Interpreter of Memories
We root ourselves by growing vegetables in the garden, shopping at the green markets, committing to our communities and our local agriculture and sometimes even foraging our woods. This is part of making our place in the world, of cultivating our identities. Of finding a home. We stand firmly on the earth, our feet planted, connecting us to a place, regardless of where our ancestors once stood.
But our tongues, our memories – these are also means of belonging, tastes and stories that bind us to families and cultures. For many of us, our sense of taste and its subsequent memories have traveled far and wide. We are restless, moving from one part of the world to another, constantly shifting, nomadic.
We eat locally but taste globally, that is to say. A fact that requires creativity and experimentation, a challenge that encourages us to keep the past and present equally in our minds.
When my parents moved to Canada from India in the late 1960s, they felt this paradox quite acutely, this desire to become part of one place while still very much belonging to another. Their select manner of dealing with it took place in the kitchen. My mother, who still dreamt of returning to her mother and sisters and brother in India figured out what she could acceptably conjure in the frozen Canadian North with the ingredients at hand, without having to tweak recipes to accommodate the fact that all those taste memories just didn't translate into North American supermarket fare. If chapatis were impossible to make here because the flour was too "strong" (hard), then chapatis were off the menu; if we couldn't find "drumsticks" (AKA moringa, a fibrous, okra-like vegetable), we wouldn't bother with Sindhi curry. We'd wait for those things, save them for our biannual trips back "home" to India – even my sister and I called it home, and despite the fact we were both born and raised in the West. Every holiday, without fail, my mother would cook at least one pukka, or genuine, Indian dish to put on the table alongside the Easter ham or Christmas turkey (we celebrated all these holidays even though we were not Christian). She didn't want us to forget where we came from, despite our culinary assimilation.
My dad, who jumped feet first into life abroad, was different – he was going to find ways to meld what he remembered with where he was now. He made heroic efforts. Sometimes this involved trying to grow Indian vegetables and herbs in our backyard, a losing battle because the southern Albertan climate is a million miles removed from southern India's. The curry leaf plants always shriveled and died, the spinach was different, everything was different. We could never find fresh fenugreek leaves, one of the most distinctive flavors of northern Indian cuisine; we roared with laughter when we discovered, years later, that it was in fact being grown locally as animal feed, its tiny leaves on tough stems making it seem to farmers too painstaking to prepare for human consumption. Even when the ingredients themselves were readily available, it was no easier making the yogurt or the dosas we remembered: the yeast in the air and the bacteria in the cultures were different, and they would never taste the same.
But sometimes – the times I remember best – my father would find some exotic local ingredient in the grocery store and try to figure out a use for it. Inevitably his ideas would come from his cravings for the tastes of his childhood. Those dishes were the best: my favorite was his famous garlic sausage curry, made with the smoked pork sausage sold by the Hutterites, a local Germanic sect who spoke their own language and lived on communal farms, much like the Amish, not far from our house. My father had tried for years to re-create the Goan sausage of his youth, spicy and vinegary. My mom would groan whenever she saw the meat grinder come out, because it meant that our little glassed-in sunroom would be filled with hanging garlicky meat for a week as it dried in the sun. When he finally gave up on the experiment – the sausage was good, but not "the same" – he turned to the Hutterite sausage, itself the translation of an elsewhere, the product of another group of transplants. He'd make his masala with onions, garlic, tomatoes, chilies, and a spice mix he'd bring back from his sister on each trip and add thick rounds of smoked sausage. It's a dish I still describe with a caveat: "I know it sounds weird, but trust me."
There's no such thing as authenticity, of course – we live in a world of translations, as recipes get passed generation-to-generation and different flavors and ingredients come into vogue. My relatives in India have no qualms about transforming foreign dishes to their tastes – it's part of the adventure. My aunt asked me for a recipe for paella and purchased all the ingredients; she told her cook, Malthi, what she was going to do with the seafood and rice and vegetables and paprika. Malthi – perhaps the most efficient person I've ever met – surprised my aunt by saving her the trouble of cooking it. My aunt dubbed it "Paellullao" – a cross between paella and Indian pulao. But for us, the people who scattered to the West, these necessary modifications are, perhaps, more fraught – they represent a loss of something as much as a new creation. They represent the distance between where we've come from and where we are.
