Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Curious Case of Food and Friendships - Culture Diaries: India and Amrikka!

Ever since my arrival at the United States, everything has been a learning curve- a learning curve not only in terms of what I learn from this culture but in terms of what I see as weirdly different from my own and, how it probably affects my relationships and interactions. I would venture on to say that my posts, poetry and writing have all been a product of my socio-cultural and economic upbringing- they are my little snippets of cultural diaries and on that front, this topic is something that I have been sitting on ever since I came here.

Within weeks of having arrived at America,the initial newness of the physical surroundings and people diminished; customs, practices and people's levels of interactions started looming in on my now more-aware mind. I have been trying to keep an open mind to learn about new cultures and ways of interactions but some parts of how India works with its relationships blew me away after I realised just how significant they have been to my development. I keep running simultaneous comparisons between how things are back home and in my brief life here thus far- they have been a very interesting mix of emotions. The last year and a half has made me a more critical person, a more accommodating and a less pampered person. It has made me more of an independent woman that I was than ever before and I cannot stress enough on the importance of some friendships here. My life here has pushed me to discover pieces of myself I hadn't known about before- in some cases in a good way and in some ways, not so much. America, sometimes is the backdrop, a contrast that has been teaching me to recognise different scenarios and different ways of living our lives- how I have been living mine, what this culture has to teach and what really does work in my own culture.

In this piece though, I want to elaborate on food and relationships. You might not think there is much of a connection between the two, but good lord, there is! I'm not exactly talking about food itself in entirety but in the bonds that are developed over sharing some. Have you heard the quote about 'families that eat together stay together'? I cannot believe in that idea enough. I sit here at 3:00 in the morning writing this with a cup of hot chai and it only reinforces it. It takes me back to conversational times with my friends and family, my own tea-master and our discussions. It's nostalgic, it's beautiful. Food does that to us- it brings all our senses together to that particular time, it helps us be in the moment more than anything else. Think about your last meal together with someone when you/your friend didn't look at your respective phones? When was it? What did you guys talk about?

I would assume it's easier to remember if the scenario existed because we are completely engaged in the conversation. We remember what we ate, we remember the music and the sounds of the cutlery, we remember the smell, we remember the way our food felt and we remember what we see. All this is logged in to our memory because we decided to have a good, mentally stimulating conversation over something physically nourishing to the body. This is the time for our body and soul combined! This is also one of the chief reasons I have ever invited the few people that I consider to be important to me in this country to come over to my apartment and share a cup of chai with me, if nothing else.

Eating together isn't necessarily something that builds relationships within family members but it extends to relationships outside home, too. I firmly believe in the concept that people who eat together build better relationships. When I was much younger, family dinners were accompanied by the radio in the background (we didn't have a fancy TV with fancy programmes on it) and absolutely delicious comfort food by my mother. I had this habit of reading books while eating which my parents never encouraged. I think about it now and am glad they did that (Now, I reflect on how televisions are ruining that time together. Me... I was content with the radio). That dinner etiquette stops me from listening to music or cordoning someone off by indulging in a personal activity when I have a meal with someone around me- it's the first space in my culture where I learnt to invite someone in.

On the large too, the Indian community and other Eastern communities are so organised so as to bring  the extended family together several times a year. We have a lot of celebrations each year for which we congregate to have large events and food (which we all eat together). The act of coming together to cook and eat is a wonderful concept, it's personal and it's important. We also have yearly rituals like devasam which are days on which members of the whole family get together to pay respects to our deceased ancestors. We have specific menus for most of these-we have aunts who specialise in each of these recipes and we all await food with the plantain leaf on the ground, all hungry. The men in the family help serve (as in mine) and it's the time where at the least 15-20 people sit together in a batch to eat as a family, jokes running about. In fact, devasam has its own menu in our culture that no one ever changes and we constantly keep telling the elders in our family about a change in menu because we get bored with the same food each year. One of my aunts says every year that she will have it written in her will that she will vouch for pizza and sandwiches for her devasam menu; it's a standard joke we all share each time. Post-death-remembrance is a solemn topic, you'd think. And yet, sitting together and talking about it with a pinch of lightheartedness and acknowledgement of our own temporal states in this world is pretty common and healthy, over comfort food and a congregation of people that care about you and love you.

