How Quarantine Reconnected Me with My Family’s Cuisine
Quarantine has been a time of dropping old habits and picking up new ones, of honing lifelong talents and developing new passions. I have always enjoyed cooking as an outlet, but not South Asian cooking (my ethnicity). Free time to make a meal at home left me preferring a delicious gnocchi allo genovese or some chocolate banana bread. But for the first time in my life, I have found enjoyment in preparing traditional Indian recipes and cooking up a South Asian storm for my family. 13-year-old me is shocked, given how disinterested I have always been in doing this. This is my story.
“Convenient American” is probably the best term to describe my dietary preferences when I was growing up. My parents are both not huge fans of cooking, so quick dinners at home like steamed veggie packets and cheese quesadillas frequently filled my lunch box. They were tasty, but definitely not super fresh or culturally authentic. My South-Asian grandmother spent about half of her time at our house, and she loved cooking delicious Indian meals for all of us, from masala dosa to channa masala. I did like her food more than the reheated meals, but they never compared to American chain food.
I was a busy kid involved in a bunch of sports and musical instruments, so it was convenient for my parents to pick up a quick veggie whopper from Burger King or 6-inch sandwich at Subway for me between practices and rehearsals. I was raised vegetarian, so justifying this fast food quite frequently was easy — most of what I was eating was just vegetables, cheese, mayo, and ketchup wedged between bread. Often times, it felt like eating out was healthier than what I would eat at home.
I remember being laughed at when I spoke to my South Asian friends growing up and expressed my preference for a veggie whopper over a masala dosa. “You’re crazy and whitewashed Trisha,” they would scoff. I didn’t understand. I didn’t side with Burger King because it would make me fit in, I sided with Burger King because I genuinely thought it tasted better! It was more comfortable to me than any Indian dishes.
When my family went out to Indian restaurants, I scoured the menu for Indo-American fusion items because I knew that they would most likely appeal to my taste buds. A lot of Bombay Club Sandwiches were consumed.
High school passed by and my preference for healthy-ish fast food persisted. Once I could drive, I found myself stopping at a drive through to pick up a meal even on nights that I knew my grandma had prepared something special. After getting home, I would consume my brown bagged meal and then sample the items she made, just to internally confirm and remind myself that I still liked the purchased food better.
As I was getting ready for college during the summer between high school and college, my parents encouraged me to learn how to prepare a few basic dishes from my grandma, like upma and thayir sadham. “Even though Indian has never been your favorite, it’s your ethnic cuisine and you’re going to miss it once you go!”
I spent several evenings with my grandma in the kitchen an hour before dinner and assisted as a sous chef, but I was not engaged in the learning. I zoned out, certain that they were not high-yield skills.
Unlike how this narrative can go for many college students, I did not miss cooking from home much. The dining hall had several quick and convenient options that left my body fueled and my taste buds satisfied. The pasta bar and wrap station did not leave me missing Indian food. Even in Chicago’s bitter winters when the idiosyncratic heat of Indian food might be comforting, I felt perfectly satisfied in my toast and bowl of tomato soup that was unequivocally a frozen shipment just hours before. The dining hall had Indian food sometimes that made me crave it even less. Too many substitutions coupled with the wrong spices made calling those concoctions Indian a joke. I lived on campus and ate in the dining halls for all years of college, so the evolution in my taste buds and food preferences was trivial.
The end of college brings me to now — being back home with family due to the Covid-19 pandemic after my first semester of medical school. My grandmother was not quarantined with us, so the steady production and variety of Indian meals plummeted. My parents found ourselves coming back to Steamfresh frozen vegetable packets and cans of Progresso. And suddenly, for the first time in my life, I craved Indian food. Not an Indian-inspired sandwich, or Indian-style Chipotle bowl. I wanted a big bowl of vegetable pulao with cucumber raita and parappu usili with mor kuzhumbu. No Indian restaurants were open either, so if I wanted any Indian dishes I was going to have to learn myself.
We didn’t have any recipe books, since my grandma prepared everything from memory. So I started with the biggest recipe book: the internet. I read articles on the dishes I wanted to make and watched hours of Youtube videos, from Hebbar’s Kitchen to Cooking Shooking. This project wasn’t something that I was prompted to learn or pushed to pursue, which made it that much more motivating to me.
I didn’t learn everything at once; I focused on 2 to 3 dishes every weekend and ate them over the course of the week. My parents luckily had most raw materials needed for recipes already. Their cabinets were full of aromatic Indian spices that might not be in most other households — carom seeds, chickpea flour, coriander seeds, garam masala, turmeric, kashmiri mirch, chaat masala, etc. They were skeptical about my creations for the first few weeks so they oversaw every step of the process. Even though they were not chefs, they had wisdom to share and pointers to offer about my techniques for cutting, sauteeing, kneading, and cooking.
I was all ears because I was doing this for me and I wanted to do it right. I really wanted to get to a place where I could appreciate and enjoy my ethnic cuisine just as much as American fast food.
There have been times in the last few weeks that my sabzis and rice dishes, my breads and chutneys have not turned out well. As I eat them for dinner throughout the week, the thought enters my mind — wouldn’t you have rather ordered Chipotle from Grubhub? It’s free delivery too. But finally, I find myself on the other side of this dilemma. I would rather eat my chewy garlic naan with a palak that I heavily oversalted than eat Chipotle. I think that my Indian meals taste better! Besides, both meals have the same sodium content and mine was a lot cheaper.
I’m continuing to learn as this quarantine progresses. It’s not a survival mechanism or a unique skill that might impress future friends. I am Indian, and a growing champion of the delicious cuisine that Indians can make. Needless to say, my grandma will be pretty surprised when she comes back to our house after quarantine!