or up to an hour
Form dough into small balls and roll them in confectioners’ sugar till lightly covered.
Line a cookie sheet with greased parchment paper. Place balls an inch apart.
Bake for 6 to 9 minutes in the preheated oven. The bottoms will be light brown, and the insides chewy.
Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Legends of Quintessence – a column that interacts with Science Fiction in a South Asian context.
On Sunday, November 22nd, India Currents Sci-Fi writer, Rachna Dayal hosted a live interview with Seema Vaidyanathan (@addictedtospice) on Instagram as part of the Sci-Fi Column: Legends of Quintessence.
Seema is a home cook, foodie, philomath, home gardener, idea queen, and busy mother. Trained from a very young age by her mother Girija, an expert traditional Indian home cook, Seema is widely influenced by the different regional cuisines of India, through her upbringing and travels across India and abroad.
She loves to share the hidden delicacies of simple, traditional South Indian cuisine of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka states. She has a special love for the coastal cuisines of India. She enjoys experimenting with food and is passionate about using seasonal produce in her everyday cooking. Her motto is to keep it simple & fast yet delicious & nutritious.
We threw a challenge at Seema to come up with a recipe to feed aliens. Seema decided to create a salad that would provide a multisensorial experience to the aliens by combining sweet, sour, bitter flavors, and soft and crunchy textures.
The salad was a mix of arugula, pear, and burrata cheese with pomegranate molasses and honey dressing. This salad has some special seasonal toppings of roasted spiced honeynut squash, spicy candied pecans for some crunch, and fresh pomegranate seeds.
2- 3 tbsp. – extra virgin coconut oil (may be replaced with sunflower, peanut or canola oil)
few fresh curry leaves (may skip if not available)
Kosher/sea salt (To taste)
1 tsp sugar (or to taste)
Utensils: Wok or a wide shallow pan, long spatula to stir, and a lid for the wok/pan. Begin preparation by tempering hot oil (technical word in hindi- “Tadka” or in Tamil “Thalippu”)
Peel and Chop butternut/honeynut squash into ½ inch cubes
Warm the wok/pan on medium heat, add 2 tbsp. oil to this, let the oil warm up slowly on medium heat
Add mustard seeds, let sputter
Add cumin seeds and wait 20 secs to be toasted
Add curry leaves (bruise the leaves or tear in half before adding)
Add turmeric and in 30 secs add asafetida, wait 30 secs to a min
Add cayenne pepper, sauté for a minute, (notice the fragrance)
Add chopped squash, add salt, mix well and cover to cook for 5- 10 mins (folding occasionally to turn up the cooked pieces at bottom of wok/pan)
When close to being done, add some sugar (depending on how sweet you like this to be)
Continue to cook on medium-high with the lid opened
Check for doneness and seasoning, adjust accordingly.
Keep squash just tender, take care not to overcook- affects the texture.
Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.
Uppa calls it the Mainland. For most people living outside of South Asia, India is nothing more than the mainland. India’s recognizable triangular shape is just a part of the story.
Uppa’s India snakes into the Himalayas, toward the North-East part of the subcontinent. Not only does it touch China, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Myanmar but it is also home to hundreds of thousands of individuals who despite being ethnically and culturally very diverse from other parts of India, are Indian citizens.
She comes from one of the many tribal communities that fill this northeastern region of India. Not long before the spread of COVID-19, she migrated to the United States and has been living in New York City. When I asked about her transition to the United States, one of the first challenges she brought up was just how difficult it is to get the foods she craves. Her story, her life even, is, like many of ours, defined by her access to and emotions around food.
Despite these challenges, Uppa still takes great pride in her favorite meals and often grows nostalgic for them. Living in the U.S., she particularly misses momos: a quasi-dumpling from Northeast India and Ladakh. Think gently masala-spiced meat and vegetables, delicately rolled into a delectable, far-less processed and certainly less sickly-sweet Hershey kiss package, steamed or flash-fried in jumping, shimmery canola oil over a wood fire or massive gas burner that will surely burn your eyebrows off if you stand within six feet of it! Served on a flimsy piece of tinfoil, these bundles of joy are often viewed as a Delhi-street food staple. Bumble some broken Hindi phrases like bahut accha (very good) or svaadisht (delicious) to the momo-wala (momo seller) like the foreigner you are and he may even slip you an extra one!
But when Uppa spoke of the momo, this simple meal became something far more poetic and perhaps a little less sweat-inducing…
Far from being fast-paced or born on Delhi’s sweltering streets, momos are slow, delicate, and almost like family to Uppa. She describes them as a painter might describe a long-lost piece of art. It is about the family connections and the creative process, not just consumption. Respecting this process is just as important as the bite of momo itself.
“Momos are not a one-person task. It becomes a family thing. Like everyone is doing their bit… One person is making the dough… I tried making them on my own but when my mom makes them, they remind me of happy times.”