And here is the thing, this probably exists in Western cultures too- getting together for meals and occasions, probably a little lesser given lesser number of major festivals that conventionally and culturally demand togetherness. But what strikes me as alarmingly different is what I find in friendship circles and peer networks. My friends from school (KG-Grade 10) and I still are in good touch. Many of us are in different parts of the world pursuing our own careers and we still try to keep in constant contact. I would think that a lot of it stemmed from our relationship blooming with sharing food. You see, when I was in school, I would generally take two boxes of lunch: one was for me and the other was for my friends. My friends loved my mother's rasam sadham and on many occasions, I've opened my lunchbox to find hardly any in it. We didn't ask one another's permission to have some food from the other. We'd all attack each other's lunch. I can still tell you which dishes are the specialty of which of my friends' mother/father. In college, one of my friends could take one look at my food, eat it and tell me if my mother or my father made the food. In a lot of cases where my dad would have made it, she would say 'Come on Hema, he has to improve! Tell him'. It was hilarious. I'd recount these tales back home and there is now something that connects my friends and my family before they get to see one another in person. Personalities and familiar affection already builds itself in. 

In my culture, you don't really refuse food when someone offers you some, it's rude to do so. I come from a nourishing, feeding culture. My late paternal grandmother used to tell us that when someone arrives at your doorstep, you invite them in irrespective of whether they're your friend or foe. You give them something to eat and drink, and then proceed to discuss matters. For some reason, it has stuck with me after all these years because I saw them all do it. I've seen all the matriarchs in my community nourish those who arrive at our homes. When someone is content and well-fed, you're going to have a more cordial conversation, I would assume. Every time I go to someone's house in India, the first thing I am asked about after basic inquiries about my well-being and my family's is an offer to eat/drink something. With some of my friends' parents it's almost no choice-- you are going to eat no matter what, if you've not had your meal yet. I see it as a manifestation of love and care. No one exactly forces you to eat but you are always offered multiple choices and when you finally deny it to a point where some of them might get hurt- you ask for some water so as to not offend the person trying to feed you.

What is actually happening in this scenario is that you are taught to accept the love that friends/family offer you. When that happens, you are letting someone into an intimate circle of your life- you are giving them the right to feed you without feeling like you owe them something in return. For me personally, when I let someone pay for my food, it's a step higher in our friendship. I would only do so with people I am comfortable with or trust. I would get the next cheque, I know. But it also means that I have reached that stage in the relationship where I am comfortable at the prospect of someone paying for a basic necessity in life at the time without feeling like I owe them something in return. Friendships bloom when you feel like you don't owe your friend something in return. This isn't a transaction (I still don't understand some of my American friends tell me 'I owe you one'. It makes me feel like an outsider).

Friendships and sharing food/meals go a long way. Some of my best friends and I bond over good food and amazing chai. Sometimes, I feel very lonely in this country because I don't have anyone to share some tea with. Don't get me wrong, I love my alone time and there are many moments I have been glad for no company but for some piping hot ginger tea and a good book. But there have also been those times when I'd sit on my apartment's porch hoping I'd find some neighbour or even a passer-by to sit down and have some tea with me because it gets that lonely. That is one of the things I have had to come to terms with living alone in a foreign country with its own values and culture. And oh, I wish it was a little more amenable on this front.

What I also find innately different when it comes to food culture is how rushed mealtimes are in the States. Eating food has to be a calm, relaxed time with your friends/family or yourself. I find the American culture of 'to-go' and 'drive-in's' a little scary as it puts people in a rush-mode. I keep spotting people eating wrapped burritos and sandwiches in their cars or at their desks, alone. I find it odd to sit in a room that has seven people with three of them eating at their desks, alone; because my first cultural instinct is to gather with them and eat together, offer them whatever I have. I simply cannot imagine not offering people what I have before I touch my food myself and even though I know it's nothing personal when my American friends do decline, it still kind of feels hurtful and weird to me-- it's almost as if I am not really friends with them because I have not crossed the borders of having dined with them.

