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Roti? Maybe. Macaroni? Yes, please!

By Poornima Apte Email By Poornima Apte
March 2014
Roti? Maybe. Macaroni? Yes, please!

As an Indian mom in America, the author learned not to take her children’s food preferences—especially their rejection of what she’d eaten as a child—personally.

We should have seen trouble brewing when our older daughter broke out in hives as an eighteen-month-old baby. She had just eaten a tiny bit of peanut chutney. A month later, she had the same reaction to coconut chutney. My husband and I looked at each other, perplexed. A Maharashtrian, he couldn’t fathom how his child could be allergic to peanuts—the one food his people ate every single day. A Tamilian, I couldn’t understand how my own flesh and blood could be allergic to coconuts. If this wasn’t the most outward manifestation of a rejection of her “roots,” we really couldn’t tell what else was.

Slowly, over the years, our girls developed their special kind of food vocabulary, an interesting mix of a few things desi and a wholehearted embrace of all things American. Roti? Maybe. Macaroni? Yes, please! Idli? Ewwww. Waffles? Yum! I remember raving endlessly about Bourbon biscuits and when the girls finally got to try them, I got the dreaded “they’re okay.” And after a long pause, “...I guess.” At least the crushing and succinct descriptor “meh” was not yet part of their burgeoning vocabulary.

When my older daughter was in sixth grade, we used to have regular visits from my nephew who was a student at a local college. While we want to think that he enjoyed the pleasure of our company, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he visited for the laundry—and the food. The girls for one just couldn’t wrap their little heads around the idea of someone actually craving daal and roti. They always thought of him as a tad weird. After all who on earth would actually willingly ask for—food, right?

One afternoon, my younger daughter, who was then in second grade, casually wondered if they served Indian food in prison. Assuring her that eating two rotis and paalak subji would not qualify as the worst kind of corporal punishment, I wanted to know why she asked—was there anything I needed to know that she was planning. “Nope, just curious,” she reassured me.

This was the same kid who by now had started waking up every morning and before even rolling out of bed, asking me, “What’s for dinner?” For a while I never understood this all-consuming passion with food. What was it about the meals they ate and why did they matter so much? You soon begin to realize that the meals eaten at home become the anchor to the day, often the bookend to the day’s activities. And essentially they were asking if it was going to be something worth looking forward to—or not.

Fed up by the daily “What’s for dinner” barrages, I finally caved in and bought a small white board that I clipped on to the fridge. Every day it would list the kids’ activities, with one small column devoted to the dinner menu: daal, spinach, roti were common. Then came the “international” days where tacos and pasta ruled. On days when I was too uninspired to figure out the menu at 6:00 a.m., I would leave the dinner column blank. If after school, this column was still empty, invariably, one of the girls would write: “There is hope…” Hope usually translated to pasta.

If all this is making you worry, fear not. As the girls grew older, their palates did expand, helped of course by our own taste for good food. I take a certain pride in knowing that I have managed to finally raise discerning gourmands. The key, we realized, is to never stop serving the foods you know they will eventually grow to appreciate and maybe, even love. And while I can’t still say that both my daughters love Indian food, I am beginning to see glimmers of hope.

Now that my older daughter is off to college, we can see measurable change. She loves everything about the experience—except the food. “Who puts American cheese in a fruit cup?” she texted me once incredulously. In a few weeks, we learned that she missed desi food so much that she had started pouring lentil soup over rice to approximate the real thing. “Today we had samosas in the cafeteria. Win!” announced a recent text.

A few days ago I checked to see if she was still planning on visiting us over spring break. “Yes,” came the lightning-fast reply, “I miss the home-cooked meals.” Okay, it was not “I miss you,” or even “I miss home.” It was: “I miss the food.” Seeing how food is organically connected to home, I am taking this as a point in our favor.

That very evening, I went over to the white board and wrote: “There is still hope.”

Massachusetts-based Poornima Apte reviews literary fiction and narrative nonfiction for several outlets.

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