Eating in Translation

What happens when centuries-old vegetarian traditions are transported across oceans
Illustration by Jess Cruickshank

I’ve been vegetarian my whole life. So have my parents. My younger brother. My aunts, uncles, and cousins. It’s usually one of the first things others learn about us. At restaurants, my father announces to the waiter, “No meat. No fish. No chicken broth — we’re strict vegetarians.” At sandwich shops, I timidly ask workers behind the counter to change their gloves. It was big news when my aunt discovered that Starburst candy contained gelatin. I was personally more upset when we had to stop ordering panna cotta for the same reason. (Off the record, I did try a small bite of chicken from my friend’s lunchbox during a particularly subversive moment in second grade.)

Though I was born and raised in Racine, Wis., I trace my vegetarianism to Machilipatnam, India. It’s a port city that sits on the northeastern coast of Andhra Pradesh — one of the five states that comprise South India. My parents were both born there and grew up in close proximity to each other. They were both Hindu Brahmin, and grew up eating the same foods. In India, diet is largely determined by religion. Some religions, like Jainism, rigidly prescribe when, where, and how to eat. The Purusarthasiddhyupaya, one of the central texts of Jainism, specifically warns against eating after sunset. While other religions, like Hinduism, provide a looser set of stipulations.

None of the major Hindu scriptures explicitly forbid the consumption of meat. “See yourself in all creatures and in all creatures see yourself,” my father translates from the Hindu scripture, Bhagavad Gita. Over centuries of interpretation and the influence of non-violent philosophies like Buddhism, that idea has manifested, in part, as a cultural glorification of vegetarianism. In the process, producing a plant-based culinary canon inextricably tied to the religion, people, and land it draws from.

My parents were privy to this canon. They ate white rice harvested from paddies near their home. Starchy taro dug out of the ground and fried into crisp cubes spiced with cumin. Mango, picked from the trees while still green, and preserved with oil, salt, and fiery cayenne pepper. Chickpeas, harvested from bushes, dried and milled into flour, cooked in generous ladles of clarified butter and sugar, and formed into celebratory diamonds for every holiday. When my parents came to America in the 1980s, they, like most immigrants, tried to carry over as much as they could. Quite literally, my mother lugged over suitcases filled with ginger, dried mango, and lemon pickles that my grandmother had carefully packed into glass jars. She brought steel pressure cookers to make daal and steamers for idli (fermented rice cakes) and small circular tins to hold spices like mustard seeds and turmeric. When she went to the nearest grocery store, she would look for suitable replacements for the curry leaves and bitter gourd she found back home, and would return instead with basil and potatoes.

By and large this was the food I grew up eating. Rice, eggplant sautéed with chopped ginger, green chili, and cilantro; and yellow split pea stew was a typical weeknight meal. On weekends, we ate hot white idlis dipped in creamy peanut or tangy tomato chutney for breakfast. To my undeveloped palate, however, the idlis were bland, the spices too pungent, the ingredients too random. And each time my mother prepared traditional Andhra dishes, she made a point to tell us how delicious the eggplant was back home, where the ginger, green chili, and cilantro were crushed into a fine paste under the weight of a mortar that remained in the family for generations. It was only on my first trip to India when I had eggplant blistered by the heat of coals, idlis my grandmother had steamed herself, and sweet tropical fruits like custard apple and lychee, that I realized how delicious these dishes could taste. It was a taste that could only be found on native ground. One that comes from cooking with homegrown ingredients in seasoned vessels and using timeworn techniques. Eating, with a pervasive consciousness of the spiritual weight of the food is also essential. To lift this food out of its cutural, religious, and environmental context renders irrepairable damage.

Over the years, we’ve found new ways to maintain our vegetarian diet. In our West Bloomfield kitchen with zesters, mixers, and immersion blenders at the ready, I make kale salads and cauliflower soup while my mother continues to make sambhar and lemon rice. Her dishes never taste quite as they would in India, but they give her something to hold onto temporarily. Over time, she’s begun to put Indian touches on American dishes. When she first arrived to the United States, she attempted to make charu, a spicy tamarind-based soup traditionally made with tomato and chili pepper, adding in strawberries. It turned out inedible. Since then, she’s successfully made cranberry chutney for Thanksgiving, naan pizza, mango pie for Christmas. These are the kind of reinventions that so many Indian-American families like mine find comfort in. They taste, to some extent, like things we’ve gained: assimilation, progress, and economic prosperity. But they are also crafty alternatives to meals lost in the process of translocation. Meals that can neither be forgotten nor ever fully recovered.