Monday, March 17, 2014

The Flavors of Home

In my kitchen in the heart of Silicon Valley, I try to recreate the flavors of home. I simply call this "khaana" or food, while my equally Indian husband, having grown up in the Middle East and Canada, calls it "Indian food." 

I make rotis  (Indian bread) to accompany the curries, dals and vegetable side dishes that I whip up. To do this, I first knead the dough with my hands, and then make small round balls that I flatten using a rolling pin. Finally, I toast these on a griddle. Generations of women in my country have followed these exact same steps.   

When I started making rotis about a year and a half back, this laborious process would irritate me. I struggled against it constantly, blanking out as I wrestled with the dough. My marriage to this wonderful man had also landed me in the default role of an expat house-wife, "the house-wife" part of which I chafed at.

But I did my best. I expanded my knowledge of cooking beyond the basics. Apart from Indian food, I made soups and pasta sauces from scratch and baked muffins. And of course, I practiced my roti-making skills, wishing that there was a way to get through it quickly.    

And then, some friends lent us a tortilla press so we could try and make rotis a little more easily. I still needed to knead the dough and form it into balls. But I could try and shave some time off the rolling. I didn't know whether it would work, but thought it was worth a try. 

Weeks passed, and the little press remained unused. I always thought I would use it tomorrow, only I never did. Something in me just couldn't let go of the common thread that binds me to my mother, my grandmother and all the countless women before them. The vein passed from them into me and connected me to the marrow of my culture. 

That's why food is so precious. It grounds our memories and connects us to everything that nourished us in the past. So, even though it takes time, I bhuno (slow-fry) vegetables, cooking them in their own juices, instead of drowning the taste with water. I make chutneys, including a special tomato one using jaggery and a special 5-spice mix called panch phoron, just the way my mother makes. 

Now, I try to see cooking as a medium to create my new home. I use it to settle into the deep rhythms of the home that I carry inside. And try to synchronize that rhythm with that of my husband's, whose memories of "ghar ka khaana" or home food consist of shawarmas, falafels, and kebabs. 

With him, I have discovered other homes. This exploration has been full of surprising recognitions. When I tried Baba Ghanoush, a Middle-eastern aubergine dip, I immediately felt comforted. Its smoky, earthy flavor echoes the notes of the Indian baingan bharta.

Another delightful discovery has been the preserved ginger that comes with sushi. It tastes almost exactly like the wondrous ginger pickle that can only be found in small shops in the narrow alleys of Old Delhi's spice market, amid the shops that sell whole spices: star-shaped anise and buds of cloves. 

Although these discoveries have been wonderful, the journey of combining the different homes that we both carry inside has had its ups and downs. We struggled in the beginning. I thought I was adjusting more, cooking dishes that he liked. He thought he adjusted a lot, eating the mostly Indian food I cooked at home instead of the "2 or 3 days Indian" that he was used to.

The truth is that we both moved, we both adjusted. We still get wobbly, but through our sharing, I am catching a glimpse of what it would be like to have a larger, more expansive home - a home where I can both recreate the way home tasted and felt in the past, and also synthesize a new home - a home that we are both making together. 

All I have to do is let go of the idea that home is a static place, instead of this moving, dynamic space that opens up whenever I do. 


  1. Home - hard to know what it is if you never had one
    Home - I can't say where it is, but I know I'm going
    Home - that's where the hurt is

    And I know it aches
    And your heart it breaks
    You can only take so much
    Walk on

    Leave it behind
    You've got to leave it behind

    All that you fashion - all that you make
    All that you build - all that you break
    All that you measure - all that you feel
    All this you can leave behind

    All that you reason - it's only time
    Love in a fever - no, not mine
    All that you sense - all that you scheme
    All you dress up - all that you seem
    All you create ....

  2. Sorry... Got Caught at something.. This is the U2 song... i thought about this when i read your blog...

    1. Such lovely lyrics! Home - I can't say where it is, but I know I'm going...

  3. "That's why food is so precious. It grounds our memories and connects us to everything that nourished us in the past." LOVE this! It's has a special way of making us feel comforted by triggering memories of childhood.

    I love reading your blogs! I find your writing very relate-able and humble. Hadn't been on in here in a while, but now I'm all caught up :)

    1. Thank you Roopali ! I'm glad it's resonating with you.

  4. Such a sweet piece. Wish I could relate to it. But for me, food was what alienated me from my in laws- one against a family. It was unlearning ' tuhade othe' and learning ' saade ithe' Food was either how my mom in law made it- or simply unacceptable.
    Today, after eight years of being happily married, my husband and my kids have 'ajwain'in their chapatis while I cant even bear its smell!

    1. Thanks Neha ! And thank you for sharing.I can imagine how that would feel. I would feel alienated too. I don't think there's any one right way of doing anything, whether it is cooking or anything else.

      I think a lot of, if not most, Indians have this belief system that we call "culture." Our culture expects us to merge and wants us to behave as a part of the whole, instead of the separate person that we really are - a person who has their own preferences and opinions.

      Also, I think in the last generation at least - the generation of our mothers - a lot of women's identities are just tied in their home and their kids. When those kids grow up, the mother finds it hard to let go, to let them be adults. I think trying to control other people is a sign of insecurity.

      On a personal level, I struggle a lot between the conditioned "nice" girl that I am so invested in being, and the real me. I think the tough thing is that not everyone is willing or able to hear your truth.