While I might try to make dumplings at home merely for the fun of it, Uppa seemed hesitant to try preparing them during her time in the U.S. Why make something when there might be a missing ingredient or spice made by an unfamiliar company? Why make a momo when half of its taste comes from mom’s expertise, the other half from Dehradun’s fresh green chili? For her, the U.S. momo will inevitably be lackluster.
“Momos are a treat, they were a happy occasion food. Okay, you were sick, you just got out of being sick? Let’s make momos.”
Aside from her anxiety about differences in taste, it seems that Uppa’s craving for momos is also connected with her love for her community. The people, the place, the experience: these are the modes through which food shapes who we are.
“I look at food slightly differently than a lot of people. Coming from a tribal community… our food is definitely different from the mainland. Food is best when it is still in its natural essence… not changed at all like the mainland’s cuisine.”
For many people in the U.S. and Europe, India conjures up images of colorful chalk, deep dishes of buttery, oily chicken, elephants, and a flyer asking them to “feed the children.” These sentiments are particularly apparent in the ways people think about food. Food constructs Uppa’s identity as much as her swanky clothing choices, move to New York, or upbringing in the Himalayas.
“India is so much more than just kebab and naan. If people only just opened themselves up to more than what just the stereotype of Indian food is in the west, they would see that Indian cuisine is so diverse, it’s amazing. I definitely think the west needs to open up its mind to Indian food beyond kebab and biryani.”
Uppa, like all of us, identifies with the differences, the nuances of her place, her food, her people. The mainland of India, despite its diversity, feels too homogenous to encompass her preferences. The momo is a journey to Uppa’s world and an understanding of herself. A journey into her upbringing and identity. It captures the essence that makes Uppa.
Dan Soucy currently supports refugee resettlement and advocacy efforts throughout New England as a case manager and employment specialist with the International Institute of New England. He graduated from Saint Joseph’s University where he conducted oral history interviews with South Asian migrants to the United States. Dan has also studied, lived, and worked in various parts of India for 2 years.
For the next year, my ability to Google will be ensured by the fact that roughly 200,000 people across 50 countries are working from home.
And, I can like your Facebook posts for, well, forever, because Mark Zuckerberg “guesses as much as 50 percent of the company’s 45,000-person workforce could be working entirely remotely in the next five to 10 years.”
These may be private sector decisions. But they impact the public’s understanding of immigrants and immigration. And that leads policymakers to value the Googler much more than the farmworker.
Look, as COVID-19 cases keep growing across California, the state’s tech industry and its nearly 1.8 million workers in 2018 — with over 805,000 of those jobs in San Francisco and San Jose — is doing fine. Their companies are growing, their bottom lines look great.
And, with the exception of those on the sector’s retail or gig front line, most are working from home.
The breathless media coverage leads us to think that this is the new reality for most workers. It is not.
Among U.S. workers, 11 percent are employed in the agricultural and food sectors — almost twice as many as those who work in tech. Of the approximately 22 million full- and part-time jobs in the ag and food sector, about 2.6 million are direct on-farm jobs, and nearly 13 million are jobs in food service, eating and drinking places.
These workers are not earning six-figure salaries. And they definitely are not working from home. (If they are working at all.)
In fact, go about two hours east of the work-from-home Silicon Valley and you find yourself in the hot fields of the Central Valley where more than 250 different crops, with an estimated value of $17 billion per year, are grown. In total, the Valley supplies 8% of U.S. agricultural output (by value) and produces a quarter of the nation’s food, including 40% of our fruits, nuts, and other table foods.
Over 675,000 people work in the agricultural industry up and down the Central Valley.
In California, like across the country, these are the jobs that require workers to go to the “office.” But, for these workers, the office is a field, a farm, or a ranch where something needs to be planted or picked, cared for, or caught.
Everything surrounding these jobs puts people at risk. Sharing a ride to work, close quarters at the workplace, homes that do not afford any modicum of social distancing. As a result, the rate of positive coronavirus tests in the Central Valley could be as high as 17.7% — more than double the 7.8% statewide average over the last seven days.
While California works to get financial and medical resources directly to these agricultural communities, the federal government turns a blind eye. Under the CARES Act, both parents must have Social Security numbers for the family to receive relief. This makes entire families, including U.S. citizen children and spouses, ineligible for much-needed COVID-19 economic assistance.
This is a dynamic playing out in communities across the country. Immigrant families, even those with U.S. citizens among them, are going without any sort of relief.
These are trying times that require all of us to sacrifice. For some, the sacrifice is social distancing and working from home, while raising a family. For others, it is losing your job altogether.
And, for others, it is doing a job that is essential to the health of the country — but detrimental to your own health.
