Independence Day 2023: NRIs Share Homeland Food Memories
Image Credit: The Modern Desi Co.

That food is beyond just a way of nourishing oneself is well-known; food is a mirror into the culture, tradition, memories and customs associated with them. Unlike other cultural mediums that are divisive in some sense of the way they function, food is in fact the only sensory medium that imbues a sense of community that transcends societal limitations. That being said, what we eat or we’ve been familiarised with ever since we were children, we carry a taste for no matter what part of the globe we find ourselves occupying. And like every other citizen of the world, our new influences, as we evolve, affect the way in which we perceive what has been bestowed upon us.

Given the regional diversity of Indian food and the parallels that are drawn between socio-economic influences and ancient traditions about the existence of certain delicacies, we might find ourselves at intersection points that draw inspiration from more than one source, even within a cosmopolitan structure within the country. This idea is all the more relevant in the case of Indians, who find themselves making a life outside of India, in a completely unfamiliar geographic and community set up, where what one eats is inherently bound to one’s personal identity.

What you eat is a mirror into the place you come from and where you eventually circle back to belong, once your purpose in the larger world is fulfilled. While there is a chance that one might not return to the soil that made them into individuals who contribute intellectually to a larger cultural canvas, it is the simplicity of these food memories that become the thread that binds them to their real sense of their roots. For Independence Day, Slurrp caught up with two Indians who’ve spent many years making a living outside of the country, in Australia; in order to shed some light and offer perspective on why Indian food is always going to be a key part of their ethnicity and how they continue to nurture their relationship with the homeland through food.

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

When Sudarshan Sripathi first moved to Melbourne in 1999 to work as a chef for the Sheraton group of hotels, Indian food was always linked to his appreciation for the variety of flavours and textures it offered. “It has prepared and provoked me to explore the gastronomic landscape of every country I have travelled without any fear of experimenting with flavours very foreign to me. I often use it as a gateway to understand the local culture,” he says, when quizzed about how Indian food shaped his approach towards what he went on to later experience as a result of his extensive travels. Similarly for Bhavna Shivalkar, a resident of Sydney who blogs as well as teaches Indian cooking to small groups of curious food lovers in the comfort of her home, her relationship with food evolved over the years from being something that she ate as a consequence of not having too many options to when she ventured out on her own and enjoyed eating dishes like pasta, tongue sandwiches or sorpotel.

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“When I started living on my own, food transformed into something you could afford. So whenever I visited my mother, I would have a craving for home food or more specifically, food that she cooked. I remember going to Tesco while I lived in the UK, to buy pre-packaged Indian food that served no other purpose than to fill you up. My relationship with Indian food really became a love affair when I created a home for myself in Australia and I wanted to cling on to the memories and tastes that were given to me by my grandfather and my mother,” she adds. Delving into her earliest memories of food cooked back in the kitchen of her parents’ home in Mumbai, Bhavna remembers idling by the stove as her father prepared a deliciously spiced, runny mutton curry, with ghazals playing in the background and sipping whiskey from a steel tumbler.

Sudarshan recalls sitting close to the stove, polishing off crispy dosas his grandmother would make, while not being able to remain patient for it to cool down and eat it just as it hopped off the hot pan onto his plate. What was most interesting to note in both cases was that, Sudarshan and Bhavna pointed out to simple food like dosa-chutney or dal-chawal when asked about what really brings about a sense of feeling at home in an unknown country. Food, apart from its taste, is also evocative of certain sensory experiences that connect one to feeling the comfort of being home. While in Bhavna’s case it was the grease from the mutton curry coating her lips, Sudarshan remembers the heady aroma of fresh coriander that was used to garnish the moong dal he first made, under the watchful eyes of his mother.

Call it the diversity of Indian regional cooking that both of them grew up exposed to, or simply the sheer curiosity brought about by the habit of being open to newer dishes, Sudarshan and Bhavna are self-proclaimed non-fussy eaters who are open to trying new foods, thanks to their upbringing back home. Despite having access to some of the best food globally, in the cities they live now, the complex nature of Indian cooking keeps them coming back for more. “Indian food is shaped by climate, land, and access to natural resources. The Indian food system emphasizes on eating foods produced naturally and that are in season; this emphasis is based upon a belief that in-season foods are more potent, tastier, and of greater nutritional value, although the year-round availability of many foods due to technology are beginning to change eating habits,” Sudarshan quips about the unique factor that makes Indian food stand out.

Moreover, their love for Indian food does not limit itself to what’s cooked in their home kitchens and extends to the food that they are yet to try from other Indian regions. Bhavna says that she is a fiend for Bengali food and would want to try as much as there is on offer, whereas Sudarshan wishes to taste the Sindhi sel roti and the thenthuk from Sikkim, as they pique his curiosity the most. What this really goes on to reinforce is that food has no borders and attracts curious minds, no matter how far they might seem to be, physically. Sub-consciously, we’re all bound by the aromas of tadka, the sounds of the stone grinder and the final touches of fresh green coriander dotting our dishes.