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When Ganesh Meiyappam, 24, an engineering graduate, left his hometown in Vellore, India to attend classes at Purdue University this year, his cooking skills were limited to boiling milk and microwaving pack- aged noodles and soups. After just a few months in the United States, all that changed. Much to his own surprise, he found himself preparing and enjoying elaborate meals with friends.
During Navaratri celebrations in Oc- tober, despite his heavy coursework, Ganesh prepared tamarind rice, sheera (a Maharashtrian sweet), neer moru (a thin gravy made of yoghurt), vada and sundal (chick peas). Like Ganesh, many Indian students in the United States are unwittingly re-discovering the joys of Indian food. Perhaps it’s a longing to re-connect to the flavors of home or merely fulfilling a need of the palate that has grown used to a certain kind of food, but there’s no denying that one’s bond with the traditional tastes of our childhood days grows deeper and stronger when you live the immigrant life.
“As Indian immigrants living in the United States, my husband and I do go out of our way to cook Indian food together,” says Poornima Jayaraman, 35, a freelance com- munications specialist based in Oregon. “It reminds us of our Indian roots and is literally soul food. It’s what we grew up with.”
This observation is especially thought- provoking when you examine it from the perspective of the Maggi noodles contro- versy that took India by storm mid-year, an issue that a friend of mine referred to as the “twist of the noodle.” The wildly popular instant noodles brand was accused of using unhealthy amounts of lead in its product, resulting in a nationwide ban.
In India, even though adulteration is sadly, rather commonplace, the ban made headlines for months, particularly because it involved a brand that many blindly trusted.
Then there emerged the conspiracy theories. Some people felt that a product they had been consuming for years without incident couldn’t suddenly be bad for them and that the Swiss multinational cor- poration Nestle that distributes Maggi was being unnecessarily victimized by hasty, inaccurate tests by corrupt officials. Interestingly, while dealing with these rumors, the young in India, over the last few months, indulged in an outpouring of disbelief and grief like never before. No one knew quite what to believe and yet, were upset that they could no longer enjoy Maggi with the abandon that they once had. In the midst of all the anger and confusion over the controversy, one issue emerged rather clearly.
For a generation of Indians, Maggi noodles was not just another brand of packaged food, but a transition of sorts. A rite of passage to adulthood-marking the beginning of an era of modernity, change and revolution. It symbolized New India in a way few brands could, perhaps because it encouraged legions of people to break away from one of the bastions of In- dian culture-its cooking. The fact that you didn’t have to slave hours over the stove after shopping endlessly for spices and choosing your cooking ves- sels with care (for those Indian recipes that demand a container be of a specific dimensions and material) and could still end up with a tasty meal was incredibly appealing. A great deal of this convenience culture is what accounted for Maggi’s popularity. However, interestingly enough, for Indians in America, despite it being widely available in its im- ported avatar, Maggi was never a popular choice. “As a family we do tend to avoid Maggi and other instant, ready-made mi- crowaveable packet foods, simply because if we want instant we’d rather just eat out or order take out,” says Poornima.
One would think that a lack of domestic help in the United States would make pursuing Indian food habits hard. However, even this is overcome with a little creativity. “Over the years we’ve learned plenty of cooking tricks/hacks that Indians in the United States use: freezing extra dal, always having extra boiled potatoes, boiled eggs and chickpeas in the fridge, making extra tomato gravy and freezing it-so when there’s a time crunch we can quickly put together a meal,” says Poornima. One can also make a fusion dish that can be stretched across meals.
When Poornima made a quinoa and kale curried patty (like a cutlet) for her family, it was a snack that could be eaten with ketchup. Leftovers were eaten with breadandsrirachasaucethenextdayand took on the avatar of a sandwich, which turned out to be the main course. “On weekends, when we have a bit more time we’ll make elaborate traditional meals like ground coconut sambar and spicy curries. On weekdays we’ll make a quick vegetable curry and might pair it with store-bought roti. If time permits we’ll make a stack of homemade rotis to get us through 3-4 days,” she says.
For some like Chicago based Shree Gurusamy, case manager at Aetna Better Health of Illinois, staying in touch with Indian food everyday, despite a busy schedule is imperative and something she doesn’t like to compromise on. “I make sure that our family eats a healthy Indian meal at least once a day,” She says. “We enjoy typical south Indian cuisine and I make a complete meal every night, as we eat light lunches ( sandwiches, salads and soup) during the week.” A typical dinner in their home, She says consists of rice, dal (sambhar) and vegetable curry, with fish or chicken. Her children love the homemade yogurt that she makes every week.
In books such as The Mistress of Spices (2005), India’s spice heritage takes on almost mystical proportions, as spices seem to have a vibrant and even oppressive nature of their own.
Today, there’s no denying that even second generation Indian Americans, (despite not speaking their native tongue as fluently or visiting India as much as their parents would like) still feel deeply connected to its cuisine. And it’s the rare immigrant who doesn’t return from Indian with a suitcase full of every fresh, powdered spice they can get their hands on-all replete with the lingering flavors of home.
Kamala Thiagarajan writes on travel, health and lifestyle topics for a global audience. She has been widely published in over ten countries.