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Nikita's Journal

My Scholarship entry - Understanding a Culture through Food

WORLDWIDE | Monday, 23 April 2012 | Views [340] | Scholarship Entry

We were seated in long rows in the temple's hall, facing one another in polite silence. Bright green banana leaves were placed in front of us – beautifully austere place settings for the wedding meal. As I watched a couple of pigeons trying to find conjugal bliss in the courtyard, a bell rang inside. A row of efficient-looking Thambis streamed into the hall in their cotton shirts and lungis and began to serve our food.

My favorite cousin, a Maharashtrian, and her gorgeous Tamil husband had been pronounced married this morning, in a quiet ceremony at a suburban Balaji temple. The two families had convened, rather reluctantly, for the happiness of their kids. You see, in India, the 28 states are not only separated by geographic boundaries; they each have their own language, culture, caste system, Gods and Demons. Some of these Demons had been unleashed in the last month, over relentless discussions on how, when and where the couple should be married. Today they were growling in subtle rebellion in our bellies, demanding to be fed food appropriate only to their culture.

The elaborate meal was served all at once: fried poppadums in bright candy colors, tangy “koshimbir” salad with groundnuts, crunchy vadai, spicy pickled gherkins, potato bhaji with crescent-shaped pooris, piping hot rasam curry with steamed rice and a warm, indulgent payasam pudding. Both sides dived in ravenously, surprised at the flavors they were being introduced to. We each looked to the other side for information – the Koshimbir for instance, was downright Marathi. The deliciously thick Payasam was anything but.

For three hours, both cultures suspended their claim to hegemony, culinary or otherwise – and ate in the comfortable silence that usually precedes raucous burping. By the time we finally walked away from the temptation of another helping of tamarind rice, we had found much in common. We were traditional, belligerent, stubborn and at the moment, satiated. The Demons had been appeased.

Tags: Travel Writing Scholarship 2012

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