Food and Family
by Aditya Shukla | 09.22.2020
What did you eat today?
This was the question my mother posed to me everyday of the four years that I was studying at Cornell University during our daily call. This was in part due to her profession as an endocrinologist, which includes the intersection of diet and medical health. However, the main driving force behind her asking this question daily is the role that food plays in Indian families and the relationships between its members.
Since my childhood, my family ate delicious, nutritious food on a daily basis. As time went on, I developed a greater understanding and appreciation for my mother’s dedication to ensuring this daily outcome for our family on top of her work, which often went beyond a regular eight-hour schedule. She had an innate knowledge of the foods that my father and I were partial to, ensuring that they were prepared and consumed at an appropriate frequency, and including them for occasions such as our birthdays. She retained this information for her parents, siblings and nieces as well, always remembering their favorite dishes. Though my mother specialized in preparing Indian food, she expanded her repertoire over time to include other cuisines such as Italian, Mexican, Thai, and Chinese, especially when we moved to New York City, a melting pot of cultures. Her embracing of these different cuisines showed me how food could serve as the starting point to appreciating what different cultures offer.
While I do not wish to generalize this as a common experience, I have friends in the United States whose families are from South Asia and Southeast Asia, who have shared similar experiences with me.
My mother’s attention and focus on preparing and delivering food that was both delicious and healthy was her way of showing love.
Though the health consciousness aspect might be unique to my mother, stemming from her research and work related to diabetes and obesity, her efforts to make food that tasted good highlighted the extent to which she cared to make the dining experience enjoyable to those dearest to her.
The role food plays in showcasing love is even more pronounced in my relationship with my grandmothers. Whenever I visit Mumbai, my grandmothers plan in advance to prepare all my favorite dishes. When I decide to eat a meal outside, my grandmothers display a hint of disdain, tantalizingly highlighting the food that is being made at home for the meal, hoping to sway my decision. One experience stands out in particular. Based on my mother’s teachings, I was attempting to cut down on consumption of carbohydrates three summers ago. Indian meals can typically include both rice and rotis (an Indian bread). I was trying to eat only one of the two at every meal
When my grandmother noticed that I was consuming less food than I had in the past, she insisted on serving me. When I protested the quantity of food, she looked at me beadily, as if daring me to refuse her cooking. She knew my weak spot: I would have a hard time turning down the dishes that she had made. Still, I firmly refused. My grandmother was clearly unhappy by my decision. After the meal ended, my grandfather told me,
“We were brought up in a different generation. Though we may be more expressive in our feelings than before, it still doesn’t come naturally to us. Your grandmother shows her affection by making your favorite foods. It’s good that you are being healthy, but you are only here for a few days. It’s fine if you eat a little more, as it will show your appreciation and reciprocation for your grandmother’s love.”
Actions speak louder than words. To my mother and grandmothers, I could praise their food to the skies, but if I did not consume a satisfactory quantity, they will doubt whether I truly enjoyed the meal. Since I am close to my family members, I am able to understand their perspective in instances such as these. It is important to understand the cultural context our parents and grandparents grew up in, to appreciate the nuances in the way they express themselves.
Though food is important in Indian families and the relationships between family members, this can extend to guests as well. Prior to college, if I ever had a friend over, my mother would express horror at the idea of not providing them with any food. As a result, whenever my parents have visitors, there is always food provided irrespective of the time of the day. This is a common practice in India. If you visit someone’s house, you are likely to be served tea or coffee, in addition to some snacks. It would be considered rude if the host did not do so. These values have been ingrained in me through example. While I will not be as insistent as my parents or grandparents when it comes to these matters, due to the generational differences, I will always have food to offer visitors out of courtesy.
In this turbulent time, it is imperative that we support each other. This begins with learning about and embracing different cultures and perspectives.
Food is a ubiquitous theme in all cultures, making it the ideal avenue for gaining insight and understanding. In some cases, attempts to do so will be unsuccessful. But in other cases, such as last year, when my mother invited three of my friends for her unconventional Thanksgiving meal, there will be appreciation, both verbal and in consumption, showing both sides reach out to each other.