As we approach six months of this national crisis, it is easy to lose perspective and think that our own reality is the reality of others, to believe that our protection from COVID-19 is the same protection others have.
We begin to think COVID-19 is a disease “they” get. “They” did something to put themselves at risk. “They” were not healthy enough to fight off the disease. “They” live somewhere else, do something else.
Well, more than we probably realize, “they” are putting food on our table. And, “they” are most likely to be people of color and/or immigrants.
This lack of perspective leads the nation down a slippery path where economic and social divisions widen, where moral leadership is replaced by transactional leadership, where the bottom line is more important than people.
It’s a dangerous path that leaves the least among us without support — left to fend for themselves without health care or financial relief.
There is still time for the country to get off this path, and for Congress to ensure that all of us can access the relief and support we need.
The fact is that the skilled farmworker, documented or not, putting food on our table is just as, if not more, important to our lives and livelihood as the skilled engineer putting Google on our screens.
I’m Asian American. My dad was born in the British Territory of Hong Kong and my mom is Chinese-American. My mom was born in the Deep South, in Mississippi, and not many Asians lived there. My Po Po is from Hong Kong and my Gong Gong came from Canton, China, so my mom knows how to speak a little bit of Cantonese. I was born in California. My mom says we are Chinese but we also may be related to Genghis Khan!
When I was in preschool one time I got bullied because of the way I look. I didn’t know why. But now I understand. Diversity is like genes from your mom and dad. Genes control how you look like, your personality and the color of your skin. So of course, nobody looks the same. Even though our ancestors come from different countries, we are still American. At my school, in second grade, there’s this presentation called, “Global Us. The Global Us is a play about your culture and your identity. Students perform traditional dances and songs. Afterwards there is a potluck. Did you know that food can bring people together? Countries all have different types of food, and Americans eat almost everything. My friend Lucia loves sushi more than me even though she is not Asian! I did not grow up in the Deep South but I love southern fried chicken, catfish, and hushpuppies! Yummy. Italian pasta is like Chinese chow mein. Argentinian empanadas are like Dim Sum. French baguettes are like American sourdough bread!
The most important thing about being Asian American is that we are still American citizens even though our ancestors came from different countries. A lot of times people cannot tell where we are from because of the way we look. They may say something racist like “go back to your country.” I get very confused because this is my home. You may have heard that the Coronavirus has been spreading around the world. My best friend, who is white, said to me that some white people are scared of Asian people because the Coronavirus can be contagious. But she knows I don’t have the Coronavirus even if I’m Asian American.
But do you know what? A virus doesn’t discriminate against people who look different from other people. In a way, a virus can be a role model, because they don’t care whether people are Asian or not, they just infect anybody with lungs. Nobody should be bullied for the way they look. We all look different. Differences are not bad. Differences are special. We should be kind and include everyone. We can all get along. Everybody deserves to be treated the same. Finding things in common like soccer, ice cream, and Minecraft can build a bridge to make friends like sushi and fried chicken. Everyone in America should be treated fairly because we’re all humans. We all should really get involved to create a better community around the world.
“The thing about Mumbai is you go five yards and all of human existence is revealed. It’s an incredible cavalcade of life, and I love that.” Julian Sands.
Dishoom is so much more than a cookbook. It is a walking serenade to South Bombay and it’s Irani Cafes. The refreshing, authentic, and passionate storytelling style of the authors, Shamil and Kavi, make this book a pure treat to all your senses. The vibrant visuals and descriptive narratives are bound to make your palate salivate. This 400-page walking tour guide starts off with a vintage map of South Bombay. The map highlights all the 34 places that you will be visiting through its pages. The book is filled with old black and white photos, overlayed with recent snapshots to provide a colorful canvas for this love story.
If you are not from Bombay, the city can overwhelm you. Shamil and Kavi ease you into the chaos and bustle, to settle you down with a backdrop of their childhood in Matunga, where they spent many holidays with their grandparents, near Koolar and Co., one of the oldest Irani Cafes.
They introduce you to Chef Naved and his exquisite recipes that showcase their restaurant Dishoom in London. They also give you an overview of the fascinating history of Bombay from how it got its name to many an anecdote about different locales.
The migration of the Parsi community to Bombay is not well documented in most Indian history books. Parsi history usually starts and ends around their move from Iran to India to escape religious persecution and their settlement in Bombay. Shamil and Kavi give us a much richer treatise to the Parsi community.
Irani cafes were instrumental to the cosmopolitan culture of old Bombay. They were the very foundation in the hearts of our two authors, for their new restaurant venture, DISHOOM in London. Like they say, “We serve dishes in Parsi, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian traditions which all jostle on our tables for space.” Poetic indeed!
The book’s walking tour starts…
An 8 am breakfast at Kyani and Co. What a treat! Every Indian can relate to the nostalgia of dipping a pau (bread) into your chai (tea). I stopped reading at this point and made myself a cup of masala chai, just to take in that memory.
