Confessions of a Grown-Up ABCD
Having two babies in three years and then agonizing over getting back into my non-frumpy clothes has made me think a lot about food. The past three years have been a sort of cross-pollination process for me in my tastes. I gave up, tried, and then gave up vegetarianism again, I learned to love pancakes and eggs sunny side up, and I learned to question the heretofore mother of all food provisions: Rice.
Not having been a person who had to think about what I ate, I have been humbled to the extent that even Indian staples like rice and daal seem suspect. To lose the mommy weight, I've been experimenting with a low-carb diet, which means I now consume quinoa with daal. I am actually contemplating making idlis out of some sort of whole grain substitute. (I've already made and liked dosas out of oat flour.)
My mother always told me that the Indian diet, the hearty helpings of vegetables, daal, rice, and chapattis (of course low on ghee or oil) was the healthiest diet in the world. And I believed her. Until I started thinking about Japanese people and all of their healthy hearts, and Gwyneth Paltrow and her faith in macrobiotics.
So, like my culturally blended upbringing, I am now resorting to literally eating what I am. I make harebrained schemes of trying tofu in bhajis, and baking—instead of frying—puris or baturas. I map out food in terms of nutrition and taste in many of the same ways I believe my mother fed a family of four: whole wheat tortillas served as chapatti substitutes and a bowl of Total replaced the fried Indian breakfast. But now my substitutions are more distinctly twenty-first century.
Perhaps what's most interesting in our new make-do lifestyle is our simple concession that Indian food is now too time-consuming to take on more than once or twice a week. As healthy and balanced as we can make it, it simply takes too much out of us.
Our substitutes, however, speak volumes about what we are trying to extract from our ancestral repasts. Everything, even pasta, gets red chili powder. Chicken, spiced up American or continental style, still gets a saucy, tika masala type gravy. We crunch and slurp and somehow make do without the rice. American style sides (green salads, steamed peas) add in the necessary variety of texture. When we can't make daal or rasam, soup enters the mix.
Culinary purity, as we once understood it, is a thing of the past. As essayist Geeta Kothari has written, "I will never make my grandmother's methi roti or even my mother's unsatisfactory imitation of it. . . ."
Of course, one can always overdo the fusion and experimenting. There is only so much that I feel one should be allowed to meddle with purity in gastronomic matters. It's like when my husband talks about wanting to put those little cocktail samosas into a sandwich. I stare at him in incredulity, baffled by his inability to honor the boundaries of food types.
Culinary combinations and stylistic experiments demonstrate both a native culture's adherence to tradition, and either a gradual willingness to accept change, or a stalwart resistance to it. The very fact that Kothari's essay was republished in a 2000 Best American Essays anthology, exemplifies the leaps America has taken to warm up to multiculturalism. In this way, I think the options available in American cuisine today speak more about this country's cultural openness than perhaps conscious efforts at diplomacy or outreach. With our palates, and not our arms, we reach out to each other. And that's just fine with me.
I find it promising to be living in a country that now offers grocery-store-ready frozen varieties of my mother country's food. And even if I have to adulterate my own version of it, I am grateful for the visibility of curry today. I'm appreciative that spice has currency, and happy that no one looks at me strangely in a diner if I ask for Tabasco with my eggs.
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