By Jitna Bhagani
Food plays a significant role in Indian culture. It’s virtually impossible to visit an Indian household without sitting down for a steaming cup of freshly brewed masala chai and at least something to eat. It doesn’t matter if you have never met the host before, or if it’s your closest relative; you are expected to eat. Food is a way to show hospitality to your guests, and there must be a lot of it. In fact, if you clear your plate, you can expect to be topped up, even if you protest.
Growing up in an Indian household meant that we regularly ate traditional Gujarati food, which meant little or no meat, especially no beef. Dinners were hearty and full of aromatic spices like cinnamon, cumin, cloves, cardamom and chillies. Homemade yoghurt was a common accompaniment to any meal, especially when we were younger and the food was too spicy.
As part of the Indian diaspora, I began to detest Indian food; it was boring, plain, smelly, greasy. I wanted to eat the “normal foods” that my friends ate. I wanted to try beef and other foods that were forbidden at home. Indian food became dull and too familiar, and I started to avoid eating it. And so began my lifelong love-hate relationship with Indian food. As I got older, I became much more experimental with food; I tried things my parents would never dream of eating: sushi, beef tartare, unknown ingredients from afar, foods from exotic places they’d never even heard of. It was exciting and trying new foods became a love of mine, especially when travelling. I wanted to eat what the locals ate, try new things, experience new tastes, and discover.
When I moved to Barcelona in my early twenties, I had the privilege of regularly visiting the city’s rich food markets, and because of the big Latin American immigrant community, there were fruits and vegetables regularly imported that I had never even seen or heard of before. It was extraordinary to be able to have new flavours within reach all the time. Every market visit was a culinary adventure.
Finding the balance
Funnily enough, after a while, I started to miss good traditional Indian food. Sure I could have hopped over to London to visit some relatives and get a proper home cooked Gujarati meal for a long weekend, but that wasn’t always doable. It didn’t help that my very Swedish boyfriend (now husband) was enamored with Indian food, especially since the spices back home in Sweden were muted to suit the local palate. He always wanted to eat Indian food, and I always wanted to eat anything but. After a while we started to compromise, and I started to give in and actually cook Indian food at home. At first it was a chore, but after a while, it started to stir up fond memories of home cooked food I used to eat as a child. Dishes I used to dread and despise started making their way into my regular dinner repertoire, and we started to cook and eat Indian food much more regularly.
After many years of hating and also loving Indian food, to this day I continue to have a love-hate relationship with Indian food. A dish can evoke fond memories of my mother’s freshly made steaming rotlis (chapatis) at home, and the sweet and warming aroma of spicy chai with freshly chopped ginger can transport me halfway round the world to her kitchen. But much to my husband’s dismay, I have to eat and cook Indian food infrequently, otherwise I start to get bored again!
Guest writer: Jitna Bhagani is the Founder of Shakti.ism, a social enterprise empowering disadvantaged women in India and Bangladesh, and she will survive, a gender equality advocacy project. She’s happily married and is the lucky mama of two daughters. In her spare time, you’ll find her reading a good book (or three) or being a local tourist at home or abroad. She’s addicted to good coffee, even better cheese, and plans to write a book someday.
Images: All her own, with portrait by husband, Petter Premberg.
Soul Food September:
Throughout September, Soulhub is sharing personal stories from Guest Writers including Nutritionalist (Author of Gut Gastronomy, Broth & Amazing Edible Seeds) Vicki Edgson, Soul Food Live every Tuesday with Carey Davies-Munro, Q&A’s with nutritional specialists Sue Camp & Melinda McDougall, podcasts with Nicola Moore, and education about our relationship with food.
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