Chef Naved starts us off with some simple recipes like the Akuri (Parsi scrambled egg) and the Chilli Cheese toast which is the base for the Kejriwal (Fried Egg) – yes Kejriwal!
Mr ‘Knock Out’ Zend’sYazdani cafe and his simple Brun (Bun) Maska dipped in hot chai will make you drool for more. “Dip the brun into the sweet chai, allow the butter to melt slightly and put in your mouth for an immediate, simple, and true delight.”
We feast ourselves with chicken berry pulao and salli boti (meat curry) at the legendary Britannia, in the presence of its famous owner Mr. Boman Kohinoor.
“In a place as hectic as Bombay, the allure of Chowpatty is clear. Here you can partake in the serious business of idle pleasures. A gentle stroll on Chowpatty at sunset, with plentiful snacks.” Sink your teeth into a piping hot pau (bread) bhaji or a spicy bhel (puffed rice), or the ever famous vada pau, the iconic Bombay street food. Wet your lips with the falooda (sweet dessert) and kulfis (ice cream) and end your cravings with Sharma Paanwala’s paan (betel leaves) to digest the day’s symphony of dishes in your system.
Get back on track with Kala Ghoda’s Trishna for the finest butter pepper garlic crab.
Walk down to Mohammed Ali Road, past a spectacular array of food stalls and antique stores. A notable pit stop for a meat lover is the Surti Bara Handi. How can you miss Halim and Aamir’s Taj ice cream and Burhanpur hot, hot jalebis?
Not sure how much stomach you have left, but the tour hasn’t ended yet as it dives into the third dinner at the famous Bademiya in Colaba. The picturesque and flamboyant tossing of the dough by the chef and service on warm car bonnets, stays with you for a long while.
After 3 heavy dinners it’s time to walk along Marine Drive promenade and gaze out to the sea. You will run into the famous Rustom and Co.’s ice cream parlor known for its seasonal flavors.
The tour ends with an ode to the Taj hotel. Little did we know of it being the backdrop for the glorious and illustrious jazz scene of the 1930s through the Independence era of India. I love a good cocktail and the tipples section is clever and innovative with some interesting drinks like the Kohinoor Fizz, The Commander, and the Dhoble.
As whimsical and flowery as the descriptions in the book, the experience I had preparing the recipes brought me quickly back down to earth. Recipes that started off as a few easy steps evolved into a complex multitude of steps, that required different preparatory recipes, all infused into one large recipe.
Some recipes are not for a novice cook. I recommend you read and prep all the sub-recipes before you decide to make a more complex dish. For example, the chole (chickpeas) has 2-3 sub-recipes that are found in different sections of the book. As a cookbook, it was a bit tedious to maneuver back and forth between the pages of this heavy book.
Make sure to carefully read the serving sizes, as they vary from dish to dish, and are not consistent. I had to take a picture of the recipe and sub-recipes to make it easier to follow. I still have a lot more recipes to try out. What would have helped is a listing of all the dishes in the table of contents, or next to each section, to avoid the constant referring to the index page to find the recipes. Furthermore, the metric system measures in the recipes are not ideal for an American audience.
Overall, this is a great gift for anyone who enjoys food, history, and stories. For all the avid readers out there, the recommended reading is an added bonus. The genuine voices of Shamil and Kavi along with Naved’s journey into making Dishoom a world-renowned restaurant is commendable.
My journey with Dishoom
The chili cheese toast had a kick to it and with the masala chai was a delectable breakfast.
The Mattar Paneer was tasty, but needed a little more cooking to soften the frozen peas, as they stood out without soaking into the onion- tomato masala with a gentle simmer of 5 minutes and cook time of extra 10 minutes.
The Murgh malai recipe was a classic hit. The juicy thigh meat with two marinades was well worth the effort.
Pau bhaj – I made this for my Bombaite nephews and nieces who grew up eating vada pau and pau bhaji. Their consensus was that it was a little sweet and westernized. Maybe what it missed was the ginger/garlic green chili paste?
The warm pineapple and black pepper crumble was a huge favorite especially with some vanilla ice cream on top.
The East Indian Gimlet – used a homemade lime cordial.
Praba Iyer is a Chef Instructor, Food Writer, and cooking judge. She specializes in team-building classes through cooking for Venture Capitalists and Tech Companies in the bay area. She teaches Thai, Mexican, Pan Asian, Indian, and Ayurvedic cooking classes. Praba is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. She was an Associate Chef at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco.
