Indian

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

March  3, 2017

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.

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.

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.

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“Yogurt rice is not among them, but I have eaten it at an Indian freinds' and it is very good. Thank you for your story. We children of immigrants all have them. Yours is very eloquently put. ”
— judy
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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.

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 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.

31 Comments

Chris G. January 27, 2018
Rajasri<br />Indeed a lovely article and very enlightening. Thanks for sharing you experiences. It gives those of us who are 3 or 4 generation Americans a lot to think about, what you and your brothers and sisters must have gone through!<br />Chris
 
mckenzie March 6, 2017
This may sound silly because I understand that the ingredients are simple, but is there a recipe? Or proportions to stick to? I would love to try this! Yum. What a beautifully written essay. Thank you for sharing.
 
emcsull March 8, 2017
thanks for this, I thought I was blind !
 
Priyanka B. March 5, 2017
Lovely article! I enjoyed reading it very much! I am from Delhi and for my kids growing up in the US, Indian food should be just the homemade simple dishes - khichadi, dal, homemade yogurt, mutter paneer to be a bit fancy. In fact, the only thing they tend to like in Indian restaurants is Naan!!<br /><br />However, the experiences in India are different for this generation. The culture in India has changed to be completely western esp in cities like Mumbai and Jaipur. No one there even speaks the local languages!
 
Jonathan D. March 4, 2017
'Thayir sadam' is probably the only safe South Indian dish that suits my daughters gentle palate. She can't handle spice. Even now, she keeps a cup of curd as a side to eat along with my wife's spicey creations. My mom used to pack it for lunch almost ever other day during my school days. Its easy to make, takes less time, and tastes good, whether its old or cold. If its been few hours, add a bit of warm water and mix, and its good to eat again. 'More Milagai,' the black, salted, curd-soaked, fried chilli is an excellent addition to this. You can avoid salt, if you add that. I've seen Maharashtrians add pomegranate seeds. My daughter like them. Its colorful and goes along well too. By the way, curd rice is eaten at the end of a standard South Indian meal comprising of several courses. It's an alkaline food and helps moderate the acidity. Salted lassi is nowadays available in Mexican and Indian groceries in the US. Its a bit pricey though! We used to drink it from burnt clay pots....adds in an earthen flavor and is a welcome delight during a hot summer day. Then there is 'more khozhumbu'.....Ok got to go. I'm getting hungry. Thanks for stirring up old memories.
 
luvcookbooks March 4, 2017
Love yogurt rice and your story.
 
Author Comment
Rajasri N. March 4, 2017
Thank you for reading. :)
 
judy March 4, 2017
NIce memory. thank you. I am not Indian, but Canadian, brought up in America. Culture isn't so disparate as yours was growing up. But I do remember the differences at home and when I went out, or to a friends. I am now 60, and those differences are still just as strong. I, too have memories of Indian foods. My mother, though not indian, and not a cook. loved them. So we had British versions of Northern Indian food.. As a middle aged adult, I have attempted to learn to cook some Indian dishes. Yogurt rice is not among them, but I have eaten it at an Indian freinds' and it is very good. Thank you for your story. We children of immigrants all have them. Yours is very eloquently put.
 
Ivy March 3, 2017
Have to admit it one of my favorites. I'm from Bangalore another South Indian city. I am a Parsi - mum was brought up in madras and she has her own version of 'curd rice'. Insists the curry leaves have to be fried in the oil FIRST!! 😊 But whichever way it's made it is the most delicious dish. My mum is 94 and dad is 102 and still eat it everyday at their home. Would love to have your mum's version Please !! Beautifully written. Thank you.
 
Author Comment
Rajasri N. March 4, 2017
Thank you for reading! I never thought much about the order of ingredients--though I know my mom definitely has one that she follows anytime she tempers for anything(rasam, sambar etc.). I always do mustard seeds first in the oil and everything else for about 10/15 seconds after they crackle but have no idea where I learned this.
 
Whiteantlers March 3, 2017
Thank you for a beautiful and touching article that brought tears to my eyes.
 
