The importance of being “Indian-ish”

Food is part of anyone’s identity. Through Indian cooking, I embrace mine.

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Sabrina Choudhary

Fusion dishes like chickpea tikka masala flatbread help form Sabrina Choudhary’s “Indian-ish” identity. These dishes are authentic but not traditional, just like her experience of Indian culture. (Photo by Sabrina Choudhary)

By Sabrina Choudhary, Staff Writer

There’s nothing like the excitement of receiving a package notification. A few weeks ago, I was delighted to get that email and pick up the large cardboard box my mom sent me from home. I sliced it open to find the black Chelsea boots I’d forgotten, my absentee ballot for a local election, an issue of our local paper and, most importantly, the Ziploc bag of Indian spices I had requested. This contained whole fenugreek, a cinnamon stick, bay leaves, some cloves and garam masala made by my grandmother (every Indian cook has their own blend, so my family sources ours from the master herself). There was also a pouch of smoked paprika, which made the whole package smell just like barbecue potato chips. Delicious. 

When I was a first-year, all of my spices and condiments came in the packets I took from dining halls. Now, I take pride in keeping my spice cabinet stocked. I have homemade jerk seasoning and a myriad of Tex-Mex spice blends my mom buys off the internet. These spices are recent additions to my collection. My dad, on the other hand, is an enthusiast of shichimi togarashi, and assumes everyone is too. I still have the bottle he shipped to me on a whim.

My dad is Indian, and my mom is Irish. My mom and I were content with letting my dad cook the boldly-flavored chicken curries, chhole, and aloo bhudjia that have been such a big part of my life. When I came to college and started cooking regularly, I became motivated to learn my family’s Indian recipes. These were the comfort foods I craved while away from home, and it was a way for me to have a deeper connection with my culture. Being biracial, I always felt like my Indian identity was watered down. As much as I loved Masala Times and the Kati Roll Company near campus, learning to cook Indian food on my own would help me claim my heritage. Restaurants and family members could never do that for me.

So in the summer after my first year, my cousin and I asked my grandmother to teach us a few of her recipes. She showed us how to make her famous omelets, little fried crackers called nimki and masala chai. My dad and her never measured ingredients, but she paused after each step to let me carefully record the estimates in my notebook. Over the course of my sophomore year, I slowly grew more comfortable with these recipes.

However, it wasn’t until recently that I realized my mom hadn’t been a part of my grandmother’s lessons. This seemed wrong. Though she was Irish, she was part of an Indian family for decades and appreciated the food and culture as much as me. She even understood them better than I did. I thought it was only right for us to venture on this culinary and cultural journey together. 

When I went home to Vermont last winter break, my mom and I resolved to gain confidence in Indian cooking. I bought her a copy of Priya Krishna’s cookbook “Indian-ish” for Christmas. I had seen it once before at an Indian restaurant that sold paraphernalia (books, stickers, Parle-G), and I recognized the cover immediately at the bookstore. 

I took that as a sign that I had to buy it. It was a classic example of a gift you give to someone so you can borrow it later — I sat down on Christmas morning and read the entire book. Seriously, I read it down to the acknowledgements and caught that Krishna wrote most of it in the Think Coffee on Mercer Street, right by campus! That was the second sign of our cosmic connection.

“Indian-ish” spoke to me on a level I didn’t know was possible for a cookbook. In addition to recipes, it contains anecdotes and Indian Cuisine 101 flowcharts. The concept is “Indian-ish” because the recipes are American innovations — authentic, but not traditional, just like my experience of Indian culture. Myfamily makes burritos with dal and chicken curry pizza (life-changing), and Krishna’s makes baked potatoes with ginger and aloo gobi grilled cheese. I was blown away by how much I saw my family and myself in those pages. 

Newly encouraged, my mom and I started out small: warm, roasted aloo gobi one night, then tangy, saucy zucchini the next. As we practiced, we encountered what my mom calls “the train” problem: when you make a bunch of dishes to eat together and run out of one, you have to make a new batch to reset the balance. Think of it as the chip-to-guac ratio on a larger scale. The cycle goes on and on indefinitely like a never-ending train. We chugged along on that train for a solid month after Christmas, and this from two people who had never pulled together a full Indian meal before!

During that month, we also made discoveries about our hometown of Burlington, Vermont. We found cumin seeds at our local health food store, and we realized that there had been an amazing Indian grocery store right under our noses for 10 years, yet we’d never paid a visit. 

We went there for the first time and walked away with chaat masala, dal and mango juice (nostalgic for me, since I only drink it at my grandmother’s house). There was something validating about perusing those aisles, both familiar and foreign, and locating exactly what we wanted. Someday, I hoped, outings to the Indian grocery store might feel as easy as trips to Trader Joe’s. 

Committing to our project achieved wonders. Whenever someone in my extended family cooks Indian food, they send a picture to our WhatsApp group, and I’m proud to say that my mom and I now frequently contribute. On our phone calls this semester, she has even told me about cooking saag paneer and wanting to make her own ghee! It’s amazing to watch her empowerment and experience it myself.

These days, cooking my dad’s chicken tikka masala or my grandmother’s omelets in my dorm kitchen is a comforting reminder of my family and identity. I have a stronger connection with a culture that I’ve always loved but felt detached from, not just because I’ve gained new skills, but also because I cared enough to learn. I’ve never been prouder to be “Indian-ish.”

I’m already making my list of requests for my next care package from home: denim jacket, mason jars, mustard seeds. (Mom, if you’re reading this, text me!)

Email Sabrina Choudhary at [email protected]