Almost all my friendships grew with a healthy relationship surrounding food and dining habits. I tell some of my good American friends: in my culture, when you become friends with someone, you don't just become friends with them; you become friends with their family. More so, your closest friends become family. I can drop by any of my best friends' houses without warranting their presence in their own homes and still be treated as family by their own, be fed and have conversations with. You always end up having them. Sharing food is the first step towards inclusion in many communities. If I am seeing a friend's mother for the first time, my first instinct is to bring up something we can both relate to. Most often, it's the food she may have sent through my friend or a story my friend passed on to me. When I am my best friend's house and her grandmother offers us tea and breakfast, it's amazing to see how her grandmother gives it to us every time- she would have made chai with exactly the amount of sugar each of us take in our beverage. She tells us which of the two cups is for whom. Now, that is an intimate detail. Food is an intimate detail, you learn that when you start eating together. My sister has been away from home ever since she turned 18-- going from college to work to marriage and now, here in USA. I am spending time with her over dinner conversations after almost a decade now. She is highly maternal and makes really great food that I love. Sometimes though, we'd be having food-- my baby niece, my sister and I; with my mother on Skype and I'd take a small serving of a particular dish. My sister would insist on me eating more and would start commenting on how little I eat and how it is affecting my health. My mother would suddenly intervene saying that that isn't a dish I particularly like or that that is not how I eat/cook that vegetable. That too, is intimate knowledge. It takes a long time to understand what our friends and family like with respect to food. I finally have the opportunity to catch up with my sibling over mealtimes now and I believe it fosters a good, much stronger relationship. Similarly so, tell me: don't you feel somewhat happy when the waitress at your regular diner knows your favourite dish and how it's cooked, whether you take coffee with milk or hot chocolate with whipped cream? Why do you think that is?

This isn't just for friends and family. I would even go on to talk about my own neighbours, for that matter. My neighbours in Madras know the dishes of theirs that I like and sometimes make some extra for me. They drop by and give me some food if my parents aren't in town and I need dinner. My mother and our maid would sometimes sit together for coffee and biscuits after the work gets done. At my place of internship during my architecture days, the employees would sit together and have lunch. These are times that bring people together and it bothers me a little bit that eating is a largely solitary affair in this culture.

Mealtimes are mostly meant to be communal times, in my opinion. We would all benefit from sitting together and sharing a meal or even a cup of tea, once a day. Of some of the culturally different situations I have come to encounter, just trying to schedule times with friends to hang out and have dinners/a quick cup of coffee or tea has been the hardest. I wish there was more space in this culture for more on-the-fly, extempore meetings for breakfast and the like. The people I am most acquainted with and close friends in the country have all been to my tiny apartment in Columbus for a cup of chai at the least because I don't know of any other way to welcome someone into my life and personal space. When you meet someone outside of the conditions in which you would ordinarily meet another, you are planting the seeds to a good relationship.You are opening yourself up to more than you regularly do- more emotions, more trust and more conversations. You are generally less cranky when you eat and you have company, which is almost always a good thing. You tend to be more comfortable, more happy and probably more conversational.

I hope more of you start eating together or set aside time to have more in-person meetings over food/drinks than indulging in a solo eating affair. Tell me if there is some food from my culture that you want to try and I'll try and make it for you. Let's get together and bake cookies. Offer me muffins if you make some. Eating together is a culture I don't want to forget coming here (I don't mean to say this in any accusatory way, by the way).

We have little time with one another. I hope we can bond over chai and biscuits, not always emails/texts. I hope we can become good friends. I hope we can be friends enough to let myself ask you if you want to catch some breakfast together, if free, out of the blue.

Much love and the smell of ginger chai to you,

Also, here are some heart-warming advertisements for you to check out. These ads particularly work well with an Indian audience because these are all some real-life situations. This is honestly one of the best ways we bond. I would love for you all to take a look at these tiny clips and see what I am getting at! :)

And some interesting articles I found online:

The Importance of Eating Together
The most American thing there is: eating alone

Would love to know your views! :) 


  1. For my health, I have had to make major changes to my diet over the last several years. The hardest part about those changes has been the loss of my food community. Meals with family and friends from my childhood are now fraught with anxiety because of that lack of common ground. It's very sad and frustrating.

    Food is such an intimate experience. :)

    1. It is! I'm sorry the common ground is slipping away- I feel you there on some level.

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