Growing up a child of two cultures, food is source of cultural identity: a way to hold on to my roots, a conduit for my mother’s love, and an anchor for memories. When I step into my mother’s kitchen, the fragrance of cinnamon, cloves, and cumin all take me to a land so far away, to the earth upon which my own parents took their first steps. Every meal that I have shared with my loved ones has become a part of me, and shaped me as a person. I am, you are, we are, a sum of our meals.
My mom made my lunches everyday, from my first day of school until the day I graduated university. To some of my friends that sounded ridiculous. I was spoiled, they would say, I needed to grow up. In my mind, I was just loved. Food has always been the simplest way for me to tangibly feel constant and unending love from the woman who created me. Today, as a grown woman, food is how I take care of people. My cooking is how I communicate that I’m thinking about you, your health, and your happiness. On days when I’m feeling alone, I make myself a cup of spicy Indian tea and I am transported to evenings at home spent gossiping and laughing with my family. Food is love. Love is what we are all made of; love passed down from generation to generation, in kitchens crowded with people and the spirits of our ancestors.
I remember growing up in my grandmother’s dimly lit kitchen in India, where she would feed me rice mixed with clarified butter. She taught me my mother tongue as she fed me with her bare hands. Each grain of rice went down my throat followed by the soft syllables spoken by my forefathers. There are foods that my grandmother and mother cook that I have never eaten outside of their kitchens, a consequence of growing up in Canada. The umbilical cord, which connects my mother to her mother across continents and oceans, is the food from which came their own flesh and bones. Going back to India now, so many new memories are formed in the company of close family and distant relatives, all surrounding meals steeped in the same flavours and aromas that were experienced by those whose lives ended long before mine even began.
All of my greatest memories involve a meal, whether it is simple or extravagant, shared with the people whom I love. I remember when I had my first slice of pizza, the night we landed in Canada as new immigrants. As a young child, I remember wondering what those weird tangy black rings were; black olives were my first taste of Canadian life, and I knew then that I was irreversibly changed. I climbed ancient Mayan ruins in Belize two years ago, but more than the views from the top of the historic structures, I cherish the traditional Belizean meal of chicken and rice with beans that I shared with my family and fellow travellers. Food has been the fulcrum around which many pivotal events in my life have occurred, and this in itself exhibits its importance in a person’s life.
Food is sustenance, so how can our breakfasts, lunches and dinners not impact us emotionally, physically and socially? How can the hands of the people who have cooked our meals not mould us? Every human experience has a chemical basis in the body, and food provides the substrates for these chemical reactions. I ardently do believe that you are what you eat, because I am what I have eaten, and I will be changed by what I will one day eat. Food shapes our bodies, our memories, and our interactions with the world and its inhabitants. I hope to one day pass on the memories and culture that the women in my family have fed me, along with fragrant curries and tender rotis, to my own children, who will be born and raised in a land thousands of miles away from that of their forefathers.