Honest to Pod: ‘The Sporkful’ helped me embrace the food of my heritage

Karan Nevatia | Daily Trojan

Growing up, Indian food was a mainstay in my household — I considered it “normal,” because Indian food was all I knew. My family and I ate channa masala (curried garbanzo beans) and daal chawal (lentils with rice) regularly, and we sampled other cuisines only when we went to restaurants. 

But as I grew older, I began to distance myself from Indian food. My mom continued to cook it for dinner every night, but I would refuse to take it to school, instead opting for bland and cold sandwiches.

I told myself I disliked Indian food not because it wasn’t good, but because I no longer considered it “normal.” It wasn’t that anyone had ever mocked me for bringing Indian food to school — in fact, many of my friends were curious about the food and enjoyed tasting it. But for me, it marked another way that I was different from everyone else, along with my unusual name and uncommon skin color.

But of those three insecurities,  what I ate was something I could control, and I wanted that part of my life to be normal. And normal meant peanut butter and jelly or cucumbers and cream cheese, even though I found the cold bread abysmal and the other ingredients mediocre at best.

Unfortunately, my attitude toward Indian food persisted well into high school. Whenever there was an international food fair or potluck at school, I would force my mom to cook Swiss food (although she is 100 percent Indian, she was born and grew up in Zurich), instead of the Indian dishes that were more her specialty. Once, another Indian student made and gave everyone Indian sweets for the Hindu holiday Diwali, but I refused to take it because I had internalized its inherent abnormality.

That changed when I listened to an episode of the podcast The Sporkful. Each week, host Dan Pashman takes a critical, deeply analytical look at how the nature of food and cuisine operates in interaction with society and culture. Pashman advertises the show as “not for foodies, it’s for eaters,” and the show features a fun yet educational and analytical look at food that everyone can relate to.

Pashman has done interviews with comedians like Hasan Minhaj and Marc Maron about their favorite foods and weird food habits, and conducts experiments, like a “coffee election” in a workplace to determine the best brand of office coffee.

But the most insightful episodes are the serious ones — where Pashman delves deep into the role food plays in issues of race and society. Pashman has produced episodes about the fine line between appreciating food from other cultures and appropriating it, episodes about dietary restrictions and religion and episodes about the surprisingly important role food played in the civil rights movement.

Art by Lisa Kam | Daily Trojan

But the episodes that affected me most were part of a four-episode series called “Your Mom’s Food,” which looked into how families pass on their cultural eating habits from generation to generation.

In one of the episodes, “Midwest Meets Masala,” the story revolves around a white American woman, Anne, who grew up eating chicken and burgers, and her husband, Sajan, an Indian vegetarian who grew up eating traditional Indian fare.

Anne embraced Indian cuisine after marrying Sajan; she learned her mother-in-law’s recipes and became vegetarian. But Anne began to realize that as she became more engrossed in a meatless cuisine, she was neglecting the foods she grew up with, forgetting her own mother’s cooking.

At one point during the episode, Anne’s mother asks, “You don’t miss the flavors you grew up with?”

It struck a chord with me because I realized that by refusing to eat Indian food, I was hurting my mom in the same way — I was telling her that I didn’t want anything to do with her home cooking, that the countless hours she spent cooking daal and making roti (Indian flatbread) for me didn’t matter, even though deep down, I loved everything about Indian food, from the complex spices and unique flavors to the contrasting crispy textures of roti and softer textures of sabzi (curried vegetables).

That feeling was solidified when I came to college, when my mom was no longer there to cook Indian food for me every night. The foods I refused to take to school and grudgingly ate at home became foods I missed eating.

I found myself going out of my way to eat at Parkside on the days they featured Indian cuisine, and bought frozen channa masala and daal from Trader Joe’s to cook in my dorm room. It is not nearly as good as my mom’s food, but it’s a decent substitute.

Now, when I go home, I look forward to eating the Indian dishes my mom makes, and helping her cook them. I wish I was able to bring them here and eat them for lunch every day, but I’m also glad that I’ve rediscovered my love for the food I was lucky enough to grow up with.

Karan Nevatia is a freshman majoring in journalism. He is also the news editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Honest to Pod,” runs every other Friday.