The smell of onion, garlic and spices fills my noisy and chaotic school cafeteria during lunchtime. Today in my lunch, I have basmati rice and a lentil soup with vegetables called dhal. Whenever I bring Indian food to school, my friends are always fascinated. They constantly pepper me with questions such as: “What is that?” “Is it good?” “Can I try it?” or “Is it spicy?”
My family is from tropical south India, where there’s an abundance of root vegetables and very colorful, juicy fruits. At home, we eat a lot of whole grains, rice, dairy products, vegetables and especially dhal. Both of my parents, although engineers, are great cooks, each in their own way. A typical dinner might include curried dhal with collard greens, baby potatoes and basmati rice or fire-roasted eggplant cooked to perfection with a bell-pepper-tomato-onion sauce in a blend of cumin and coriander spices and a side of baby okra curry with roti (flatbread). They are always experimenting with recipes that incorporate Indian spices into international dishes. Being at the crossroads of culture right now in the U.S. feels very familiar to people like me, as India herself has been at the crossroads of culture ever since the Silk Route.
From day-to-day life, to celebrations and festivals, to just maintaining health, there’s always a large portion of time devoted to food and eating in my culture. When we visit our family and friends in India, we are always welcomed with hot chai and a variety of homemade snacks, which is heartwarming and proves that even everyday food can be soul food. And one of the most prominent festivals we celebrate is called Diwali (the festival of lights). During this time, people host immense parties, shoot fireworks, perform poojas (ceremonies that include guests of honor) and prepare lots and lots of food. And even on “normal” days (or especially when I’m sick), foods prepared with ingredients such as turmeric and ginger help create well-being and promote healing. (This method of natural healing where diet plays a major role in health is part of ayurvedic medicine, where ingredients such as herbs and tree bark are used to prevent and even cure diseases.)
Some of my friends feel that eating a vegetarian diet is only to stay healthy and maintain weight, but it probably means I’m missing out on some key flavors and foods. Even though I don’t eat meat, I believe that I still get all the different flavors and textures, and I never feel left out. When we go grocery shopping, for example, the entire cart is filled with different types of produce—including several greens—and it’s very colorful! My friends and I have very different cultures and we all eat differently, but their cultures surround me and I get to experience them through their food and our friendships. And they get to experience some of my culture through my food, too.
When I am old enough to cook and go to college and beyond, I hope to be able to continue my family’s food traditions, which not only bring satisfaction for the stomach but also for the soul, by providing nourishment, warmth and a sense of belonging.
By Shreya Ramanathan
Shreya Ramanathan is 13 years old and lives in Austin with her mom, dad and 10-year-old brother, Vedanth. When she grows up she aspires to be a doctor who has holistic knowledge to heal ailments. Among many other things, she loves food, especially potato-cheese tacos and her mom’s special jack fruit curry.