Globalized Ethnic Cuisine Triggers Mixed Emotions

By SANDIP ROY Pacific News Service
Tuesday January 06, 2004

Growing up in Calcutta, high holidays meant not turkey or ham, but fish.  

Fish with spinach, fish curry, fried fish, fish egg chutney and the piece de resistance, fish-head curry.  

When my parents first moved to England in the ‘50s, my mother pretended to the fishmonger that she had a cat, so she could take fish heads home for a curry. Today, I can go to my local Asian supermarket in San Francisco and buy fish with heads and tails, not to mention Thai basil, basmati rice and frozen durian. Immigration once meant re-creating a left-behind life out of poor substitutes. Now, with the real McCoy available at the corner store in our global village, it’s hard sometimes to believe that we have to give up anything at all.  

For traditional Hindus, crossing the “kala pani,” or black water, that separated India from the West once meant a loss of caste. Whether they lost their caste or not, the price the first immigrants paid was severe. Punjabi farmers who came to the fields of California in the early 1900s were not allowed to bring wives. Many ended up marrying Mexican-American women and watched their children, with names like Isobel Garcia Singh, grow up more Catholic than Sikh.  

My parents went to London by ship. The extended family came to see them off, for there was no telling when they would make the long journey back. Traveling across places they’d only seen on maps, such as the Suez Canal and Bay of Biscay, and violently seasick in their cramped economy cabin, they arrived to a cold, unwelcoming England. Not only were there no fish heads for a leisurely Sunday afternoon curry, but every spice that was once common and familiar had to be hoarded for special occasions.  

Soon they learned how to substitute—which fish resembled their beloved hilsa, how to make a dessert of sandesh out of ricotta cheese. As they marveled, “Isn’t it almost like the real thing?” at the back of their minds there was always a lingering sense of loss. It spurred them to ride three buses and a train to see some visiting artist from India performing in England.  

When I arrived in the Midwest over a decade ago, I too, like my mother a generation before, learned to make do. Fueled no doubt by the memories of her own voyage west, she had tucked between my shirts and underwear, a year’s worth of carefully labeled turmeric, cumin and coriander. In a little notebook she had written down basic recipes for simple curries that might evoke a taste of home.  

But home was lost. I might have cumin and coriander, but what about the more exotic panchphoran and posto? I didn’t even know what to call them in English. Home had become a slim blue airmail letter that often took three weeks to get to Illinois from Calcutta.  

Nobody needs that anymore. News from home comes daily via e-mail. I can walk into an Indian cash and carry in Sunnyvale and get my Ayurvedic hair oil at nine o’clock at night. I can order customized CDs of my favorite Bengali songs online. Bollywood blockbusters release here at the same time as they do in India.  

That is how it should be. Immigration these days means giving up less and less. People still risk their lives to cross into America across scorching deserts or sealed in cargo containers. For most of us, however, immigration is now more banal, about plane tickets and visas. But what does it mean when, thanks to the marvels of technology, immigration is no longer the sloughing off of one’s skin it once was? Our journeys are no longer forged so much in loss and re-invention. Now they’re imbued with the cockiness of seizing the best of both worlds.  

The next generation of immigrants will not need to sift through their lives wondering what to pack and what to shed. But they will also never learn to value the country they left and the one they come to in the way my parents did. My mother’s fish curry once symbolized the loss of one home and invention of another. Mine is merely a good copy, its ingredients picked up casually from the freezer of an India Mart in Sunnyvale. It is only when you re-create your curry out of lies to the fishmonger and stand-in spices, when the news of death in the family comes weeks too late in a dog-eared letter, that you really reflect on the price of immigration and why you choose to do it.  


Sandip Roy is host of “Upfront,” the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.