Growing up, I attended a mostly white, private elementary school in Dallas, Texas. I noticed that my tastes seemed misaligned with my classmates and teachers. People here loved deli meat — slippery pieces of ham that came in rubbery, alarmingly wet form, and steak that had been breaded and deep-fried like chicken. They also ate snow-white Alfredo sauce and cloyingly sweet vanilla birthday cake. And they really loved bacon.
There seemed to be this universal, objective notion of what tasted good. And what tasted the best to me were the things that my mom, an immigrant from India, exclusively cooked for me at home. Cumin-coated bits of dal, crisp, tangy dosas, and rosewater-laced gulab jamun did not fit that mold.
There seemed to be this universal, objective notion of what tasted good. And what tasted the best to me were the things that my mom, an immigrant from India, exclusively cooked for me at home.
My mom arrived to the U.S. from New Delhi in 1980, immediately following her arranged marriage to my father. It was her first overseas trip, and she knew very few people here. To feel at home, like many immigrants, she cooked. Aloo gobhi and saag paneer were her comfort foods; and eventually, they became mine as well.
But once I realized that these foods didn’t fit with my classmates’ preferences, I set about changing my tastes in an effort to blend in. I renounced my vegetarianism. I started trading my school lunch for my friend Henry’s turkey and mustard sandwiches. I learned to love the bouncy pumpkin pie and boxed mashed potatoes served at the school cafeteria. I was very aware of how different I was from my classmates: my skin color was darker than everyone else’s, both of my parents worked, and I did not have a closet full of designer clothing. But I felt a deep sense of comfort knowing that, if I couldn’t look or dress like anyone else, at least I could eat like everyone else.
College was similar: mostly upper class white people with fairly similar tastes. Thanks to the dining hall, blending in wasn’t an issue. In one of my French classes, I learned the phrase “à chacun son goût,” meaning “to each her own taste.” But how could that be, I wondered, when the environments around me - plus every cooking show, food magazine, and popular cookbook - seemed to present a very singular definition of home cooking. It was like what I saw in elementary school, largely white-washed and not particularly interested in my narrative.
Immediately after graduating, I entered food media looking to change that, to help make a space for the diverse tastes that make up American food. I wrote about the Brussels sprouts tacos made by Daniela Soto-Innes at Atla in New York. And the pakoras made with hot chicken at Maneet Chauhan’s Chauhan Ale and Masala House in Nashville. And the chaat masala-infused grilled cheese sandwich I ate at Preeti Mistry’s (sadly shuttered) Juhu Beach Club in Oakland.
At a certain point, I stopped feeling self-conscious about my taste. That old French adage is true — there is no universal category of good food. As I discovered an increasingly diverse set of cooks making the food of their heritage, I realized that our individual notions of taste have gotten more developed and complex over time. Our tastes vary radically.
This realization led me to write Indian-ish, my upcoming cookbook, which is both a recipe collection and a story about how I came to appreciate — not be ashamed by — how different the food I grew up eating was from my peers. It’s also about how mom’s own tastes have evolved since immigrating here.
She uses olive oil instead of ghee in a lot of her sabzis because she likes the fruity taste. She makes curry leaf and mustard seed encrusted sandwiches with sourdough bread, a varietal that she fell in love with on a trip to California. And one of her favorite soups is ribollita that she spikes with cilantro and green chilies because she loved the one we tried in Tuscany; she adapted the recipe to add a little more heat and intensity. I subtitled my book Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family because I wanted people to understand that we are a part of the American food narrative because we, like everyone else, are Americans. Everyone has a certain sense of what home cooking means. Dal and sabzi happen to be our bread and butter.
I am now a full-fledged member of the food media machine — I write for glossy food magazines and the dining sections of national newspapers. While food writing has certainly changed a lot over the past few years, my profession still has a long way to go in terms of being inclusive with respect to many cuisines and narratives. It still rewards mostly white men who are cooking European food. And if Thai or Mexican food is splashed onto the pages of a magazine, it’s often in the context of a restaurant where the chef is neither Thai nor Mexican.
I am regularly told by editors that my Indian recipes — even ones with five ingredients and only take 20 minutes, like a carrot salad with mustard seeds and curry leaves, or baked potatoes garnished with chaat masala — are too complicated and obscure for the average reader. That it’s too much to ask someone to buy mustard seeds or use cumin seeds, even though both are now readily available in many grocery stores. The cover stars of most food magazines are still roasted chickens and gleaming plates of pasta.
But I suppose that’s why I am a journalist. To remind myself — and others — that there is no singular taste or set norms around food, and to invite people to diversify their own palates. It’s been said many times: food is a gateway to understanding other perspectives. The more we open our mouths to different ingredients and flavors, the more we might open our minds. The less we might fear the things that don’t fall into our immediate sphere. Or at least, I’d like to think these statements are true.
Over time, I can honestly say that I have developed a soft spot for that bouncy, kind of artificial-tasting pumpkin pie (I love the creamy texture!) and I occasionally snack on the deli meat my boyfriend keeps in our fridge (it’s salty and filling!). Sometimes I’ll even throw some mustard on it.
Although I’ll never understand why people lose their minds over bacon — I now know that feeling is perfectly okay.