“But she can’t cook our food!!!” my South Asian friend mourned about his soon-to-be sister-in-law, “and worse yet – she doesn’t even want to learn! How will my brother survive?”
This conversation was my first clue about the kind of adjustments that marrying across a culture would entail. It was slightly shocking to me that food – something which had been viewed primarily as a practical necessity for nourishment in childhood (well, minus homemade bread, apple pie and ice cream) – could invoke such a passionate response. I filed our conversation away in my mind and pulled it out again in my first year of marriage to my Sri Lankan husband.
When we met, I had eaten Indian food once and wasn’t real sure what I thought about it. The most ethnic food we ate in my home growing up was chop suey and tacos, so I was a little nervous about the prospect of even eating Sri Lankan food. Thankfully, I ended up liking it a lot (actually even more than most American foods!), so we both breathed sighs of relief about my newfound taste buds. When we married, in addition to curry, I tried to cook a few dishes I knew (which wasn’t much) – tacos, pasta, casserole. My new husband dutifully tried to eat my favorite dishes, but he clearly didn’t enjoy them. It didn’t take me long to figure out that Sri Lankan food was his love language, and that curry was a beeline to his heart. Thus began my journey as a white-girl-turned-South-Asian-chef.
I first started cooking Sri Lankan food with my husband. He’d learned a few recipes out of desire to survive the land of meat and potatoes. Together, we mastered a mean chicken curry recipe and I discovered the joy of a rice cooker! Over time, I’d follow my mother-in-law around the kitchen taking notes, pick up cookbooks to study when we were in Sri Lanka, and linger in the kitchen when other relatives were making Sri Lankan foods. A lot of my lessons came not from the traditional western-style instructions of “Step 1, Step 2, Step 3”, but from just watching “a teaspoon of this and a pinch of that” and then tasting to see what we thought.
As I ventured into Indian grocery stores, I discovered the delight of frozen parathas and naans, 20 pound bags of basmati rice, coconut milk and ‘real’ spices (not the fake ones they sell for $5/bottle in the grocery store). This also helped me start to understand other types of South Asian food and how it varies among countries. Ultimately, I think I may have ended up cooking more like an Asian than an American – I don’t usually follow recipes, just throw in a pinch of this and a dash of that until it tastes good. I get slightly stressed out if I have to bring something to a potluck because I’m not very confident in my American cooking skills (though I’m working on solving this dilemma through developing my cake-baking skills. Everybody loves cake.)
Well over 10 years after my first introduction to curry, I’d have to say I’ve started to feel the same love for spices that my husband has. Their depth of flavor adds so much richness to food that it’s hard to return to a bland baked chicken breast with salt. STAY TUNED: I’m planning to post recipes for some Sri Lankan food soon!
What about you? How do you work out food differences between your cultures?