Maybe I’m a little sensitive after coming off of four days of international student orientation where “American food” was a major criticism—in discussions with the students on what they thought the biggest challenges would be in transitioning to life in Massachusetts “American food” was targeted again and again… “American food is so tasteless.”… “It has no flavor”… “American food is basically pizza and hamburgers”—
But do any of you sometimes feel like standing up and yelling, “Hey! There’s nothing wrong with my food!”
I get it—there is a big difference between different types of cuisine, and when you are used to one type of cuisine over another it can be hard to transition, but I feel like I try a lot when it comes to food (minus meat), and it is disappointing to me when others don’t seem to make the same effort.
I’ve heard the arguments before—parents are older and set in their ways, you can’t expect them to change, you probably wouldn’t do/try new things when you are their age. I guess I’d answer that I hope I’d still be ready to try new things even if I am my parents’ age. I get where people are coming from with the argument, but I can’t help but feel a bit defensive.
And the worst answer to the argument of American food versus South Asian is “Well, you have to admit South Asian food does taste better. It’s easy to transition to a different type of food when the taste is simply better than what you grew up with.” That argument is just unfair.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t something I’m going to sit and cry about, but after a while it can get frustrating. Sure, I’m not a gourmet cook making fancy dishes, but there are certain “feel good” foods that, when criticized, leave me licking my wounds. Like fresh cut veggies, or a flavorful cheese, or a crisp garden salad on a hot summer day. Or apple pie, or a fresh veggie pasta dish, or homemade pizza, or waffles and maple syrup—how can you dislike fluffy homemade straight-out-of-the-iron waffles and Vermont maple syrup??
“Not our habit” Mamu solemnly answers.
“The maple is too sweet.” Daddy adds.
I hear that a lot. American food is too sweet. Cereal, maple syrup, apple pie. But somehow American chocolates and Indian/Nepali mithai/laddu are not too sweet. I don’t get it.
Or I hear–American food doesn’t have enough flavor/isn’t spicy enough. I remember once I found my uncle’s recipe for guacamole and said to my Dad, “He barely puts anything in it. Where’s all the garlic, and chili, and lemon?”
“When you put all that extra junk in you lose the original flavor of the food.” My dad responded.
I never thought about it from that perspective before. I sometimes think about what he said when I bite into a fresh sweet corn on the cob, unadulterated by butter or salt, so I can taste the original flavor of the kernels. Do I use garlic when cooking like it’s my job? Sure, but there are certain things that are nice to leave simple and natural.
Yesterday after work, P and I took his parents (they’re back from P’s brother’s place! Did you miss Mamu and Daddy stories?) to the Indian grocery store to replenish the kitchen. Our neighbor D had made meat momos over the weekend and there was spiced meat leftover, so P/Daddy/D decided to have momo for dinner, which left the two veggies—Mamu and I—on our own. We grabbed pani puri fixings, but when we were in the car Mamu said she wanted to have pasta. “You will make, okay?”
I felt that the pressure was on, and the deck was already stacked against me since I know they don’t like “American pasta” that much (or really at all). The only pasta they like is waiwai or elbow macaroni fried with veggies and curry type spice. Once in Nepal P’s mom asked me to make her “American pasta” but that particular night P’s dad had taken us on a side trip and we got home really late. Mamu was upset that we all missed the proper dinner time, but rather than put the pasta dinner off for another time, she still insisted I make it. So already late, and pressured to cook fast, and using the single kerosene burner in P’s kitchen reminiscent of a camp stove in the US, I tried my best to whip up a descent pasta dish. It was “okay,” not great, but at least I tried. No one really ate it but me, and to be polite, P’s dad, and Mamu still insisted that P’s dad also have rice since “only rice make you full.”
When we got home I broke out the cutting board and veggies and started slicing. Mamu came in to help, and I ushered her out of the kitchen (“Mamu, tonight is your turn to rest.”) least she decide ahead of time that she didn’t like my cooking technique (she doesn’t like raw mushrooms. Even if mushrooms are going to be fried, she insists they are still “raw” if they haven’t been boiled first), or if she discovered the “Italian seasoning” I used… and ultimately decide not to try the pasta.
I’ve already heard a lot about how much my Nepali family dislikes marinara sauce. They tell me it has a “smell” they don’t like, and even P doesn’t like to eat it. Again, I don’t get it—they eat tomatoes all the time, and that is the basic marinara ingredient. P thinks it is the oregano, but I don’t think it has that strong of a taste (or smell). But anyway… I knew ahead of time that a “traditional” marinara sauce was out of the question, and an Alfredo sauce would be too “cheesy.” So I decided to make a sauce that was kind of “achar” like in its original preparation.
I sliced up and roasted several tomatoes, then fried some red onion and garlic. I blended the onion, garlic and tomatoes with some salt, black pepper, chili pepper, and a bit of water into a paste and set it aside. Then I sautéed green peppers and mushrooms in olive oil until they were super well cooked (as per Mamu’s preferences although without a “pre-boil”), and added green onions, green peas and dried oregano and “Italian seasoning” (“Uh oh” P said, “You probably just screwed everything up with that oregano. They probably won’t like it now.”)
When the veggies, pasta, and “achar/sauce” were ready I quickly fried it all together before serving.
As I was dishing up the food Mamu said, “It has nice smell.” Which I took as a good sign, although she also said, “I take little” at first.
She put a few spoons of pasta into her bowl and took a small bite. “Good” she said… but then, she reached for the momo achar—which had a similar base as the pasta sauce, but had ground sesame seeds, chili, and cilantro also blended in. It was a subtle way of saying, “It was good, but still not flavorful.”
I must have looked disappointed, because then Daddy, who was eating the momo, reached over and took a few spoonfuls of pasta onto his plate and ate it without the momo achar. He also commented, “It’s good. See, I’ll take more.”
When Mamu reached to get more achar to put on her pasta P and his dad said, “It’s good without achar, have more with the original sauce.” So Mamu tried again without the achar, looking up apologetically adding, “Achar has… more spice.”
I appreciate them trying, I know the food is different, but it would be nice to make a dish without feeling like I have to defend and take a stand on all of American food. And my pasta was pretty damn good if I do say so myself… I’m about to eat the left overs for lunch.