By Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
KOLKATA, India-- How long does it take for a food from another land to become your comfort food, your talk-all-night with friends as you munch it, your sustenance when you're not well, your go-to, down-home, just what the doctor ordered, ideal taste? And not just chocolate, either (which could just be an immediate leap). As many of you know, I'm in India on a Fulbright research grant for my next book, Green Chili & Other Impostors. In the homeland of my family, I've been discovering a loop-d-loop of food history between new and old worlds, between the American Midwest and the Indian Northeast with stops in-between. And boy are there some fascinating stops. I keep coming back to one question: what makes something foreign and when does it cease to be so?
When soldiers returned to the U.S. after WWII, they brought with them a taste for Italian foods: mounds of delicious pasta lush with tomatoes and made with various sauces to fill the belly and perhaps warm the soul. These foods were foreign to most in the U.S. at the time, yet a generation was born with Italian flavors in the home and pasta became a beloved staple. Looking around my mid-Missouri world, Mexican restaurants are now flourishing even in small towns, and Asian pot stickers might well be the go-to for a younger set. So many foods were suspect for years. Foreign until they weren't.
Humans can't help it, it's not just satiation for us. We keep bringing ourselves to the table. Consider a predator in the wild. Would a lion ever consider a recently brought-down antelope and pause to wonder if the taste was a good as mom's kill? Those of us considered homo sapiens, or even the partial Neanderthals among us (but that's another topic), are hard-wired to memory and it constantly affects what's on the plate.
Looking at food trails this year, it's clear that the common chili, routed to India from South America via the Portuguese with Vasco da Gama around 1498, became intrinsic to cuisine--so much so that when I mention the title of my book, some lift eyebrows with a hint of confusion. Impostor chili? After 500-plus years, chili connects here now. What is splendid is that I mostly do, too, in much less time than I might have, considering my circuitous route to India and that I had to learn my way around a thali*.
The journey for me has been far, far greater than the sum of its simple parts--airline ticket, apartment lease, money exchange--in the way that a meal at a special time in a special place with a special person can be. Memorable. Nearly as good as mom's. Well worth taking the personal leap of faith. I'll be back writing the essays in this blog once I'm State-side. There's much more to come, and a book, and a textile project for women's education I've just got to tell you about. My suspicion is, it's going to be leaps of faith continuously. Such a fine thing, this gift of time has been. My cup is overflowing with gratitude, my platter is filled. And my memory, I sincerely hope, will be bringing all that and more to the table.
*Thali, as used here, is an Indian-style meal made up of a selection of several dishes served on a platter.