When my British fiancé proposed to me in the middle of the pandemic, there was one person who was not thrilled with the announcement: my 85-year-old grandfather.
I broke the news over a WhatsApp call, carefully timed not to interrupt his evening chai time in India. Thirty seconds into the conversation he commented, “He’s British? Back in my day, Indians would never accept ghau (wheat) from a British person, let alone marry them.”
It didn’t matter that my fiancé was British-Indian; the fact that he had a British upbringing, a loose handle on Gujarati, and parents who were born and raised in Uganda and Kenya (where his great-grandparents had immigrated from India) were all sufficient evidence that he was not a fellow Indian, but a foreigner. And not only a foreigner, but a Brit.
My grandfather was 15 when India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947. When he was growing up, his ten-member household survived on 15 rupees ($0.20) a week; this meant he ate whatever he could get his hands on, and most days it was bread and leftover spiced vegetables.
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He left me with these parting words: “The British empire controlled many things, but they could not take away our spices.”
I stood in the kitchen of our NYC studio apartment trying to contain my surprise at his unexpected outburst. It occurred to me that there was so much about my Indian heritage I failed to understand—and even more about my future husband’s.
As an Indian-American growing up in New York City, I was privileged to never experience a shortage of food or question where my next meal was coming from unlike my grandfather. Whether it was the delectable cooking prepared by my mother, the many rounds of appetizers and entrees various aunties fed me, or the countless restaurants to eat in or order from, food was a widely available commodity. With the pandemic, though, the hospitality business was forced to change and therefore so did what I consumed.
For one, my fiancé and I traded takeout menus and Seamless delivery for spatulas and skillets—apparatuses that had previously been collecting dust. At first we cooked different versions of banana bread full of chocolate chips and walnuts. Then we attempted dalgona coffee and tried our luck with sourdough bread to keep up with the latest Instagram trends. These efforts rarely included Indian food though. The primary reason was that it appeared too laborious, but I also didn’t know if my fiancé and I could reconcile how to prepare these dishes in light of our respective cultural identities and food preferences. He is an omnivore, I am a vegetarian (that eats eggs). He enjoys spicy food with a heavy helping of HP sauce found exclusively in the British aisle of American supermarkets; I prefer sriracha on the side. He grew up eating roast dinners complete with Yorkshire pudding and a pint on Sundays, whereas I went to the temple canteen in search of crispy dosa and coconut chutney.
That conversation with my grandfather that morning, though, inspired me to not only cook, but to cook with intention. I rarely thought about the ancestry and origin of the food I ate, but in that moment, coupled with pandemic’s devastation on the restaurant industry, I was forced to reflect.
So, we decided to learn and capitalize on the opportunity to create dishes that were nods to both our Indian and British roots.
The first experiment was “Indian-ifying” baked beans on toast. I turned to my masala box. First I toasted mustard and cumin seeds until they were dancing in the oil. Then I sauteed the beans in the oil, added a dash of turmeric, a tablespoon of garam masala, half a spoon of red chili powder, and a handful of chopped coriander, and garnished it all with shredded Amul cheese.
Next, we combined two of our favorite desserts—carrot halwa for me and English trifle for him—into a hybrid concoction complete with chopped pistachios, a popular element of many Indian desserts. (This was bloody good!) I adopted my aunt’s technique of soaking luscious saffron threads in rosewater before adding them to the halwa mixture, and my fiancé replicated his mother’s method of soaking the sponge cake of the trifle in sherry before layering. We eventually graduated to more complex entrees, adding our own twist to Britain’s alleged national dish, chicken tikka masala. Or rather, in our case, tofu/paneer tikka masala to accommodate my vegetarianism.
Over the course of the next few months we curated many fusion combinations, thoughtfully selecting and researching the ingredients and spices. Cooking became an instrument that both united us and informed us about our respective cultures.
History classes had familiarized me with Britain’s quest for spices, and the way its sailors and merchants had looked to India, a spice capital, to meet this need. I knew that the influence of the Raj was evident in many aspects of the Indian political and social infrastructure, but I was ignorant of how its influence affected food. I was unaware that the chutneys I enjoy with my samosas evolved because of the British fascination with pickles, marmalades, and jams. I was surprised to learn that the memsahibs (upper class, married white women) of the British Raj were incorporating Indian elements into their cooking, which evolved into the beloved curry, and which they carried back home to England. Maria Rundell’s 1806 cookbook A New System of Domestic Cookery contained an entire chapter dedicated to curries.
My cooking ventures made me question whether it was overly sensitive to see the impact of imperialism on food as a negative consequence instead of a natural byproduct of globalization. Simply put, I thought the marriage of cultures enhanced the dishes. Of course that is not to dismiss the painful and oppressive effects of Britain’s imperial relationship with India; as my grandfather’s story shows, that soreness is deeply rooted and unlikely to be forgotten. Yet, Anglo-Indian cuisine is one of the few positive things to come out of the otherwise complicated 400-year long relationship between the two cultures. The past can’t be undone, but the future—especially as it relates to food—can be transformative. Indian cooking has inspired so many chefs at the forefront of modern British cooking, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Tastes, flavors, and dishes can and should evolve, as long as they pay homage to the originals.
I told my grandfather about my Anglo-Indian cooking explorations, almost in an effort to relieve my guilt following the engagement declaration. I was hoping he would see this pursuit not as romanticizing imperialism but as accepting cross-cultural integration. His response was, “Good, beta, but never forget where you came from.”
Maybe I haven’t changed his mind; I probably never will. Still, this cooking adventure has taught me not only to appreciate and understand my ancestry, but also look optimistically at the foods that I think reflect modern India. Although classic dishes remain delicious, there is plenty of room for novel and fusion flavors to join the table. After all, the language of food is one that everyone is well versed in.