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Learning the Language of Fruit

My Scholarship entry - Understanding a Culture through Food

WORLDWIDE | Monday, 23 April 2012 | Views [121] | Scholarship Entry

The day my grandmother died, I thought of mango. A language barrier—she spoke only Tamil, and mine was broken at best—made conversation tough, so on my childhood visits to India we would sit and speak the quiet language of fruit. She carved up mangoes and laid them out in long sweet spears, saving the pit for last, a dripping sun aflame with pulp that I could nibble on forever.

Words weren't the vessel for her love; she spoke through her knife and hands. She delighted in my delight, laughing as I puckered—I loved the tart sting of mangoes that weren't quite ripe—and eating too, fiercely pinching my cheeks between bites. Whenever we spoke in fruit, she always had a lot to say: she ensured that I ate to capacity, which may explain my childhood chubbiness (thus why my cheeks were so pinchable).

Our language had more words than mere "mango." She would open 3 pomegranates at a time and scoop the seeds into a bowl so that I could munch by the handful, like juicy popcorn that bursts tart and red on the tongue. She would peel sapota so I could sample its odd gritty sweetness, like honeyed wet sand packed dense. Even if we didn't share words, we shared the sense of taste: I was tasting the same mango she was tasting, the same mango she had tasted in her childhood. I came to know her India—my India—through the land, through its fruit. She spoke and I listened, through peels & pulp, grins & grimaces. Our language was a subtle one.

Beyond India, fruit has always been my favorite avenue into new cultures. I obsess over local rituals & methods. Wet pineapple slices are dabbed in an explosive mix of chili powder & salt; mangosteens are carefully unsheathed so as not to bruise the airy cottonball flesh inside. With practice, my thumbs learned to pierce the intimidatingly spiky red armor of the rambutan so that I could claim the prize within. Eating fruit is more informal than a sit-down meal—the juice that dribbles down chins tends to break down the barriers between people.

Tags: travel writing scholarship 2012

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