Article Title
Article Title

Curry Over Ketchup

by Jaya Saxena

When I was in elementary school we had a Heritage Day. Everyone was supposed to dress in the traditional garb of whatever country they came from (I realize now how distinctly American this is) and bring a "national" dish to class. Kids brought food from Colombia, Albania, Ireland, Italy and Puerto Rico. And I, dressed in my kid-sized sari, brought samosas. Except I didn't touch them. Instead, I spooned myself some buttery rice pilaf and told my mom I had filled myself up on empanadas.

Immigrants are often of strange minds about their "home" countries. My dad, having lived in America since he was eight, never considered India as much of a home. After all, there was a reason the family left, and sometimes it's hard to love a place filled with that much poverty, corruption and traditions you don't agree with. So while I was encouraged to learn about my Indian side, I certainly didn't live in it.

This was doubled by the fact that India was only half of my divorced nuclear family, and though my mom cooked far more Indian food than my dad, my only real introductions to the culture were weekends at my grandparents' house with their shrine in the attic and the strange smells coming from my grandma's kitchen. Given that I'd only see it about twice a month, I was confused by my grandmother's food. The potatoes were bright yellow instead of white, with flecks of weird black seeds. The chicken came in deep brown sauces that smelled like taco meat. I ate the poori and the rice, but everything else seemed worlds away from my American life. Most of the time I just requested spaghetti with ketchup.

The rest of Indian culture confused me. I loved my grandparents, but as a kid I often didn't know what to make of them. They rarely wore western clothing, and had thick accents even after living in America for almost 40 years. They wanted me to get my nose pierced and protect my bed with mosquito netting so I wouldn't get malaria. My grandma massaged strange oils into my grandpa's head while the two watched Bollywood movies at night, and they'd switch between Hindi and English in the middle of sentences. With my other nice white American grandparents making me pancakes and taking me for horseback rides on their farm, my Indian family seemed all the stranger.

Not that anyone cared once they learned I was half Indian. America has a funny way of defining you by your most "exotic" quality, so even though I am just as Scottish/English/Dutch/French as I am Indian, everyone got way more excited about the Indian part. They wanted me to teach them to wrap saris, or how to count, or what a bindi was. So I obliged, learning some and avoiding Indian food at all costs, lest someone discovered the terrible secret that I wasn't really into being Indian.

The charade couldn't last forever. One fall, a camp friend happened to be in the city with her dad -- a white man who would later name his son a Hindi name -- and wanted to go for Indian food. I steered them toward 6th Street in New York, a notorious stretch of Indian food that makes up for quality with what it has in quality and kitsch. I pretended to like Raj Mahal more than the rest, even though I had never been there before, and panicked as I looked at the menu. My friend's dad started ordering rapid-fire, filling the table with appetizers of papadam and pani poori, and seemed surprised when I had no idea what to do with them.

"What are you getting?" he asked.
"Umm, I don't know? Everything looks good?" I responded, trying to hide my fear. But I think he sensed it.
"Try the korma. Korma is always good."

It arrived in a creamy, brown sauce that smelled sweet and nutty, and as I bit into the chicken a weird revelation came over me -- this is good. It was thick with cashews and cloves, and I finished the entire thing. I later would realize that korma is absolutely beginner's Indian food, the way spaghetti and meatballs introduces many to Italian food. But when I told my dad that I liked korma a week later, it didn't matter. I was finally eating Indian food.

To me, this wasn't just a realization that I liked spicy food or exotic food or finally wanted something other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. This was a connection to half of myself, one that I didn't have to fake anymore. In no way should ethnicity ever define a person, but there is a moment when you realize that you are enjoying the food your grandmother cooks. That her mother cooked. That your great-great-grandparents enjoyed on their wedding day. That your dad ate from street carts on his way to school. Soon I went to India, and ate dal and drank sweet coffee and chai. And I started asking my mom to make Indian food. And then one Thanksgiving I helped her peel 10 pounds of shrimp to make curry for the whole family, starting a tradition of at least one Indian dish at every feast. And now I make masala chai almost every night.

I will never be Indian, nor do I wish to be. When most people ask me what I am (another distinctly American question) I usually respond "a New Yorker" and leave it at that. But to find a connection to the culture of your elders, especially one not based on religion, is something few Americans have the luxury to find. And I'm lucky to find a connection that can be recreated and passed on, whenever I feel like, long after my grandparents are gone. I only wish I had given up the ketchup spaghetti sooner.

Image courtesy of olga666flickr

Jaya Saxena is a born and raised New Yorker. This is probably the most important thing to know about her. Her writing has appeared in , The Faster Times, The Hairpin and Entertainment Weekly. E-mail her at jaya.saxena[at] if you want to know where to get a good egg cream.