Long Reads

What Happens When You're Allergic to the Staple Food of Your People?

October 19, 2016

I first learned I was allergic to fish when I was two years old. My mother had taken me to visit her parents in Balrampur, a village deep in the Indian state of West Bengal. For dinner one night, my grandmother had cooked us some macher jhol, a fish curry native to West Bengal stewed in mustard, garlic, coriander, and turmeric. As my mom fed me scoops of fish braided into white rice, my small body began itching with a vigor I had never exhibited thus prior, my eyes swelling to resemble two Luden’s lozenges. My grandmother, herself an asthmatic, noticed the onset of anaphylaxis and urged my mother to take me to the doctor. The doctor's visit confirmed my grandmother's suspicions: At that moment, he declared that I was allergic to fish.

I am allergic to a lot—dogs, Tylenol, the Hamilton soundtrack—but my allergy to fish remains the one I brandish with the greatest sense of pride, perhaps because I know it can kill me. I am the only one in my family to have this fish allergy. Better yet, I am the only Bengali person I know who has a fish allergy. This should make an object of anthropological study. There are certain stereotypes that the rest of India attaches to Bengalis, some dismissive and others earned—that we are uppity, self-righteous, and insecure. Another is that we love fish.

I conform to three of those stereotypes. Fish is the epicenter of Bengali culinary identity. Our meals orbit around seafood; in addition to the aforementioned maacher jhol, there's shorsher batha, fish in mustard paste, while ilish mach, a fish native to Bangladesh, forms the base of a great number of Bengali dishes. These pescaterian dietary leanings are constant across the porous border between the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh. There is even a bit of common verbiage, machhe bhate Bangali, a sort of mission statement for Bengali identity—Bengali by fish and rice. Your routine consumption of fish and rice makes you Bengali.

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Macher jhol, shorsher batha, ilish mach—these were all phrases I had come to hear casually tossed around my house in conversation, but I could never attach them to a taste or flavor. I would tether them instead to a fume of trauma, one that would rise from our stovetop and make my gums fussy. As I grew older, my immune system's inability to tolerate these allergens intensified. Previously mild reactions grew more unwieldy, and I would have to carry Benadryl with me wherever I went. Nights at gatherings with our greater Bengali circle would be terrible ordeals—any contact with fish would mandate consumption of Benadryl, sending me into a protracted slumber.

Macher jhol, shorsher batha, ilish mach—these were all phrases I had come to hear casually tossed around my house in conversation, but I could never attach them to a taste or flavor.

My family did not sacrifice their culinary habits to accommodate solely to my needs. They simply tiptoed around my allergens, my mother opening windows and confining me to my room whenever she cooked fish. I didn't mind. I would never want to deny my family a pleasure that brought them closer, in spirit, to home. When I was eight, my mother started to believe that I’d outgrown my allergy, and she followed one doctor's suggestion that she feed it to me so long as we had the appropriate medicine on hand. She made some roasted salmon for dinner, and moments before my expected reaction, I remember that I found its consistency was chewy and layered, akin to what gum tastes like as it starts to dissolve in your mouth after hours. This is no slight against my mother’s cooking, which is perfect. I had just spent years imagining fish to be a meat substitute and found that the taste was woefully unfamiliar to me. It was doomed to stay that way. I couldn't even swallow the salmon, spitting it out onto my plate as my throat began to stiffen and cut off my breathing. I haven't tried it since.

There I was, my family’s genetic rebel—and, by extension, that of my larger ethnoreligious clan. I discovered quite young that I was socially aberrant from my family's larger surrounding Bengali community. After my parents had gotten married in the early 1980s, they and their friends, similar newlyweds from West Bengal, traveled in packs and migrated to an enclave of suburban New Jersey. They all resumed the friendships they had nurtured back home, hosting weekend gatherings at least once a month. Their kids would become friends with each other's kids. I often felt woefully out of place at these gatherings, particularly with other young boys around my age, trying to coach my effete mannerisms into more traditionally masculine gestures.

I harnessed my fish allergy into fantasies of another life outside this Bengali universe. A bout of adolescent ennui even compelled me to wonder: had I been switched at birth? Where was the real Mayukh, and were his gums allergy-resistant to fish where mine weren't? Maybe I wasn't Bengali at all. No wonder I didn't fit in with these other boys. My fish allergy became part of the contrarianism I imagined was baked into my DNA; I would not do anything that my surrounding Bengali diasporic culture normalized. How convenient that I could scapegoat the very aspects of myself I loathed into a digestive inability to consume seafood.

I carried these rebellious streaks with me as I moved across the country for college, where my diet diversified accordingly beyond Bengali dishes. My allergy to fish had become neutralized in a dining hall full of wandering eighteen year-olds, many of them away from their parents' cooking for the first time. Soon, my allergy was detached from my ethnicity entirely, revealing a wealth of dishes I realized I could never experience beyond macher jhol—Boston's lobster roll, Maryland's crab cake, Hawaii's poke.

