Before the pandemic’s escalation in the U.S. in March, I hosted — over the course of a year — eight pop-up meals in my small apartment. Each pop-up meal, all under the title of Mother Tongue, contained about 10 dishes and served at least 11 people. Although 10 years ago, I would have never imagined myself doing this, or even wanting to do this, I learned that cooking and serving my food is my therapy.
Cooking activates each and every one of my senses — the smell of roasted spices, the sound of bubbling gravy or curry leaves popping in oil, the golden hue of a dish after it’s been tinted by turmeric.
Serving food, whether at pop-up events or picnics, brings together my love for people, food, conversation, community, and culture in a way that energizes me. I feel so lucky to serve people, and I feel so lucky to be sharing that joy with you through recipes and reflections on food and culture in this column today.
Serving food … brings together my love for people, food, conversation, community, and culture in a way that energizes me.
My love for cooking and serving food stems from my ama, the Tamil word for mom. My ama loved to host people — she had such a gift for making friends — and would throw amazing dinner parties where she would cook new dishes to share.
On special occasions she would cook Malaysian dishes, which is when you knew the party was about to be a banger. Though I used to hate these parties because that would mean we would spend the entire day obsessively cleaning the house, I get it now. I see so much of her in me.
After my ama died when I was 12, the aunties of my community welcomed me into their homes, raising and feeding me, too. My community consisted of Indian families that my parents first met when they immigrated to Arkansas in the ‘90s. These families all shared an apartment complex in Fayetteville, AR and immediately became best friends for life.
They would have weekly dinner parties, go on roadtrips to different states, and eventually move across the country to Seattle, WA together. Since these families came from different parts of South India – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka — I grew up surrounded by so much diverse and delicious South Indian food.
As a result, the Indian food I make and write about is all food I grew up eating.
It’s food that expresses my upbringing as raised by my South Indian father and Sri Lankan-Malaysian mother, both immigrants.
It’s the curd rice with Lay’s potato chips that I would eat after school at Sumathi Aunty’s house.
It’s food that was packaged weekly for my dad, my sister, and me by different aunties because none of us knew how to cook.
It’s the classic potatoes my sister Shabina makes for me on lucky days.
The dishes and recipes I share with you are the dishes and recipes most personal to me. It’s food that reminds me of my Sri Lankan- Malaysian mother. It’s food made with love.
When I cook I am reminded of all the people and places that make me who I am. It makes me feel connected to the rice paddy fields near my grandparents house in India and my ancestors who ate from those paddy fields hundreds of years ago.
It makes me grateful for the amount of love that is channeled into the vegetables, grains, fruits, and spices that I allow into my body. When I cook for others I’m allowed to communicate to my community in a language that is not defined by an alphabet, but rather the way it makes one feel.
The dishes and recipes I share with you are the dishes and recipes most personal to me.
Thus, I am so excited to share that joy with you through this column.
Mother Tongue first started off as a blog for me to express my identity, and it morphed into an outlet for my journey of understanding how I can use food to learn more about my ancestors, my culture, and my identity. Writing about something I am passionate about, with a community of other individuals eager to learn, is something I can’t wait to do.
I am pouring my heart, soul, and stomach into this project and hope you are as excited as I am to join in these conversations about food and community. I will share recipes I love, restaurants in the Seattle area I can’t stop revisiting, chefs I am inspired by, and so much more. Thank you for reading.
Last Updated 9/11/20
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