My Family Recipe

I Don't Need to Defend My Mother's Shrimp Curry

May  8, 2018

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more! In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish they've inherited, and why it's meaningful to them.

I did not learn to make Indian food the way I should have—knee-high to my grandmother, watching carefully as she toasted cumin seeds and flipped paratha over an open flame. I would have sat by her at the stove as she dictated how to tell when poori was perfectly puffed and not too hard. I would have been bullied at school for bringing curry and rice for lunch, and then, as an adult who rides in progressive, urban circles, I would be praised for carrying on a family tradition, passed down to me unbroken from a long line of strong, brown women.

But no: If I was eating Indian food, it was made by my white mother.

Photo by Danie Drankwalter

My first memory of cooking Indian food is being hunched over a sink, peeling and deveining heaps of shrimp for a curry my mom was serving for Thanksgiving, alongside turkey and cheesy potatoes and cranberry sauce still shaped like the can. I was 19, celebrating my first Thanksgiving with my mom and (new) husband, who was also white. They got married that summer. Since my parents divorced when I was three, this wasn’t the traumatic milestone it could have been. It was just a holiday dinner with family.

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The only difference was going to be the presence of a few of my stepdad’s family friends, who found themselves trapped in Manhattan with nowhere to eat. At least I think that’s what happened. The details are fuzzy, but what I remember is waking up to my mother preparing for more shrimp than I thought we needed for her, me, my stepdad, and his two kids. But this was Thanksgiving, after all, a time to open our doors and welcome in new friends.

My fingers went numb from handling the cold shellfish, and I briefly vowed to never make, eat, or look at a shrimp again. But I watched as my mom poached the shrimp in turmeric-spiced water, and sat at our counter as the house filled with the aroma of onions, garlic and ginger, the “Indian Holy Trinity,” we’d always joked. I was still wary of seafood, not having moved far past fish and chips in terms of what I was willing to try. I thought back to a summer on the shore when I was 10 and ran out of the kitchen crying at the sight of live lobsters being plunked into a vat of boiling water. But I couldn’t deny that this smelled amazing.

As we made a place at the table for our Bengali shrimp curry, next to the turkey and potatoes, a thought blipped into my head about our new guests, two parents and their daughter who was around my age. They were smiling and drinking and warmed the room with their presence. But did they know why the shrimp curry was on the table? Did they know who I was, where I came from? They made no mention of the dish other than saying it was delicious, no quip about how “unique” or “interesting” it was. And yet I felt the urge to explain: This is not a fun new recipe my mom saw in the New York Times; she’s not trying to appear unique and unconventional. She learned it from my grandmother, my Didu.

I was 19 and newly aware of things like cultural appropriation. I was used to people forming assumptions about my life. I wanted to correct them before they could start. I wanted to make sure they knew who I was, that I was not trying to hide my Indian identity.

Because my dad moved to America from India as a child, we rarely ate Indian food at home. He favored things like pork chops and pasta with meat sauce when he cooked, with Entenmann’s chocolate-frosted donuts for dessert. I learned from him that you don’t need a kettle to make hot tea, just a microwave, and that hot milk and honey was a cure for all my ailments, until puberty kicked in and brought along lactose intolerance with it. He loves Indian food, but it was too involved for his bachelor kitchen, and even with a bigger place, he was never taught to cook the way he would have been if he’d been a girl.

My mom often speaks of how she was instantly welcomed by the Indian women of my dad’s family, especially my grandmother, who still considers her a daughter, or at least a female friend worthy of daily phone calls. My mom was the one going spice shopping with her, taking mental notes on the consistency of dal, calling her when she needed a reminder of the ratios of ingredients. A few times, during family outings to Jackson Heights, Queens, I’d watch them talk about flavors, the regional foods of Bengal, family history, things no one else seemed to ask Didu about.