Pranoti Nagarkar looks across the kitchen counter at her partner Rishi Israni. Gosh they had come a long way. 2008 was a distant memory when they had fought about who was going to make the hot roti flatbread for dinner. Pranoti, who had rolled rotis since the age of 8 under her mother’s eagle eye in Pune, seemed to have perfected the dance of adding water to the flour, pinching the dough to check for the right consistency, adding just a drop more to ensure the dough was soft and yet not too soft, and then letting it rest for ten minutes for the gluten to set in before balling it into just the right size balls to be dusted with flour and rolled into perfect sized discs, not too big and not too small.
It was always a combination of science and art that ensured that the discs when they had been heated on side and then flipped over would release the steam and fill the roti into little balloons. The little balloon would float from the black iron skillet onto the plate of the diners. It was not always that the discs popped up and fluffed with pride. They were coaxed along with a dab of cloth here and little nudge there to ensure that the steam filled every corner of the roti.
Pranoti calculated she was spinning out at least 3000 rotis a year making two rotis per family member once a day . Dishes may change but the roti was a constant companion to all dishes. The tedious repetitiveness of the task done every single day in the household got to her.
If the clothes have their washing machine why don’t we have a robot to make the rotis for us she thought. Being an engineer and a problem solver with a desire to be an inventor she set about solving this problem. As a mechanical engineer she had worked as a designer and had taken an idea from a sketch on a paper napkin to production. She decided to give this a go. It was not going to be easy. Pranoti knew and understood the pain and skill of making the rotis and getting them to puff up. It would be a tough problem to solve.
Pranoti looked objectively at the problem. Rotimatic was not just a collection of moving pieces, she needed Artificial Intelligence (AI) software that would prod the dough and check its smoothness just as Pranoti did in the kitchen. In order to marry hardware with the perfect software she turned to her software engineer husband Rishi Israni.
The Rotimatic was now ready and working in her kitchen.
What she did not bargain for was the challenges of entrepreneurship. Once she had designed the product she had to sell her vision to investors most of whom were male and did not have first hand experience of dealing with the pain of feeding rotis to a family. She soon realized the challenge of fundraising and marketing. Different users and their varied expectations took her by surprise.
Investors needed to be convinced that not only did the product solve a problem but also that there was a market for it. In 2013 they floated a video showcasing the product on to the Internet where it was picked up like hot cakes or shall we say hot rotis. 3 million views in the first month and 200,000 signups up for the product led Pranoti and Rishi to offer the device on a pre-order of $59 initially only to the people from the United States. $5 million worth of Rotimatics were sold within 7 days.The overwhelming response forced them to stop taking any more pre orders.
This was an important metric for the Silicon Valley venture capitalist investors who gave them $12 million to meet this order. Manufacturing started and in 2 years the order was delivered. A long email list had grown in the meantime. In 2018 another $22 million was raised.
So far 70,000 machines have been sold and 78 million rotis have been made. Silicon Valley has 45,000 Rotimatic users. It is available for purchase only online on their website and now Amazon, mainly in the US, Canada, Australia, Middle East and United Kingdom. It is not sold in India and yet 2000 Rotimatics have made their way to India via Singapore.
“Customer loyalty is very high. Once a Rotimatic user, always a Rotimatic user,” says Pranoti. “It is not an impulse purchase that is transitioned to a shelf in the garage. People who have it use it frequently.”
The Facebook group, Rotimaticowners, has 20,000 members who share recipes. Recommended lists of attas have been given but users add protein, masala, spinach etc and Rotimatic adjusts the dough as they go along. Artificial Intelligence steps in with tactile sensing to tweak the dough. It adds flour or water in real time to make the right consistency of dough.
Not just wheat rotis but pooris, bajra rotis, gluten free rotis etc can now be made. New recipes are seamlessly downloaded onto the machine via wifi. Servicing the machine is easy as it is done through the cloud. Wifi connectivity helps 24×7 customer support. Additionally the app tells the user how many rotis have been made, calories consumed and time saved.
The job of an entrepreneur is never done. Besides working on new recipes offerings co-CEOs and founders Pranoti Nagarkar and Rishi Israni are now working on the evolution of their business model.
Ritu Marwah is a senior writer whose articles and awarding winning stories are awaited with great anticipation by her readers.
“What did you eat today?” my mother, Sarada, begins her phone conversation with my twenty-three-year-old daughter in New York. When my daughter explains that she made rasam and sautéed cauliflower over the weekend, Sarada’s face lights up. Later she tells me she’s happy that all her grandchildren love rasam, a staple broth from the south of India.
Eighty-six-year-old Sarada immigrated to America in her 70s, and finds equanimity performing activities and engaging in conversations that hinge around food. When she meets people she doesn’t know, she connects through food conversations, often recalling the piquant tastes of her youth.
Familiar flavors act as a barometer to her moods, often alleviating the stress of adjusting to a brand-new environment and she looks at food as the one constant in her new life, which she uses to bridge the gap between her past and present.
