These are no longer the days where people land in a foreign land and are left stumped about what to order in a restaurant, what to cook as a student, what groceries to buy to make it taste remotely like paati’s saapaadu. Our uncles and aunts and several Indians who came before us, have already established a foundation for us F1/H1B visa holders landing with US flag’s starry eyes and dollar signs in our heads. Let’s face it; with competitive tests, assignments, bagging assistantships and staying with room mates, food should be the last thing you need to worry about! Oh, how we wish that was true!
Things are definitely easier these days. My room mate had bought samosas for me to have for dinner the moment I landed, and two days later, another new room mate’s sister sent us a huge USPS dabba full of bakshanam. This was followed by visits to relatives’ who hosted us during holidays and always sent us back well fed, and with a big box of brownies, milk sweets and lemon pies to share with the other forlorn souls near the university (who came back with their own stock). There was someone around, who’d make a trip to India each break, and they would come back with 2kg of bakshanam and sweets, from the mothers who thought that their kids (paavam) were cooking everyday for sustenance. Sambar and rasam podi came from four or five households in the very beginning, and stayed in the top shelf/ freezers in zip lock covers, to be transported two years later, upon graduating, to the new accommodation we moved to on finding jobs.
Our cousins, sisters and brothers visited us every now and then and took a few of us for nice lunches and dinners which they thought we didn’t get often. This was true to an extent, because for the first two semesters, we were restricted to the free pizzas handed at events around the campus. (The ten or more pounds I put on the very first month in the US, can vouch for my unlimited supply of pizzas when I wanted them. If you were vegetarian, of course, you’d have to limit yourself to the cheese pizzas. So sad!). If your town had a Chipotle, you were saved. Black beans, rice, pico de gallo, salsa reminds you of rice, channa masala and thakkali thokku. Closest associations to Indian food! and of course, the chappathi,er… tortilla!
So what’s the struggle, you ask? The struggle comes mainly from trying to order in non-Indian restaurants. Some restaurants (just not steakhouses/ seafood places) give you the stare when you ask for vegetarian options. H always rolls his eyes the moment I start ordering something, because I am always directing the chef on how to cook and present my dish. “Can I have the combo three, replacing the chicken enchiladas with mashed potato enchiladas, have black beans instead of refried beans, and oh, do you cook your cilantro rice in chicken stock?!”, “Is your roasted tomato soup made with veggie broth?”, “Can I just have the baked potatoes, without the bacon, please?”, “Does your marinara sauce have meat in it?” and the list goes on.
I have to pat myself on the back, for finding ways to stay vegetarian all these years. There are things you learn not to order. Thai soups that come with your lunch plate usually have oyster sauce in them, or some restaurants make their marinara sauce with chicken stock, or some authentic Mexican places make their tortillas with lard. Can you blame my dad or H’s mom for asking for “thuliyoondu thayir sadam” for dinner?
So here’s to all the struggles we have, on days we don’t want to cook, have no relatives in the area that day, and no Chipotle around in town!