But I was a picky eater, which wasn’t helped by the awful stomach bug I got the first time I actually went to India, at a family dinner in Kolkata. I think it was a combination of tandoori chicken and multiple mango lassis that did me in. My mother would make Indian food sometimes, but I’d either refuse to eat it or reluctantly pick around the cardamom pods. It was food, not the stuff of my lineage, and her lessons were lost on me for a long time. Eventually, I stopped being such a brat, and when I wanted to learn how to cook my Indian family’s food, my mom was there.

I’m not sure why the shrimp curry was the dish that got me. Most people use Chicken Tikka Masala as their gateway Indian dish. Maybe it’s because it felt more special than that, more worthy of a Thanksgiving dinner than weeknight takeout. A dish like this requires patience, first to peel all the shrimp, then to learn to spot when the onions are browned but not burned, when the spices have bloomed, when the shrimp is cooked but not tough. At first it was just the flavors, the rich, creamy sauce with delicate shrimp, peas adding a pop of brightness in what could be just another saucy curry with unclear Indian origins. But later, I learned the dish was from Bengal, like my grandmother.

Despite growing up eating Parle-G cookies, getting bangles for every occasion, and referring to parties as “functions,” stuff my Indian friends can confirm they also experienced, I have always been acutely aware of the assumptions of strangers. Do they think I’m Indian enough? If I didn’t experience most of the hardships, did it count?

I’d heard stories about how most people thought my parents had a Green Card marriage. Both my mom and my dad were questioned as to whether I was really “theirs.” I’ve heard the surprise in people’s voices as they tell me my name “doesn’t sound Indian,” as if my identity is a secret I’ve been actively trying to hide—even though to other Indians my name is obviously Indian. At a doctor’s appointment recently, a nurse told me how beautiful she thought my name was, and when I told her it was Hindi, she told me how lucky I was that it wasn’t so long and complicated like those other Indian names. I was Indian-lite. She didn’t mean anything by it. Nobody ever does. But it was just the latest of a lifetime of reminders that people carry with them an idea of what a real Indian is, and I’m not it.

She didn’t mean anything by it. Nobody ever does.

My impulse, for so long, was to make sure no one could accuse me of hiding. If they couldn’t see this part of me on their own, then I’d make them see. I didn’t care if none of this had a place at the dinner table that first Thanksgiving with my stepdad’s family.

But before I could say anything, the chorus of ooohs and aahs as our guests bit into the shrimp silenced me. It spoke for itself. I don’t know if our guests wondered why it was there, but suddenly, I didn’t care. It was there because it was good. They could wonder what they wanted, but I knew it deserved to be there—a Bengali dish at my Indian-American family’s table.

I have since learned to make more Indian dishes, and picked up tips from both my mom and my grandmother. I fleck my potatoes with fenugreek leaves and always wait longer with the onions than I think I should. And I’m not fussed when I tell people the recipes I use come from my white mom. I am learning to let other people think what they want to think. I know this is ours.

Got a family recipe you'd like to share? Email [email protected] for the chance to be featured.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Fran Terhune
    Fran Terhune
  • beejay45
  • FrugalCat


Fran T. May 13, 2018
I loved your delightful, honest story. I can taste that’s shrimp......yummy! What a fun Thanksgiving. So very much to be “thankful” for.
beejay45 May 11, 2018
I really enjoyed this. It made me chuckle, growing up with very confused cultural identity, as I did. My dad was Norwegian and my mom German. But my dad looked Native American, and my mom cooked the best Italian food outside of a good restaurant. My best friend was Chinese and Filipino and was constantly annoyed by people asking her what she "was." With my dark hair and bland northern European features I've been mistaken for Japanese, Chinese, Black and Hispanic because of what people wanted to think. Fortunately, in my family we always thought this was hysterically funny. Heh. Strange family? But, anyway, thanks for the smiles, and the curry recipe sounds delish. I'm always throwing green peas into things so it's nice to see it's actually legitimate.
FrugalCat May 8, 2018
What a beautiful story! Your food is your culture is your identity. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

By the way, I am not a pea fan. Would chickpeas work?