Migrating from Rotis to Sandwiches (and back)

By Janika Oza

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been stuck between fondness and shame for the food my family makes. The memories are familiar: my mother rolling out thepla—Gujurati flatbreads—for dinner. Her sleeves are rolled up to the elbow, revealing slender arms and strong wrists, moving with ease. She kneads spices into the dough with expert hands, folding in the cumin and coriander, cooking the soft discs on the stovetop until brown spots speckle their surface. I can hear oil hissing, see the mustard seeds as they begin to dance. My mother knows exactly how long to let them pop before stirring in shredded cabbage and green chilies, dished out alongside yellow daal and pickled mango. Last, always, comes a spoonful of plain yogurt, tangy and thick to cut the spice.

By my mother’s careful calculations, there was always enough left over for our lunches the next day. I remember this too: the small cylinder of tin foil in my lunchbox. Unraveled, there sits a turmeric sun against its aluminum sky: thepla, round and golden, streaked green with shreds of fenugreek leaves and red with chili powder. I can taste my mother’s love stirred in to every bowl of daal, folded into each carefully rolled roti. But the memory of what would come next is also familiar: the chorus of, ‘what is that?’ and ‘what smells weird?’, the upturned noses and the shame of noticing that my fingers were stained slightly yellow as I later scratched out problems in math class. Sometimes I wouldn’t eat at all, sending the foil package back in my lunchbox, not thinking of how this might hurt my mom.

This is not just my story. Immigrants and children of immigrants know this all too well: the fragrance and flavours of home, at once comforting and alienating, stirring up juvenile controversy as fast as my mother could stir chilies into a pot of daal. Together, the contents of our lunches could have formed an around the world buffet without having to travel farther than the cafeteria of an elementary school in Toronto. Come visit and you’d see the Greek spanakopita laced with salty feta, the mutton biryani redolent of garlic, the Korean fried rice glowing red with kimchi. But peer between these dishes and you’d also find something less known—the fusion cuisine, blending traditional with something else, with what we could find at the grocery stores, a hopeful approximation of a classic recipe. These are the kebabs cushioned between white hot dog buns, the noodles slick with ketchup and soy sauce, the rotis spread thick with a cloud of cream cheese. The foods that do not sit comfortably in old or new homes, but have chosen to borrow from both.

Each morning before school, all of these dishes were packed into paper and plastic, waiting for their moment of glory—lunch hour. I see now that this was a way of showing love; that when my mother’s first question to me after school was “did you eat your lunch today?”, she was also saying, ‘do you feel nourished?’ or perhaps just, ‘I will take care of you.’ The warmth with which my mother prepared her food was not lost on me, but neither were my classmates’ comments. One day I asked my mom to stop giving me thepla and roti for lunch. I wanted to trade them in for sandwiches: clean, simple, ordinary. When I asked, her face grew small like a fist. But she started sending me to school with cheese sandwiches—American cheddar and whole wheat bread. I ate these daily, feeling Canadian, and therefore accepted. I saved my Indianness for after school, when my family ate together at home with our fingers.

My favourite meals come from deep within my mother’s knowledge of cooking. Foods like handvo, from Gujarat—a thick savoury cake made of lentil flour, grated carrots and zucchini, sprinkled with scorched curry leaf and mustard seeds, or upmo, from South India—semolina sautéed with green chilies and cashews to form a subtle and soothing breakfast dish.

As she crumbles a dense sphere of hard wheat into a bowl of soupy lentils spiced with cloves and bay leaves, my mother tells me that the recipe comes from her mother’s home in Rajasthan. The dish, daal baati, originates in a desert region in north western India. When I scoop the porridge-like meal into my mouth, I imagine my grandmother baking the wheat rolls in a clay oven. I think of her savoring the cloves, licking the ghee from her fingers as the sand rises like a red wave outside.

The first time I heard Indian food talked about outside of my home, it fell from the lips of a white girl at school. “I looove butter chicken,” she told me. “Does your mom make chicken tikka masala at home?” I had no idea what she was talking about. My family is strictly Hindu-Jain-vegetarian—the kind that believes eggs and certain cheeses are meat—and the idea of putting butter on chicken didn’t sound Indian to me at all.

She had said tikka masala like they were words she’d grown up saying, flattening the sounds where they should soften. Yet the vowels are rounded and graceful, and the consonants come from deeper within the mouth, at the same place where red chili powder gives its final kick. But it was more than just how she said it: her words exposed me at school, where I felt my Indian identity had no place. It was alarming to feel my most private self trickling into public.