More importantly, when Sarada does not have access to familiar foods, she displays signs of acute emotional distress, appearing physically drained and listless.
Eating—A Social Event
Sarada entrenches socialization in the act of eating. It is true that in most cultures, meet and greets occur around food: we go to restaurants for dinner, have potluck get-togethers and have affinity gatherings where food is conspicuously on display. Sarada, who re-contoured her physical, geographical and cultural spaces later on in life, finds that she is unable to participate in these social gatherings because unfamiliar food becomes alienating.
What complicates the Indian experience is that the cuisines of the different regions are distinct, right down to the staples and vegetables. Southern Indian cuisine uses rice, tamarind and coconut gravies, which differ from the wheat breads and tomato-onion-ginger flavors of the north.
As she ages, Sarada has become more and more particular in her dietary needs, eschewing food that is not from her home state of Tamil Nadu in India. This has affected her socialization patterns, limiting her and isolating her, even within the Indian American community.
And she’s not the only one who feels this way.
What’s On Your Palate?
With over a decade of experience directing Stanford’s Aging Adult Services program, Dr. Rita Ghatak, a gerontologist and psychologist, is the associate director of Optimal Aging Center, and—along with her husband—is a caregiver for her father-in-law, Gopala Pillalamarri. She observed that her father-in-law’s biggest preoccupation is food, particularly food from India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh, well-known for its tamarind and chili flavors.
While living in India, Pillalamarri, a former journalist, seldom went to a restaurant, preferring home-cooked meals. And on the rare occasions that he did go to a restaurant, it would often be to a restaurant serving the same dishes he was used to eating at home.
He moved to California to live with Ghatak and her husband in the ’90s, along with his wife. While she was alive, his wife regularly made food that satisfied his palate. At the time he would go on long walks with a cohort of older immigrants and seemed to have adapted to his new country. After his wife’s death, he began to gradually decline, socialized less and less and became increasingly insistent on eating foods that he’d enjoyed for most of his life.
“[Ghatak] makes Bengali food, and I taste it once in a while, but I don’t like it much,” Pillalamarri said, with an apologetic grin.
Other Cultures, Similar Stories: Give me kimchi!
Eighty-seven-year-old Korean American Chang Song Lim lives alone in an apartment close to Boston. Lim came to America in 1989 and his first job was as a factory assembler in Springfield. Within a year, the factory closed down and he was laid off. With his limited English skills, Lim has had to work many odd jobs, including dishwashing and cleaning.
Once he retired, Lim signed up for the government assisted meal service program. He had to choose from American, Russian, Italian and Chinese offerings. Figuring that Asian food was the closest to his Korean palate, Lim opted for Chinese. “It’s a different taste, a different style,” he told me. His body was not used to this type of food, Lim explained, adding that it was causing a serious problem for him. “I’m very skinny right now and I’m indirectly killing myself. I just want kimchi,” he said, the stress clearly audible in his voice.
“Older ethnic immigrants face greater challenges in alleviating their loneliness and social challenges because of their language and cultural barriers and small social networks,” said Megumi Inouye, a researcher at George Mason University, at the Gerontological Society of America’s (GSA) annual conference this year.
In a longitudinal study of a senior immigrant Japanese woman who was in long-term care in Boston, Inoue quoted the husband saying that his wife wasn’t eating much and had little appetite. But when a volunteer interacted with the woman, she asked the volunteer to “spend more time and bring Japanese food along.”
A Rising Trend
With the steady pipeline of older immigrants arriving and aging in the United States—in 2010, more than one in eight adults, 65 years and older, were foreign-born, according to the Population Reference Bureau—it’s critical to have conversations on what drives the emotional health of immigrant seniors, since emotional health affects physical health, and both these have economic costs associated with them.
And even among the foreign born, the older Asian population is growing definitively. Dr. Vyjeyanthi S. Periyakoil wrote in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (May 2019) that the older Asian American population is “projected to quadruple from 2 million in 2014 to 8.5 million in 2060. This ethnogeriatric imperative underscores the great and growing need for healthcare services that account for the cultural beliefs and behaviors of older persons.”
It’s evident that Sarada, Pillalamarri and Lim are part of a broader pattern among Asian and South Asian seniors. As an index to policies on older immigrant adults, it helps to examine how and why enjoying the food served becomes critical in staving off feelings of alienation and unhappiness.
The Science Behind It
Mai Takase, a Japanese researcher from the University of Tokyo, along with Tomoki Tanaka, Hiroshi Murayama and others conducted a study investigating the connection between food enjoyment and social connections among seniors. Displaying the work on a poster at the GSA conference, Takase explained that they interviewed 190 residents at an assisted living facility in Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan. Questions were asked about meal enjoyment, social engagement: Do you enjoy the meals? How many other facility residents (not a family member) can you talk to about your private life with ease? And the risk of depression was assessed.
