Planting Roots, Preserving Traditions and Creating a New American Dream

I come from three generations of food-makers and a community of food-lovers. The desire to feed others and create a sense of belonging, ingrained in me as a child, came from gathering together over food every weekend with a handful of other Indian families in Denver, Colorado.

The time period I grew up in was one of integration as opposed to assimilation - meaning that my parents and their friends were able to incorporate traditions from their homelands into their new lives in America – they were creating a new American dream, where Sunday afternoons meant getting together at someone’s home to cheer on the Denver Broncos while drinking Coors beer and eating light, flaky fafda and sticky sweet jalebi.  It meant camping in the Rocky Mountains, the men working together to set up five or six large family tents in a semi-circle while the women brewed creamy hot chai, flavored with whole cloves and cardamom as they fried up spicy spinach and chickpea flour bhajia over the camp fire and the kids ran around playing tag or hide-and-seek.  Sometimes we gathered to celebrate an occasion, one of the children’s birthdays or holidays like Raksha Bandhan or Christmas; but more often we gathered to simply connect with others who shared common languages and traditions. This was a way for my parents and their friends to hold on to pieces of home and preserve the culture they knew, for themselves and for the next generation.

The traditions my parents introduced me to in my childhood stayed with me even after I left home, so that when I was posted abroad and living out of a suitcase, I found ways to keep those traditions alive. One winter while posted in Geneva over Diwali, I gathered together friends and colleagues at a local Indian restaurant so I could celebrate our tradition of feeding others for the new year. As the frequency of my travel abroad for work increased, I began to notice the role of food as a connector and community builder in cultures around the world.  Nothing exemplified this for me more than when I was in Ethiopia interviewing refugees from Eritrea, Somalia, and Uganda. I came out of my musty interview room one afternoon for some fresh air and saw a group of women from all three countries seated in a circle on the ground, opening small stainless-steel containers and placing them in the middle of the circle, gesturing and nodding at one another, an encouragement to take what they had to offer. Their shared meal consisted of spongy ugali and matooke in groundnut sauce, and soft, pancake-like injera with tangy shiro and canjeero with honey. These women, who had survived unimaginable horrors and losses in their respective homelands were sharing what little food they had with one another, smiling and laughing like old friends, even though many of them had just met.  Food was their common language and sharing this meal with each other created a sense of community in that moment.

Since that trip to East Africa I have traveled extensively.  I’ve been fortunate to gain new perspectives by interviewing refugees about the persecution that led them to flee their homelands, often with nothing more than their cultures, traditions, and memories of happier times with loved ones.  Each location has been unique, providing me with opportunities to learn a few words of a new language, to taste local foods, and experience the culture and hospitality of the people. 

Over the years of living an enjoyably nomadic lifestyle, I have observed a few things.  As humans, we have a strong need for connection with others – a yearning to be rooted in a community, even if only for a short time.  Being rooted in a community doesn’t necessarily require us to be settled in any one place forever – but generally speaking, we desire a sense of connection to where we are at any given moment.  Though cultures, traditions, and ways of living may differ from place to place and family to family, the common language that connects us all, is food. Behind every dish is an individual with a unique story to tell, stories steeped in rich traditions passed down from one generation to the next, stories that connect us to each other. 

Shared meals under unexpected circumstances create enduring bonds and lasting memories. Mine include the offer of handmade bread by a villager on the side of a country road in Jordan; laughing with cooking classmates as the old yiayia leading our cooking class stood next to me, tipping my elbow to add a lot more olive oil to the Greek salad she was showing me how to make; sharing smiles with other diners as we blissfully experienced course after course of delectable food art at my first ever Michelin starred meal in Copenhagen; and wedging myself between locals at a busy street corner in India, holding two fingers up and yelling over the others to get my order in for two plates of fiery pav bhaji – one for the driver who had safely delivered me and one for myself.  Each experience is unique and brimming with opportunities to turn strangers into friends, and plant roots along the way.