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Of Rotlis and Cornbread

August 2003
Of Rotlis and Cornbread

"See this?" My mother's eyes glared as she held up her fist in front of us. My younger brother Anuj and I gulped quickly, but our white, frothy mustaches gave us away.���"Your stomach," she said, pointing to the shaking fist, "is only this big. If you fill it up with a glass of milk, where is all the food going to go?"

Such were the dinnertime scenes at our home as my mother, with characteristic determination, insisted on feeding us "properly" ? true to her Gujarati food ethic. I have many such endearing memories of my childhood dinners. I remember the seating arrangement which, under pain of death, could not vary. The four of us sat around our six-person table. The seating arrangement was so ingrained in us that Anuj would cry if a guest unknowingly sat in his chair. I also remember how he wouldn't eat anything; and the team effort it took to feed him. Many of our meals ended with one of us landing an airplane spoon on the runway of his tongue, all the while distracting him with swooshing noises so he wouldn't notice the minute speck of green hidden in the brown mush.

But mostly, those dinners were distinctive because they were unquestionably, unfailingly Gujarati: steaming bhath, sizzling shakh, bubbling daal, and hot, puffy rotli glistening with melted ghee.���Three of us would start eating as my mother magically produced rotli after rotli, and would join us only when satisfied that the rotli currently undergoing consumption would be our last - which, as I recall, always came one or two after the one I had identified as the last. She just needed a second for my guard to be down, before another rotli would plop on my plate. I couldn't exactly give it back covered with oil from the shakh, could I?

Over time, Anuj and I learned to say "bus" (enough) well before we were actually done. Either mom was ignoring us when we said it, or bus actually meant to her, "that's not quite enough, could you please double what I have right now? Thanks!"

My daily ritual was an American lunch at school, and a Gujarati dinner at home. Thus, as a child, I identified steamed vegetables, macaroni ?n cheese and cornbread as specifically lunch food, the same way that cereal and pop-tarts as breakfast food. Dinner would be some variation of the above described general theme of rotli, daal, and shakh.

With food being so dramatically different at home, I often wondered what all my non-Gujarati school friends ate for dinner. From experience, I knew that my South Indian friends had idli and sambar for dinner, and my Chinese friend ate stir-fry at night. Therefore, it made sense that all ethnic kids ate dinner consistent to their respective mother-cultures. But what about my uni-cultural American friends? For a while I imagined there was an untapped genre of food I was yet to discover.

This problem was not remedied by eating out at say, Ruby Tuesdays, or by rituals such as slumber parties at friends' houses. Ruby Tuesdays is a restaurant, and restaurant food and home food were, in my world, completely different. After all, rotli-shakh restaurants did not exist, and we didn't eat Santa Fe Supreme Grill Platters at home (or there, for that matter). Slumber parties or other sleepovers usually meant pizza, not home-cooked dinners; and everyone with a social life knew that pizza was special-occasion party food. Most of my closest friends were Indian or otherwise ethnic, so when I did eat a real dinner at a friend's, it didn't answer any questions. The staple American dinner still eluded me.

Meanwhile, my comprehension of my own food was equally discombobulated. We ate kid-friendly things like "green bean shakh" and "carrot shakh" at the same time that we had junjaro, which is actually an African word for red beans.���We ate channa and choleh,, but until I was in middle school I didn't know what "chick peas" were. Sometimes we had "monkey tails," which was my own personal term for soaked brown lentils that had sprouted little "tails." (Luckily, my mother still reminds me of this, often publicly.) As a self-appointed cultural ambassador for all things Indian, I tried to explain to my non-Indian friends what tindora was. Since they are green on the outside, red on the inside, I likened the squash to tiny watermelons. I now realize this was a mistake, and shudder to imagine what these kids must have thought of Indian cuisine.

I have since learned that dhanna is cilantro and bhinda is okra. Anuj has learned that those small black things in his food are mustard seeds, and he won't die if he eats them. While at college, I have learned that the traditional American dinner is usually just a classier, dressed-up version of lunch (although, in college, this is not always the case, and pizza isn't just party food). Being a long way from home, I eat as a non-ethnic American, and months will go by in between my Gujarati dinners.

Things have changed at my house, too: both my empty-nested parents now work full-time, and usually opt for easier dishes such as veggie burgers, pasta, or khichdee. But whenever a table is set without silverware, or when the aroma of shakh and daal beckons, a Gujarati dinner in our American household is all I need to know that I am home.

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