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The Many Flavours Of Being Indian

27/03/2016 9:00 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Spices and herbs in metal bowls and wooden spoons. Food and cuisine ingredients.

Today, thousands of young professionals build their careers in cities where they were not born or raised. A study conducted by LinkedIn in 2014 found that Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai and Gurgaon are the top cities recruiting young talent from across India.

I hope such transplantation has led to greater exposure to and appreciation of different regional cuisines, customs and languages. In fact, many Indians who leave home for further study or job opportunities first experience India's linguistic and culinary diversity on foreign soil.

Before leaving for the United States as a graduate student, I had never lived outside Kolkata. As a new graduate student in Florida, I experienced India's diversity for the first time. What I write next is my personal experience. I have changed names and states of origin not because my friends can get offended but because my experience was not a unique one. Most students from India can attest to similar experiences.

Many Indians who leave home for further study or job opportunities first experience India's linguistic and culinary diversity on foreign soil.

India tends to rank second to China in sending student applications to graduate schools in the United States. The Wall Street Journal reports that in 2015, US schools received 676,484 applications from India. Most university campuses in the USA have Indian student organizations. Composed of students and led by students, these associations work as a cultural grounding for students who have recently left their country behind. The executive committees organize and celebrate major Indian festivals, like Diwali and Holi, and special days, like Independence Day and Republic Day. On the west coast of the US alone, there are two such organizations in Washington State, two in Oregon, and 16 in California. Members of the student organizations typically receive students from the airports upon arrival, make temporary accommodation arrangements with roommates, and help the new arrivals get their bearings in the first few weeks when the new country and a new academic system seem slightly disorienting.

In Florida, we were four girls from India and were all new to our new home. Excited and glad to be in our comfort zone (we're all Indians after all), we sat down on the carpet in our yet unfurnished duplex apartment and tried to get to know each other.

Once the dal was boiled and ready, each girl suggested spices for tadka, chhok, baghar, phoron... all meaning "seasoning" in their respective languages.

What language would we speak?

Priya spoke Bengali. Chetana spoke Marathi. Sunita spoke Hindi. Gayatri spoke Telugu. English was the only common language. Everyone understood Hindi, but only one spoke it fluently.

According to the New World Encyclopedia, there are more than 400 languages in India and several hundred dialects. The Constitution of India recognizes 23 official languages. The currency is printed in 15 languages. Any job application form is printed in 3 languages--English, Hindi and a regional language. Most of the languages have their distinct alphabets, scripts, and vocabularies and can be as different from each other as English is from Chinese. (In later years, I have shared the meaning of diversity in the Indian context with my American friends and colleagues. Many of them working in college admissions offices can't wrap their minds about the challenges such a range of diversity tends to pose.)

Now that English became the apartment's lingua franca, as in urban India, we turned our attention to apartment rules and cooking turns.

Why not cook together?

Two are vegetarians and two are not.

Gayatri--a strict vegetarian from southern India--does not know the taste of onion and garlic. She has grown up eating dosa, sambhar and chutneys.

According to The Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey, conducted in 2006, 31% of Indians are exclusively vegetarians. Their food habits stem from "inherited cultural practice rather than individual belief." While Brahmins in many states tend to be vegetarians, this study shows "regional location" often determines food habits; hence, coastal areas have more fish-eating communities than land-locked central and northern areas which have more vegetarian communities.

If language and food are essential traits of identity, then there are multiple ways of being Indian.

Since everyone ate vegetarian food in the Florida apartment, we decided to inaugurate our shared kitchen by cooking dal and rice on day one.

Once the dal was boiled and ready, each girl suggested spices for tadka, chhok, baghar, phoron... all meaning "seasoning" in their respective languages.

What would be the seasoning spices?

Gayatri suggested cumin and mustard seeds.

Sunita chose cumin seeds and green chillies.

Chetana brought mustard seeds and tomatoes.

Priya brought dry red chillies and 'panch phoron' seeds.

These were only four ways. If potatoes can be cooked in at least three hundred ways, as Shashi Tharoor writes in From Midnight to the Millennium, imagine the multiple seasonings possible to add flavour to an otherwise bland dal.

Soon enough Gayatri's mustard seeds and Sunita's green chillies locked horns. To dispel a gathering storm on the very first day of our comfort zone, Chetana and Priya called up Papa John's and ordered a large all-veggie pizza with no onions.

Bhalo. Achha hain. Bagundi. Good. The evening ended well.

This was my first experience with the multiple ways an Indian identity can be understood. If language and food are essential traits of identity, then there are multiple ways of being Indian.

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