| Arts & Culture
Food I Can’t Go Home, So I Go to the Indian Grocery
Each time I contend with the reality of another month—season, year—apart from extended family, I drive my ennui to Namaste Plaza.
Every family has defense mechanisms, its defaults for wading through a crisis. There are the talkers, who prefer to work out big emotions with conversation (or screaming matches), intent on filling every gap with meaning. There are the fixers. They’re partial to flowcharts, anything that helps propel them away from the frustration of just sitting there and stewing. Then there are those that fall back on tried-and-true deflection strategies to get through difficult times.
Food is my family’s diversion of choice. We’ve cooked our way through catastrophe for generations. To be fair, food is also our outlet in times of celebration, not just when we’re careening toward disaster, so it’s not like ours is the most discerning approach. But the kitchen is where we do it all: stake our claims, wage our wars, hunker down, put our bleeding hearts on display. This is how I was raised. It’s how I still show my love, my pain, and everything in between.
True to form, when the rest of the country was making a mad dash for toilet paper in March 2020, I was at Namaste Plaza, my local Indian grocery store, hoarding lentils. For the first time ever, I grabbed a squeaky-wheeled cart instead of reaching for one of the baskets tucked by the cash register. After a quick pit stop to heft twenty pounds of rice into the cart, I tossed in multiple bags of every type of lentil I could see: pink masoor, yellow paasi paruppu, black urad, green moong, whole rajma, split kadalai. It didn’t matter so much that I couldn’t remember the last time I had used some of these varieties in my cooking. Better safe than sorry.
It was only once I got home and was putting away my new purchases (many relegated to a purple-lidded storage bin in the garage because I’d run out of kitchen space) that I realized we were in fact low on toilet paper. Eh , I thought, surely that whole drama can’t last long. Stores will have it back in stock soon enough. Turns out, when battered by waves of an impending emergency, I’d choose dal over personal hygiene every time.
Looking at my pantry now, late September 2021, I have to laugh. A couple of bags of toor dal are still languishing on the bottom shelf, hidden beneath some other misbegotten impulse buys from last March. Ten days before California’s first lockdown started in the Bay Area, my sister-in-law shared a spreadsheet someone had forwarded on to her, a suggested supply list for the trials to come.
The whole thing read like dystopian satire: “Three-month supply of canned soup and beans,” it suggested. “Hazmat suit. DVDs and books for entertainment.” I rolled my eyes and deleted the email, but—naturally—a week later, I was at the Indian grocery, prepping for the dried-lentil apocalypse.
In hindsight, what’s surprising is not the “I’m slightly panicking on the inside but still playing it cool” trip I made to Namaste Plaza back then; it’s how often I’ve returned since. Before the pandemic enclosed our lives in a labyrinth with no visible exit signs, the Indian store was a peripheral stop on my weekly grocery runs. I love to cook, but my appetite for novelty on the plate has always been insatiable. I menu-plan recklessly, cramming as many possible cuisines into a single week of meals. “Indian-store items” used to be a footnote on my grocery list, likely to include a tiny handful of ingredients. On repeat were paneer (for the kids), Maggi noodles (for me, eaten over the sink late at night), and little bird’s-eye chilies (for life). Some weeks, I’d add a reminder to refill my supply of karuveppilai and fresh coconut; other times, a note to get chayote squash and a wedge of white pumpkin to make aviyal. I’d throw a Cadbury Dairy Milk bar in at the last minute, for the sake of nostalgia. Either way, I’d be in and out in seven minutes, tops.
My list seems to have flipped while I wasn’t paying attention. Nowadays, instead of breezing past most of the Indian-store inventory without a second glance, I’m slowing down. And it has less to do with what’s physically on the shelves, although I’m guilty of holding up a pack of coriander seeds for a longer whiff than strictly necessary. Each time we have to contend with the reality of another month, another season, another year apart from our extended families, I drive my ennui to Namaste Plaza. Much to our firstborn’s annoyance, I’m now cooking Indian food at least 50 percent of the time.
“Ayyo, your cooking is becoming so boring , Amma!”
In the absence of a plane ticket to Chennai, the food of my heritage helps tether me to the land and people I miss most.
Objectively speaking, the store doesn’t have much to recommend it. The overall aesthetic lands somewhere between blandly inoffensive and borderline chaotic. A television runs through Telugu and Tamil music videos on mute, and pallets of nonperishables block the aisles, waiting to be unloaded onto shelves. An almost-indiscernible staleness lingers between the snack and biscuit aisles. There’s a better-stocked South Asian grocery even closer to our home, but I decided a few years ago that I didn’t like the owner, and some grudges are worth holding on to. About fifteen miles further south are the bright, shiny Indian megamarts of Silicon Valley. If I’m really in a pinch, I’ll drive down there in search of more hard-to-find ingredients like vethalai and avarakkai. Most days, though, Namaste Plaza does just fine by me.
The food of my heritage helps tether me to the land and people I miss most.
Before Covid rendered timelines meaningless, our family of four traveled to my partner’s and my childhood homes in Chennai every other summer, to inhabit the spaces that have always been the zero-mile markers in our lives. These days, I’ve taken to propping my phone up against the kitchen backsplash on weekday evenings. I chat with my mother on FaceTime as I chop vegetables, wishing I could reach through the screen and smooth the lines of worry that cross her forehead when I look less cheery than normal. She oohs and aahs as she watches the simmering contents on the burner come together. On days when I make recipes she would typically prepare for us on our biannual visits, she becomes more businesslike, obsessing over the minutiae that make them taste just right.