The findings indicated that meal enjoyment was critical to emotional health, even if the senior had an extensive social network. “There was a higher likelihood of depression among those who did not enjoy the meal,” summarized Takase.
In a follow-up study at the same assisted living facility, the same group of researchers looked at whether eating with others, as compared to eating alone, in connection with enjoying the meal, had any influence on the respondents’ emotional moods. The subjects were broken into four different groups. Those who enjoyed the meals and ate with others; those who did not enjoy the meals, but ate with others; those who enjoyed their meals but ate alone; and those who ate alone and didn’t enjoy their food.
Takase explained that while cross-sectional studies found that seniors who eat alone are more likely to be depressed, this particular study concluded that not enjoying the meal was a significant contributor to depression, regardless of whether it was consumed alone or with others. “Our findings indicate that the feeling of enjoyment (a subjective aspect of dining style) is an important factor of eating in assisted living facilities: not enjoying meals may be a major risk factor for depressive mood,” wrote Takase.
Aligned with these conclusions, Sarada, Pillalamarri and Lim’s focus is not necessarily on eating with others, but enjoying their meals. Sarada consents to eating in company only if she is assured that the food being served is what she knows and likes. It’s evident that food desires reinforce cultural identity and drive cultural and emotional stability for these senior immigrants.
In contrast, there are other seniors who show remarkable food, cultural and social adaptability. So, it’s perhaps interesting to understand why that is the case.
“I’m not fussy about food”
Sita A. celebrated her 91st birthday recently. She has been living in New York with her daughter, Ashwini, since the 90s. Sita grew up in Coorg, a hilly town in the south of India. Her mother died eleven days after Sita was born and she was reared by the family nanny, Somaiya, who had three children herself. Somaiya was an excellent cook and Sita remembers breakfasts of akki roti with jams and chutneys and dinners of pork, chicken or mutton curry with rice and steamed accompaniments of jackfruit or bamboo shoots.
Later, when Sita moved to Chennai, a busy urban city, to raise her daughter on her own, necessity drove her to improvise. “It was tough being a single mother initially with no proper income,” she said. But she found her feet, selling her jewelry and finding a job. This gave Sita the training to adjust to new situations she encountered, particularly as she aged.
When I was a college student in Chennai, I used to visit Sita at her studio apartment down the road from my college campus. I recall once sharing her simply prepared dinner of soy nuggets and tomato soup. The taste of that meal has far outlasted the flavors of any meal I’ve had since.
Sita moved in with her daughter and son-in-law in the late ’80s and readily adapted to the places they’ve lived in, including France and Scotland, where she built a strong network of friends.
“I’m not fussy about food,” she told me when I visited her in upstate New York. She went through her daily food regimen with me, mostly stressing the time of day that she has her meals and how important her tea is to her. She enjoys eating with the family and is happy to sample whatever has been cooked, she said. I reminded her about her love for kohlrabi. “Yes, you know me well,” she agreed, “I love noolkol [kohlrabi] with mutton curry, and Ashwini makes it for me,” she said, the familiar tinge of pride infusing her tone when referring to her daughter.
The Priya Living Experiment
In the winter of 2015, my family and Sita’s family took a two-week vacation to the Bahamas. Sita agreed to accompany us on the vacation, but Sarada flatly refused. The idea of leaving an 82-year-old woman alone seemed irresponsible, so I signed up for a one-month stay for Sarada at Priya Living, a retirement community in Santa Clara, California.
I took Sarada to check the place out. “Look, you’ll have your own apartment and you’ll be with others your own age. There’s a full kitchen, and you can make sambar and kootu.” She looked stubbornly unhappy and said she was not going to cook and that I’d need to figure out her meals. There was a little evening get-together that day and I introduced Sarada to many who welcomed her into the community with a warm word and smile. Beyond nodding politely, she sat without saying a word.
Feeling perturbed, yet hopeful, I settled Sarada at her new place a few days before I was to leave and got a commitment from a young woman who lived a few doors down to check in on her at least once a day.
When I called the first time, Sarada complained about how the place was too quiet. When I suggested she attend the daily meet-ups in the lounge, she said she wasn’t interested in meeting anyone.
Before leaving I organized a daily meal program for her, a service that many others at the senior community center recommended. Sarada, however, didn’t care for the Gujarati (west Indian) food that was delivered.
All the while, at the beach resort, while I was worrying about Sarada, I observed Sita taking to the new environment, making casual conversation with strangers, and tucking in to risottos and salads with nary a murmur of discontent. The day I came back home from my vacation, I went to Sarada’s apartment. I found her by the door, packed and ready to leave. She told me she’d started packing four days before I was to arrive.
So what’s different about Sarada and Sita?