Hunger to Adapt
"That distance has shrunk thanks to globalization," says Suvir Saran, Bravo TV celebrity, cookbook author and restaurateur who is set to open Sacred Monkey in San Francisco this winter, who now grows his own food, raises chicken and geese and soaks up local products on Masala Farms in Hebron, New York, with his partner, Charlie Burd. When Saran arrived in New York from New Delhi in 1993 at the age of 20, he had to face the sad reality that New York, despite its cosmopolitanism, was a relative food desert for vegetarians. In addition, the typical food available in Indian restaurants and the recipes in Indian cookbooks by popular authors were hopelessly compromised due to the adaptation necessary to cater to American tastes and pantries. An unnamed cookbook author of the time famously recommended substituting Italian parsley for cilantro; another suggested yogurt in place of coconut milk. Was this practicality, trying to make things less scary for Americans who never quite believed that Indian cooking is that simple once you have the spices in your cupboard, or was it a cynicism, thinking that they wouldn't be able to tell the difference?
The solution for Saran was to start cooking, first for his friends and their friends and then professionally, creating an intensity of flavors using a plethora of Indian ingredients that, over the years, became more easily accessible.
"Our parents' generation were pioneers, working with a limited pantry," he says. "Now you can get anything you want or need, often even in regular grocery stores. My challenge is no longer that of finding ingredients, but that of figuring out how to make India live in 21st-century America." Making India live is not simply a matter of adding certain spices or making food hot, but rather introducing the rhythms of the Indian consciousness into cooking and eating. "It's not simply about throwing in ingredients, but when to throw them in to create the particular combinations of flavors and aromas that each dish requires," Saran muses. It's almost musical, in the way of Indian ragas. Every song, its tempo and mood, is geared to the audience, to the occasion, to the season, even to the weather. Cooking is, in its best forms, the same way."
The food Saran remembers from New Delhi was fresh and locally grown for the most part, bought from vegetable wallahs who came door-to-door with bountiful baskets posed on their heads or bought in the markets. Saran has taken that memory of bounty and turned it into his own oasis – his farm, where he grows, during the temperate months, most of the food he eats, sharing and bartering with neighbors for the things he doesn't grow himself. Sometimes this leads to unexpected challenges: "People were always giving me Hubbard squash [a severe-looking winter variety closely related to the pumpkin]. I could never understand why Americans loved Hubbard squash so much! It's basically a reason to eat butter and sugar. So I had to figure out how to make it craveable – how to create and layer flavor. So I adapted a recipe from my childhood – kaddu ki subji – using this new ingredient, adding the heat of chili with the tartness of amchoor (dried mango powder) and the spice of cumin and fenugreek and asafetida." Saran is no less willing to take American classics, such as Southern fried chicken, and introduce Indian accents, creating layers of flavor. "I add Indian flavors to the brine the chicken soaks in, I add Indian flavors to the flour the chicken is dredged in – every part of the process is an opportunity to add the flavors of my memories."
And this notion of memory is what drives Saran, as well as so many of us who are trying to adapt our tastes to our place: "Memory lives in the body. Just like taste does. Food is not simply about finding ingredients – it's something that runs parallel to life, politics, gossip and histories. . . . It's something that we re-create every time we gather with our friends to grow and eat our foods. And we create new memories." Every immigrant, every child of immigrants, has stories like this. And those stories grow more meaningful to us as we get older and cook for our children. We ate our parents' translations of their memories of childhood; our children eat our translations of our parents' memories, translations twice removed. As a consequence, we change the places we arrive at as we grow our new roots. And as time passes, a curious thing happens: the places we come from change in reality, even as they stay the same in our memories, just as a parent looks at her grown daughter and sees the child she once was. My family "at home" eats far differently now than they did when my parents left 40 years ago; they shop at American-style grocery stores and eat imported foods and incorporate the tastes of here into there.
Because, after all, tastes travel.