My nani stands over the griddle, slight beads of perspiration forming over her brow from the heat of the stove. She leans in to smell the egg chutney, a classic south Indian dish, and wrinkles her nose. Adding chopped coriander to the concoction, she sniffs again.
“Much better. You want it to have flavor, you know?” she said, dropping her rs and shortening her yous, a consequence of having a semi-British, semi-Indian accent. After immigrating to England 46 years ago, my grandma uses cooking as a way to connect to the culture and people she left behind. This mindset has been passed down to my mom, and now to my siblings and me.
Food is a big deal in my family. Each member of my family knows how to cook, whether it is chocolate nachos made by my 9-year-old brother or tandoori chicken made by my dad. Sunday dinners consisted of “cook off” competitions between my parents until they got too intense and we had to cancel them to spare hurting parent’s feelings. Cooking carried too much weight for either parent to simply dismiss the results as part of a silly competition.
Every so often, my mom will attempt to cook egg chutney. She uses the same recipe as my nani, except her dish always tastes different. Instead of having the herby, rich feel that is indicative of the East, hers tastes lighter, healthier and plainer — more within the confines of the West. Here, the influences of her British upbringing surface. Cooking seems to be a place where people can assert their individuality.
Yet at the same time, cooking is a familial, communal experience. On weekends, my entire family will gather in our kitchen as my mom and dad cook. We are never told to; the kitchen just always seems to exude warmth and inviting tones. The tempting smells don’t hurt either. When I was little, as I hovered behind her in the kitchen, my mom would tell me the names of the spices she poured into the pot: tamarind, chili powder, cumin and coriander. I would recite the words back to her, absorbing each syllable, each sound as it rolled across my tongue. Despite only having traveled to India once, these words taught me of the East.
Growing up as a second-generation American, I’ve found that much of the “old” culture has been lost in translation. I’m not fluent in the language of my grandparents and I only dress in traditional Indian attire two or three times a year. However, through food, I have found a link to my culture. Food has satiated my appetite for language, culture and community.
When I finally learned how to cook, it wasn’t through formal instruction. I watched my parents sauté onions, marinate chicken and sear fish — picking up tips and tricks along the way. After setting many dishes on fire and cooking food drowned in oil and/or deficient in flavor, I finally invented my own dish: an egg sandwich. It was a variation of something my dad had whipped up one lazy Sunday afternoon, but included my own twist. I toast and butter an English muffin, scramble an egg, add Havarti cheese to the muffin and then combine all the components into my own little homemade brunch.
The process is time-consuming — it takes much longer to make an egg sandwich than it does to pour a bowl of cereal. However, there is nothing like hunching over a frying pan in the morning while listening to the eggs sizzle and feeling the sun shine on your skin through the window in the kitchen. On slow weekends and lazy summer days, those rare days when my family wears pajamas until 1:00 p.m., I might fight clutter, my siblings and my parents for counter space to assemble my creation, but it is those days that I miss most now that I am away at college.
It took me a long time to realize I cook my eggs in the same style that my mom and nani cook their egg chutney, albeit a little more oily and flavored only with half a pinch of salt. My egg sandwich was an adaptation of what my family has cooked for generations, and I subconsciously included it in my own “unique” recipe. It is never possible to fully lose touch with one’s culture, even if it is because of something as fundamental as food. In a world where assimilation is the norm, food connects me to my roots.