It’s not fun to say the words tandoori chicken. The dish itself is fine — a quite tasty preparation that’s been successfully imported and popularized in the US—but pronouncing the actual words, as an Indian-American kid, is kind of a chore. Same with vindaloo, or biryani, or Qatar, even. It’s that awkward choice you’re asked to a make in a split-second: do I say this the American, Anglicized way to make sure this conversation continues smoothly, or do I flex a little bit and pronounce this how it’s meant to be, thereby ensuring a slight but notable uptick in discomfort levels around the room?
But comparatively, tandoori is a walk in the park. My family is from Kerala, in the southernmost part of India, and our cuisine (and culture, for that matter), is wildly different than chicken tikka and paneer. It’s more seafood-based, heavier on the coconut milk and bananas, and our vegetarian options are much more robust (for the sake of simplicity, we won’t dive into the varying branches based on religion). Along with a starkly different food landscape, however, is a language that is just as foreign, and so it is that saying the seemingly innocuous word dosa in front of a bunch of white people is a peculiarly stressful experience.
Try ordering idli off of a menu at your local South Indian vegetarian spot. Or pronouncing the word puttu without sounding like you’re mocking it. Maybe even take a stab at my last name! It’s a linguistic hellscape down here on the humid, rain-heavy tip of India, and for people who can’t roll their r’s or lay down a “hard t,” it’s nearly impossible to navigate.
Sure, this is an ostensibly stupid thing to complain about; the social anxiety of immigrants pronouncing meals on a menu is on par with “the people of Bomont not being allowed to dance” on the wide-ranging scale of legitimate oppression. But what do you do when faced with the choice?
Let’s all agree that there’s no one worse than the dude who, in the middle of an otherwise normal description of food, decide to pronounce salsa verde as if he recently took a missionary trip to rebuild schools in Mexico. But for the immigrant —or, in this case, the first-generation child — to whitewash the pronunciation of your homeland’s food is odd, and uncomfortable. The history of that dish, and the history of your family, awkwardly brushed aside for convenience. There’s a tinge of guilt whenever you do it; it’s an internal acknowledgement that you have, for the moment, sold out to appease these white devils, even though you know better. It’s a microcosm of that age-old, tiresome cliché of a conundrum: to assimilate or to retain one’s heritage, all magnified by the order at a dinner table.
Code-switching is, on the whole, a much larger and more fascinating phenomenon to be considered. But in the context of food and its weirdly specific customs, it takes on a more dynamic meaning. For the foreigner, eating a plate of puttu and kadala curry (with your hands, of course) is, if for only a moment, a brief glimpse into a land miles away; for the immigrant, a banana leaf covered in the offerings of a traditional sadya — choru, aviyal, thoran, and countless more tiny mounds of exhaustively prepared side dishes — is an evocative snapshot of a phantom home, with all the emotional weight and cultural baggage that it portends. That split-second of hesitation, then — the moment before “doe-suh” or “tho-shuh” — is often the wait of a lifetime.