Author Comment
Rajasri N. March 4, 2017
Thank you for such a nice compliment. This is the reason that I write.
 
Shalini March 3, 2017
Thanks for an eloquent and honest look at yogurt rice, and your feelings about Indian food and cooking! After almost 42 years, I've not reconciled my identity either, it's a struggle I suspect is lifelong for many second-generation Americans and Canadians.
 
Author Comment
Rajasri N. March 4, 2017
Thank you so much for your kind words. And I definitely agree. To be honest, I'm not even sure if we are meant to in a specific way at this point.
 
E March 3, 2017
Your childhood experience was mine too, so thank you for writing into words what I have always been unable to tell people :) So thoughtful and well written.
 
Author Comment
Rajasri N. March 4, 2017
Thank you so much for reading this. :)
 
Annada R. March 3, 2017
Lovely piece, Rajasri! Resonated with me all the more because yogurt rice is unquestionably my favorite comfort food too. Though the fancy kind with tadka of green chile peppers, curry leaves is always welcome, the contentment that comes from simple yogurt, white rice and pinch of salt is out of the world. Then in my family we have people taking sides between sour yogurt, fresh yogurt, warm white rice and leftover rice to make yogurt rice.
 
Author Comment
Rajasri N. March 4, 2017
Thank you! When I make it for myself it is always the "fancier" version but when I visit my parents nothing beats just rice, yogurt and salt. For me it is always leftover rice and my mom's homemade yogurt.
 
Panfusine March 3, 2017
Anyone who mentions Yogurt rice has my lifelong admiration.. May be getting forgetful with age, but Amanda Hesser's head notes in the red NY Times cook book on this dish is seared & branded into my memory!
 
Author Comment
Rajasri N. March 3, 2017
Thank you so much for reading this!
 
Poobathy March 3, 2017
Well..! My thoughts exactly. As a transplant from Tamilnadu we eat mostly eat vegetarian unlike our neighbors from Kerala or AP. Tamil cuisine is unique that has no items such as beef/beefalo or Gongura or kovakai...
 
Author Comment
Rajasri N. March 3, 2017
Gongura is my absolutely favourite and so special. My parents used to grow it in the side yard of our home in North Carolina and we would spend the summer picking leaves and making pickle that they would give to friends and sell at temple auctions. To me it is second best only to baby mango pickle.
 
Author Comment
Rajasri N. March 3, 2017
*absolute
 
Panfusine March 3, 2017
Baby mangoes btw are in peak season here in NJ (ridiculously early, they never showed up before April before).. brining two lots and currently cleaning a third batch to pickle<br />
 
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Rajasri N. March 3, 2017
Omg I had no idea you could even find them here. I'm lucky because my mom just came back from India in December and gave me a lot of brined babies from Ambika. I haven't put them in chili yet though. I might have to ask you for your technique!
 
Panfusine March 3, 2017
Its here on Food52..<br />https://food52.com/recipes/17477-pickled-baby-mangoes-in-a-chile-mustard-sauce-vadu-mangai?preview=true
 
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Rajasri N. March 4, 2017
Just saved this! Will definitely come in handy. Thank you. :)
 
AntoniaJames March 3, 2017
Beautiful, thoughtful and insightful essay. Thank you for writing and sharing this. ;o)
 
Author Comment
Rajasri N. March 3, 2017
Thank you so much for these kind words.
 
Matilda L. March 3, 2017
Thank you for this lovely article, which reminded me so much of my own childhood, growing up as first generation Canadians to Southern Chinese parents. I don't think I've ever reconciled being Chinese and North American, and maybe it's easier not to as an East Asian woman. I would certainly be out of place in Hong Kong (where my parents grew up) and my Cantonese is halting, but I also don't feel entirely at home on this continent, either. Maybe in my Canadian-ness, I'm just resigned to being forever never quite here and never quite there.
 
Author Comment
Rajasri N. March 3, 2017
This is eloquently said and exactly how I think a lot of us first generation kids feel. :)