How convenient that I could scapegoat the very aspects of myself I loathed into a digestive inability to consume seafood.

The winter I came home from my freshman year of college, I graduated from Benadryl to an EpiPen. My family physician was horrified I'd gone to college without one, warning my dad that I could die if my fish allergies went untreated. I have never used my EpiPen, and I pray that remains the case. There it remains in the crevices of my backpack, its highlighter-yellow tip and transparent guard that collects residue as the seasons shift. I know that my heart will palpitate and I may grow sweaty if I do use it, that a hospital visit may follow. This all sounds awfully cumbersome, and I would rather not puncture a hole in my jeans, so I have resorted to stuffing my bag with a box of Claritin that I can pop instead. I am saving my EpiPen for when I really need it.

Besides, I'd like to show it off; nowadays, it's become quite fashionable to have EpiPen. On the exceedingly rare occasion I go to a group dinner, I am forced to publicize my dietary limitations to the whole table, who proceeds to make a federal case out of my fish allergy. Through this, though, I'll meet someone who has an EpiPen, too, and we talk about it. It is a form of flirtation, agreeing that it's funny that our systems are so weak that we both have instruments that inject currents of adrenaline to prevent us from dying. We usually trade words outlining our respective allergies, but it stops there. I don't press further. I suspect that they have allergy stories of their own, and I don't want to be there all night.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Sajid
  • FrugalCat
  • ChefJune
  • mizerychik
  • Panfusine
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Sajid August 27, 2018
Wow. I didn't know there would be an article about this with the almost same scenario as me. I am Bengali and also allergic to fish - although I can eat tuna (I don't wana risk dying to test the limits of my curiosity..). My friends joked and said that I'm probably the only person in the world who is allergic to fish and also a Bengali which prompted me to search others who are in a similar situation as myself.
FrugalCat October 19, 2016
My mom has a shellfish allergy and she is Jewish and keeps Kosher. She claims the allergy is to keep her from eating unkosher foods. She is not allergic to pork but chooses not to eat it. I did not inherit this allergy and have been enjoying shellfish (outside the home) since I was a teen.

Look into the Adrenaclick- it's a generic EpiPen and is a fraction of the cost.
ChefJune October 19, 2016
Wow, great article. I am like that with kiwi fruit. Even touching it might close my throat. Back in my catering days, I had a client who regularly ordered a Kiwi/frangipane tart. If I couldn't farm out the making of it to one of my staff, I would have to wear gloves while working with the kiwi. Thankfully I never had problems with the aroma.
mizerychik October 19, 2016
I'm a life-long peanut/tree nut anaphylactic who also reacts to soy and legume proteins. At least allergies are more recognizable now than when I was a child, and I'm eternally thankful I outgrew my dairy allergy. It's a stressful, isolating way to live, feeling that any incidental contact could send your immune system into a fit of panic, as if you ate a big bowl of arsenic instead of a shrimp. This is a great article, especially your detailing of how it's not just about not eating your food. Immune systems react to every exposure regardless of method of contact, and much of the conversation regarding food allergies neglects this point.

I'm not a doctor, but please keep in mind that standard medical protocol now dictates that any known ingestion of allergens (not just suspected cc or touch or inhalation) should be followed up by immediate epinephrine injection. Several people have died recently because they thought they were fine only to have their body go into shock 20-30 minutes later. Neither epi nor antihistamines will help at that point. I hope you never have to use your injector, but it's not entirely terrible. There's an immediate sensation of relief.
Panfusine October 19, 2016
Bengalis are uppity, self-righteous, and insecure? I thought that Stereotype was solely assigned to Tamil Tambrahms! Quips aside, A fantastic informative article.
Erin October 19, 2016
I've watched over the last few years as my husband has become increasingly isolated due to his allergy to celery. Accepting invitations to dinner is difficult because although they mean well, people often have no idea what it takes to make sure he is safe. Celery is everywhere. Thanksgiving is especially difficult because you want to spend it with others, but unless they come to us, he'll be surrounded by celery and left eating plain potatoes and pumpkin pie. Then are the inevitable ten-billion questions about his "weird" allergy and he isn't able to be anything beyond his allergy. Terrific article. Your work has been a great addition to Food52.
Mayukh S. October 19, 2016
Oof. Navigating a minefield! Caretaking is especially stressful in these situations, as my parents came to know. Thanks for the kind words, Erin. Means a lot!
mizerychik October 19, 2016
I'm sorry your husband can't find a safe meal; that really sucks. Anything beyond the typical top 8/10 that everyone knows is so hard to explain and get people to understand.