Sita and Sarada have different life experiences. Sarada grew up in Moncombu, in the state of Kerala and then migrated to Pandaveshwar in the state of West Bengal after she got married. Moving from the deep south to the north was traumatic for her, a young woman who’d lived a sheltered life, within the confines of her village. She found everything about the north Indian culture alien. Over the years, she began to adapt to her new environs. However, to be clear, she went from a small village in south India to a small village in north-east India. There was little in terms of restaurants serving non-local or global food options in these hard-to-access locales. And for most of her life, she had never been exposed to urban or western culture. These conditions inevitably shaped her response and reaction to brand new gastronomic offerings.
According to Ghatak, easing into a new food culture “depends on whether they tried different foods when they were in India.” Most often, in Ghatak’s analysis, it is those who’ve lived their lives in a particular way without traveling much or eating out who end up dependent on their palate for emotional stability in their new circumstances. In Sita’s case, her spirit of resilience was further enhanced when she had to negotiate a new city and circumstance on her own.
One Solution? Food delivery service that’s culturally relevant
Take the Meals on Wheels program. The program is a federal initiative to help meet older adults’ basic food needs and to help them age in place in their own homes. Research by Thomas and Mor in 2002 has shown how the Meals on Wheels program has kept older adults with low care needs out of institutions such as nursing homes.
In a randomized control trial on home delivered meals programs on participants’ feelings of loneliness published in the Journals of Gerontology, the authors, Kali S. Thomas,Ucheoma Akobundu andDavid Dosa concluded that home delivered meals reduce feelings of loneliness. The reasons for this reduction, the authors surmised, include the daily or weekly social contact as well as the food that’s delivered.
However, what the research failed to point out was what happens when seniors find the delivered meals dissatisfying. Essentially, what works for the native-born population will not necessarily work for the first-generation immigrant cohort.
“It’s pretty unreasonable,” remarked Myong Sool Chang, editor of the Boston Korea. “Lim’s is not the story of one old man.” Korean American seniors are not accustomed to speaking English, and so it’s a three-fold problem. “There’s a language barrier, there’s a cultural barrier, and there’s no contact point to ask for help.”
Food is a pipeline to mental and physical health and the lack of institutionalized culturally relevant options makes immigrant seniors very unhappy.
Lim craves Kimchi and Korean food and it distresses him immensely that he’s unable to get it.
Ghatak and Shyam luckily located an older immigrant lady from Andhra Pradesh in Milpitas, about 25 miles away, who prepares weekly Andhra meals for several senior clients. This catering service has plugged the food gap for Pillalamarri, much to Ghatak and her husband’s relief.
These days, Sarada is unable to cook full meals for herself and finds my experimental and less traditional cooking habits intolerable. So, a few months ago, when a friend told me about a south Indian food delivery service in the Bay Area called Mylapore Express, I decided to try it out.
As I unpacked the containers that were delivered one Wednesday morning, Sarada eagerly read the labels aloud, “vadai more kuzambu,” “murungakkai sambar,” “lemon rasam,” “beans paruppusili,” “kathirikkai karamadhu,” “pavakkaipitla.” Her face flushed as she saw the bounty displayed before her and she told me how much she loves kathirikkai (eggplant) and pavakkai (bitter gourd). There was no mistaking the thrum of excitement and animation.
Jay Jayaraman, the founder of Mylapore Express, remarked about the number of people who mention their parents when ordering food from his business. He related the story of a customer’s parent who’d gone out of town and on the day that was scheduled to return, upon finding out the Mylapore Express menu, asked his daughter to save the kathirikai for him. Another texted Jayaraman: “We mainly order for my father-in-law. He is happy with such freshness and taste of the food. The keerai masiyal, mixed veg, kootu, aviyal (just to name a few) are the toppers.” As we finished our conversation, I told Jayaraman that his food delivery service maintains the emotional balance in our house, and he chuckled, assuring me that I’m not the only one.
Typically, older immigrants have limited English proficiency, have weak ties to social institutions and little U.S. work experience, according to Judith Wilmoth of Syracuse University. Sarada fits the broad patterns of Wilmoth’s analysis. She arrived in the United States in 2006, became a citizen in 2013, has limited English proficiency, no U.S. work experience and is unworldly in most respects. But there’s little to nothing wrapped up in that description.
Sarada is a nurturer who smuggles fruits into my backpack on the mornings she sees me rushing to make my morning train. She does the dishes when I’m too tired to do it. She feeds the family dog, and worries about my adult children’s eating habits. In small and large ways, she is an essential link in the chain of my life and her happiness strengthens me.
It’s Wednesday and Mylapore Express has just delivered Sarada’s meals. I open the carton and begin taking out the containers. She comes rushing out of her room and asks excitedly, “what’s on the menu, this week?”
Jaya Padmanabhan is a journalist and author. She was previously the editor of India Currents.
This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation.”