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How I Warmed to My Indian Identity With a Sour, Cold Dish

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When I ask my American friends what foods they think of as “Indian,” their answers don’t surprise me: naan, chicken tikka masala, samosas, saag paneer. The standard culinary perception of Indian food in America is North Indian, mostly riffs on foods from the state of Punjab modified to suit an American palate. For many, Indian cuisine is defined by its uncommon flavors and complicated preparation, the delicate amalgamation of brightly-hued spices and precise technique.

But my favorite Indian dish is absolutely none of these things.

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Yogurt rice is boiled rice, yogurt, and perhaps a pinch of salt—as simple as its name implies. Its presentation, typically at the end of a meal, is far less glamorous than dessert. To the unaccustomed, yogurt rice is strange. It is pungent in scent, sour in taste, and gloppy in texture. Yet there isn’t a food in the world that is more comforting and important to me.

The Differences Between Northern & Southern Indian Food
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The Differences Between Northern & Southern Indian Food

As a child, my parents would force my sisters and me to go on long car trips across the United States. The six of us, too many suitcases, and a folder of MapQuest printouts would cram into a Ford Windstar with a busted AC. Though I can’t recall where we went or what we did to deserve such punishment, I remember containers of yogurt rice peeking out of the bright blue Igloo Cooler in the trunk. We bonded over the sour saltiness, shoving the grains into our mouths with our hands and crushing Lays potato chips to sprinkle on top, adding an American flourish to the existing garnish of coriander leaves, mustard seeds, and—if we were lucky—shredded mango and ginger.

Memories of eating yogurt rice are bright spots from a childhood that was otherwise confusing and dysfunctional. In the car we would fight and yell, but at rest stop picnic tables I savored the times we felt like a normal American family.

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Savory yogurt is vastly underappreciated
Savory yogurt is vastly underappreciated Photo by Tara O'Brady

My parents, immigrants from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, arrived in the 1980s and raised their US-born children with no mind to being either unequivocally Indian or American. The Southern town I grew up in had just three other Indian families, none of whom were Tamilian. At home, we spoke English, my mother tongue reserved for when my parents wanted to scold us or have an argument we couldn't understand. The family vacations to India, meant to bring us closer to our culture and extended family, were often just reminders of how different we American cousins were. In America, Indian-ness felt like otherness. In India, American-ness felt like otherness. My youth was often spent reconciling the two.

My mother's kitchen was different, removed from questions of identity. It was an unapologetically South Indian space designed to cook South Indian food. Emptied Folgers containers in the cabinets revealed spices I couldn’t even identify. The fridge never had anything ready-to-eat but was always stocked with boiled lentils and blocks of tamarind paste. The counters were covered in jars holding various iterations of mangoes, chopped and preserved in red chili powder and salt, for example. The drawers were lined with strange cooking tools—earthen kadais, oddly shaped ladles, stone grinders, and stainless steel plates, on which we enjoyed irresistible fried snacks made from scratch. In another kitchen, an oven might be used to bake cakes or pies, but our oven was used to set homemade yogurt, soon-to-be enmeshed with rice made in a steel double boiler. In our kitchen, yogurt rice was made daily, and I interacted with my Indian roots the most when I was there.

Amchur, or dried mango powder, is a staple in many Indian kitchens
Amchur, or dried mango powder, is a staple in many Indian kitchens Photo by Alpha Smoot

Now, at twenty-six, I don’t feel very Indian at all. My native language feels awkward as I twist my tongue to pronounce words correctly. I am unfamiliar with most Indian culture, and I don’t have very many Indian friends. Despite having spent a lot of time there, I feel indescribably out of place in India but very much at home in New York.

In the essay “If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?,” Geeta Kothari writes about how she cannot recreate her mother’s dal, even under careful instruction from both parents. It’s both a culinary failure and a cultural one. She later confesses she doesn’t even like dal anyway, though this admittance is coated with guilt. If she rejects something so integral to her Indian-ness, does this mean she isn’t Indian, or worse, isn’t her parents’ daughter?

My love of yogurt rice may be the most South Indian thing about me, but that is enough to validate my background. The kitchen in my Brooklyn apartment is much smaller than my mother's but still has spices I can’t identify and honestly may never use. I’m okay with this. My American accent cannot pronounce thayir or arici or kariveppilai, but I can temper curry leaves, mustard seeds, and chopped ginger. I can carefully slice green chiles and make sure to not touch my eyes. I can stir these ingredients with white rice made in a cooker and store-bought yogurt. The process varies, but the sentiment is the same. And in those moments, I am my parents’ daughter—because I am who I want myself to be.

Tags: yogurt, indian food, culture, immigrants, second-generation immigrants, tamil