My grandmother’s biryani, a rice dish usually served with rich meats and yogurt sauce, is famous among my family and friends. If anyone ever pays a visit to Kolkata, a city in the East Indian state of West Bengal, they make sure to stop by her apartment. And any visit to my grandmother’s apartment warrants a feast. Once, when there was a gathering at her apartment, I saw her wake up at the crack of dawn to start cooking. By lunchtime, colossal dishes of biryani were taken out from the kitchen, along with equally large quantities of chicken and goat meat. I watched 30 relatives squeeze into the small space, happy to see each other but just as happy to eat the food in front of them.
I’ve always been surrounded by traditional Indian cooking — specifically Bengali cooking. I’m used to accidentally eating a whole chilli pepper at least once a week, and I know the best remedies for this situation (cold yogurt and sweet fruits, but never water). I very rarely eat dishes without two or three different types of spices. Often, one dish is so spicy that the lingering taste makes the rest spicy, too. My grandparents always ask me if I can “take the spice” in their cooking, as if it’s a competition. Spice is embraced in Indian cooking, and I’m accustomed to my eyes watering from the food I eat.
However, I’ve also grown up in America my whole life. I’ve eaten my fair share of B-Dubs and Jimmy Johns, especially since coming to college. But when I’m eating these foods, there seems to be something missing from the mix. I love my boneless wings as much as anyone, but somehow it doesn’t feel the same, even if I’m eating with my family. After being a college freshman for a semester, I believe I understand why.
Indian cooking is integrally different from American cooking. The approach to cooking, the way it’s done, how it’s eaten and so much more factor into Indian dishes. But I think the biggest component to Indian cooking is the people surrounding it. The social aspect of buying the ingredients, cooking and spending time together make Indian food more of an experience than an end product.
To explain what I mean, I’ll revisit my grandmother. Early in the morning, my grandfather stops by the outdoor market on his daily walk through Kolkata. When I walked through one of these markets, I was struck at the sheer amount of noise there was. Merchants yell out prices, live animals squawk and rickshaws blare their horns in the streets. I remember seeing multiple chickens running on the loose through the market plaza. My grandfather always barters for the prices until he’s satisfied. He brings home fresh vegetables and meat from animals butchered that day. Every single day.
Once the food is prepared, which usually takes two or three hours, we always eat together. We use a central carb, like rice or roti (a type of flatbread), to eat all the other dishes. The other dishes are usually gravy based, with a mixture of many cooked vegetables, or meat curry. No meal is complete without dal (similar to lentil soup). Dal never gets old — there are so many types that I’ve barely learned what they’re all called. We eat together for lunch and dinner. The times that we eat are naturally correlated with when we talk, tell stories and laugh. The dinner table has always been a lively place for me — even after eating we linger at the table for hours. If guests come over, the whole evening is spent around the table eating endless food and chatting.
We tend to have one extra meal for “tea time.” At five in the afternoon, everyone sits together to have tea and samosas (a triangular folded pastry with vegetable filling). If we want to call guests over in the afternoon, we ask them to come have tea with us. If this happens, “tea time” can last for hours. If we call guests over during meal times, three or four new dishes are prepared. It’s not uncommon for guests to come over and even participate in the cooking that the host started. It’s the cooking process and the interaction that comes with it that makes it special — not so much the end product.
Thus, everyone’s life practically revolves around the food they eat. If anyone stops by for a visit, they have to be given food first. It can be as small as some sweets or a whole dinner, but most times the first question asked is, “Will you eat?” The answer is always yes. If I’m at home, I know what each meal of the day will consist of before I even eat breakfast. The house perpetually smells like spices, but most times I don’t realize it until I leave the house and am greeted by the smell when I come back inside. When I open my bedroom door, I know what’s being cooked because the whole house is filled with the aroma.
Indian food cooked at home brings a togetherness that I just can’t seem to replicate anywhere else. Stepping inside my grandmother’s home in Kolkata, or even my home in MI, means that I’m immersed in the art of Indian cooking and the social bonds that come with it. My grandmother offers me a thousand different foods when I walk through the door. Feeding me is her priority because she takes immense delight in sharing her food with others. And I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.