“Was there oil on the plate when you steamed the usili? Why don’t you try that technique I told you; your beans don’t look green enough.”
For as long as I have cooked, I’ve relied on my parents to give my Indian food its seal of authenticity: my mother (and her mother) for ingredients, recipes, and instruction, my father’s exacting palate for approval. What does it mean that he hasn’t tasted anything I’ve made in almost three years? What does it mean for my mother to only share her kai manum—quite literally the fragrance of her hands , her easy expertise in the kitchen—through a screen? As we mourn our inability to touch and feel one another, what else has been lost?
I’ve spent a lot of time humming “you can’t go home again” under my breath, but also wrestling with exactly what I mean when I think of home. For years, I’ve insisted (mostly to myself) that home is Chennai. That despite how far life may have taken me, my heart knows its way back to the whitewashed house in Raja Annamalai Puram and to Marina Beach, to where it belongs. But I need to remind myself that the home I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. The structure still stands, but my parents moved out a few years ago, to an apartment that suits them better and makes them happier.
The last time I visited in 2018, my father and I took a walk down once-familiar streets so I could look at the old house again. He unlocked the gate, and we watched the crows fly overhead, the garden drenched in early morning light. The coconut trees looked smaller than when I’d picnicked under their shade as a child. I crossed over to the front porch and spent several minutes leaning against the broad cement banister where I’d spent so much of my teenage years reading, daydreaming, and on the phone with friends. I couldn’t bring myself to go inside.
This house contained my entire childhood; if I released the memories, would I be able to gather them up again?
I’ve spent exactly one half of my life in India and the other in the United States. Most days, I feel like an Indian living in America. But every time I cross an ocean and get off the plane in Chennai, I instantly transform into an American in India. With every remark about “how different everything looks now,” each contemporary cultural reference that is lost on me, I’m reminded of my status as an outsider, a visitor even when I’m home.
Usually even more unsettling is the return trip to the States. After twenty-one listless hours in the air, standing in SFO’s immigration line for “US Citizens and Permanent Resident Aliens” feels especially appropriate. The uniformed officer’s “Welcome home, ma’am,” is a shock to the system, never failing to bring on fresh new crises of belonging.
Chennai has been my tacit home for so long because it’s where my parents live, and also because it’s where my childhood memories live. But what of the people who actually live here ? My husband, our children, and our dog are the most obvious suspects here in San Mateo, but they’re not the only ones that matter. We’ve built support structures across a hundred-mile radius, local family and friends that have become lifelines and inspire pretty maudlin sentiment. Then there’s the house we live in, which I love and nurture so thoroughly that it may start breathing on its own someday soon. There’s Northern California itself, that has held and sustained and challenged me for almost twenty years. What are each of these people and places to me if not home?
But what of the people who actually live here? What are each of these people and places to me if not home?
Early in our married lives, my husband and I often played a game of “anywhere but here,” randomly calling out names of places we dreamed of moving to, just to see what could stick. We were renting a tiny apartment in San Francisco at the time, with walls so thin I joked they’d collapse if someone sneezed too loud. I knew this was where we lived, but I refused to believe the United States was where we were going to end up—to stay—for life.
Despite my every intention to the contrary, I am finally accepting my identity as an immigrant, “an individual who,” according to Merriam-Webster, “comes to live permanently in a foreign country.” I need to read the word permanently many times over for it to sink in. I can’t deny that there is a permanence to the lives we have built here, which the pandemic has only served to reinforce. Released from most of our quasi-obligations, we take long daily walks through the neighborhood, lingering over conversations with neighbors-now-turned-friends. We plot creative ways to gather and experience the outdoors. We have, rather unexpectedly, become road-trip people, zigzagging across California with kids and a dog in the backseat, a cooler of snacks in the trunk, and an always-killer playlist blasting from the speakers.
I would have thought all this hyperlocal living would have me restless, yearning for far-flung vacations. The farthest we got from land last year was renting a boat for our family pod at a man-made lagoon five miles away, a desperate attempt to do something festive for my husband’s birthday. It all felt a bit silly at first, but at some point, the joy building onboard became palpable. The adults popped bottles of bubbly, set out hunks of cheese and platters of cucumber and chutney sandwiches. Each of us took turns at steering as the early October sun warmed our backs. What was supposed to be a couple of hours on the water turned into an all-day hangout. After dinner and birthday cake, we bundled up around the firepit and agreed: We need more days like this.
“We should do this more often” has in fact become a common refrain in our lives since last March. On December 31, instead of the usual New Year’s Eve revelry, we cooked a “Best of 2020” dinner, where each family member added their favorite dish of the year to the table. Calling the resulting menu eclectic would be a charitable description, but still, I can no longer imagine starting a new year any other way. The pandemic has forced our family to build new traditions, and with each one, I find myself wanting more, falling deeper in love with where I live. I still miss my parents terribly. When I think of how long it’s been since I’ve held them, my eyes inevitably begin to sting, and the ache in my chest is sharper than ever. But I’m also recognizing, finally, what it feels like to be settled.
Over a meal of crisp green pesarattu and thakkali thokku a few weeks ago, our six-year-old decided to level with me. “Amma, we’re both the same and not the same. You’re Indian, because you’re from India. And you’re also American. I’m American because obviously I am. But I’m Indian too, right?”
I can’t go home right now, but perhaps I’ve been home all along.