Chillies. Masala. Chutneys. Naan. To the outside world, these are the foods Indians eat at home. At dinner parties we’re expected to serve rogan josh with homemade sambal, still-steaming naan, and afters plates piled high with halwa and jalebi. Indians are not alone in this--Scandinavians are thought to eat herring with every meal, Americans only burgers and fries, Japanese sushi, teriyaki, and tempura. Culture, it seems, dictates everything from the clothing we wear (saris, duh) to the foods we eat (dal and rice, anyone?).
Mixed families have it even harder. Growing up, I was “the Indian one”. I scarfed bowls of dal and rice the way other kids scarf roast beef sandwiches. My mother hated it, always worrying I’d damage my digestion, always putting sour cream and yoghurt on the side. I never ate them.
But while I piled on the hot lime pickle, my brother picked over white rice, or asked for a bowl of tomato soup. He knew all about digestion damage--as a gastronomically adventurous 3 year old, he’d eaten through my Dad’s homemade mango pickle jar. The ER doctors thought he’d been poisoned.
Given his misfortunes, it’s no surprise my brother gave up on spicy food, though he certainly suffered for it. My father nicknamed him “sadhu”, after Hindu ascestics, some of whom eschew spicy food. My mother, Scottish to the core, was rarely subjected to criticism for her inability to eat chilli (she actually has a mild allergy). Her genetic predisposition was beyond reproach.
Aside from the doctor recommended restrictions - no soft cheese, no undercooked meats or eggs - my nursing diet is much the same as it has ever been. I eat tabasco or sriricha with almost every meal. I load my plate with strong tastes like garlic, ginger, fenugreek, and coriander. Baby doesn’t seem to mind; his digestion remains unaffected. Yet, as we start solid foods, I find myself wondering about what to make. Should I stick with plain rice cereal and sweet potato? Should I add a little ground mustard seed, a little ginger? And what about when he’s older, when he sees me adding chutneys and hot sauces to my plate? Will I let him add hot sauce to his meals or offer homemade mango pickle?
My husband eats the heat despite his European background--and takes great pride in it. (In the early period of our courtship, Joe set out to impress me with his love for vindaloo.) My father keeps birdseye chillies in vinegar handy at all times; my mother travels with a tub of sour cream in her purse. These days, my brother will brave a little spice on his rice, but it’s rarely his first choice. My sister-in-law skips anything flecked with tell-tale red. There’s little teasing, though there is a certain expectation--already my father and I joke about Baby’s tastes.
My brother and I were born to two worlds - I wear saris to weddings but eat my porridge with salt. Ben speaks little Hindi but rocks a Nehru collar as much as, well, Nehru. My white Australian husband eats gulab jamun with gusto and takes Hindi lessons once a week. And Baby? Whatever we choose, wherever he chooses, at least I know he’ll fit in somewhere.