Since then, I have watched Indian food become adopted, and even praised, as part of the popular Canadian food scene. The cheap Indian lunch buffet has become a western phenomenon, reliably offering the most palatable dishes for Western consumption: deep-fried samosas, oily onion bhajis, spinach paneer, and of course, butter chicken. These dishes have formed our greater cultural understanding of Indian food in North America. And it’s not just in Indian restaurants, either. I’ve seen restaurants smack “masala” onto the names of other dishes on their menus, feeling warranted in their delicate sprinkling of turmeric or coriander.

On Sundays when I visit my family, I eat the Indian food that I have known all my life, the kind rarely found in Indian restaurants. We eat at the kitchen table, using our fingers to scoop the vegetables, talking little as we fill up on the comforts of home. Growing up among very few other Indian Canadians, I was nervous to bring friends over for dinner, scared that they would be offended by the biting cloves hidden in our rice or the way the rotis keep coming, hot from the stovetop, a fresh one landing on each plate before the previous one has been consumed. I was worried that they wouldn’t know what to do with the foods I ate every day—that they might not even recognize them as Indian, their flavours and ingredients so different to mainstream Indian restaurant food. That even in my Indian household, perhaps our food was not ‘Indian enough.’

Today, when my friends want to go out for Indian food, they are quick to look to me for recommendations, some even going so far as to ask me to order for the table. I remember visiting an Indian restaurant for the first time in my childhood, finding most of the foods unrecognizable. I still feel the quiet embarrassment of my school lunch days, and I loyally tell my friends that our food at home is less oily, less heavy, more flavourful, just better. Indian food’s rise to popularity has brought to the surface my years of internal negotiation. There is a part of me that is proud that my people’s food is receiving the celebration it deserves, and another part of me that wants to keep it a secret, still sour from what I, and many other immigrant children, have to endure for it to get there. I wince every time another food blogger commends the healing powers of turmeric. It brings the most private depths of my identity into question, asking me where I belong, and who with.

When I moved to Boston, away from almost everyone I knew, I found a small Indian grocery store near Central Square. Nostalgia and homesickness drew me inside, and I felt at ease among the sacks of basmati rice, the plastic packets of glucose biscuits, the woman behind the counter who spoke in the same lilting way as my aunties. The intimate struggle of my identity rose back to the surface, but this time I saw it as something else: a simple gratitude that I belong to a community much larger than myself. I have found Indian food in the most unlikely of places: in a food court in Buffalo, an Indo-Caribbean fusion café in the Cayman Islands, and in a curry house in Scotland run by an older Gujurati couple who gently reminded me that others have been negotiating their identities for much longer than I have.

In each of these places, I was brought back to the same truth. My people, wherever we are, love to eat. We cook for comfort and necessity. Our food, our flavours, migrate with us, from East Africa to the Caribbean to Canada, adapting to new climates and audiences. Our recipes carry within them complex stories of colonization and diaspora, of having to persist in strange lands, of building community wherever we find ourselves. It speaks to a long history of survival, of making it work-a struggle that both is and isn’t mine. However different the food may be, its spine remains the same. Its existence is a testament to how expansive and strong our communities can be, sustaining across generations and oceans. And though I may not always recognize it, my responsibility is not to disavow it, but to accept it in its changing form. Like my family, it withstands migrations, negotiations. Like us, it is resilient-it survives.

Dinners with my family are much the same as they used to be: all of us around the kitchen table, quietly sharing in the warmth of the food, the familiar smells, the nostalgia of old homes and the pride in building new ones. Some things, too, have changed. My mother has tapped into health trends and has forgone white basmati rice, now exclusively making brown rice to eat alongside our daal. My brother and I help her cook, rolling rotis and peeling ginger as we try to learn from her expertise. I think about the mainstream Indian restaurants that feel so different to my home, to the culinary truths we find in our family kitchens. I’m starting to recognize that these two truths can coexist, and that my participation in one doesn’t require me to surrender my allegiance to the other. That Indian food, in all its iterations, is essential to my identity, no matter where I’m enjoying it, and that the tenderness folded into my mother’s food will always travel with me.

Janika Oza is an writer and educator living in Toronto. Her work is published/forthcoming in Homonym Journal and The Ethnic Aisle, and she is a recipient of the VONA/Voices Fellowship.