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This article is part of Mochi’s Summer 2022 issue, highlighting the Everyday Asian American. Media often covers Asian Americans who are exceptional and defying odds (hey Chloe Kim!) or, sadly, when tragedy strikes the Asian community. In this issue, Mochi is switching things up and celebrating what the everyday Asian American enjoys, what’s on our minds, and what life looks like for us. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.

A dark-colored book with what looks like bright baby onion petals swimming in soy sauce on its cover sits on the counter of my small apartment. “Flavor” by Yotam Ottolenghi sometimes rests propped open and against the kitchen counter, other times hidden underneath a pile of unopened bills. My sister and I flipped through the pages of the thick book the night she bought it, drooling over the variety of desserts, mezze, stews, soups, and stir-fries. Three months later, I thumb through the crinkled pages that now have stains on them, from sauces and oils and sweaty fingerprints. The smudges on those pages remind me of meals that I ate days ago, as well as memories from years past. 

Earth: Mushroom Steaks with a Butter Bean Mash 
Here is how an Ottolenghi meal is made in my twin sister’s kitchen: First, I’m sent off with a list. I attempt to find every ingredient on it within the neatly organized aisles of ShopFair market. I spend most of the shopping trip in the international section of the store inspecting each bottle of spice, making sure I grab the ground cumin and not the whole ones, that the green bunch of leaves is in fact cilantro and not parsley. 

Back home, acoustic Turkish music plays in the background, and my sister (the head chef) begins to roast some deadly looking chipotle peppers. Our small kitchen is warm from the heat of multiple flames. The aroma from the roasting spices slowly swirls into her nose and she turns every other minute to cough. 

About an hour later, dinner is served: five juicy pieces of mushroom on a bed of white bean mash, coated in a dark, glistening sauce. As I cut into my first bite, I am transported to the film “In the Mood for Love,” and I’m sitting opposite Tony Leung as he cuts into a piece of meat in a restaurant in Hong Kong. There is something so intoxicating about slicing into a piece of something so tender. I poise my knife and fork like the food critic from “Ratatouille” about to give a life-or-death verdict on this mushroom.  

The mash is smooth, nutty, and tangy. And the sauce — oh, the glorious sauce! — is a mixture of chipotle peppers that dance on my taste buds. Each bite leaves me wanting more. My plate, purchased from a Goodwill store in East Harlem, now carries a fusion of flavors from Central America and the Middle East. 

Photo credit: Louis Hansel/Unsplash

Spice: Sweet Potato in a Tomato, Lime, and Cardamom Sauce 
In front of me sits a skillet that holds circular discs of roasted sweet potatoes in a luscious red sauce. I scoop out a generous amount and cut into a piece of sweet potato, letting out a stream of steam. The sauce isn’t inherently spicy. In fact, it isn’t even the spiciest dish I’ve had. It is sweet, acidic — yes, spicy too — but the kind that you feel in the back of your throat. Knowing that this isn’t an inherently spicy dish makes it unnerving that I have to grab for water and a tissue. 

Growing up, my sister and I would eat lunch at our grandparents’ house every weekend. My grandfather and I would always compete to see who had the higher spice tolerance. We would pour exorbitant amounts of vatha kuzhambu onto our curd rice and see who would last longer. It was silly, but we did it nonetheless. Every time we played this game, my grandmother would squeal and say that we would set our butts on fire if we ate that much. 

It was easy to fake a high spice tolerance in college; spice wasn’t in our daily meals, and most of my friends couldn’t last even if it was. I could almost always hold my ground and never accept defeat even when tears streamed down my face. I was attempting to prove to both myself and everyone around me that I was raised in the hot and humid streets of Bangalore, that if you tested me, you would find that I’m made of centuries of Tamil dishes. My sister had called it a pathetic display of nationalism and masculinity. 

Now, with the steaming plate of sweet potato in front of us, my sister smirks and says that my spice tolerance has been significantly reduced. I know she’s not wrong as I hastily grab tissues to wipe my runny nose after just two spoonfuls, and I think of the day when I will go to the momo shop near my home in Bangalore and I will be unable to enjoy the food because my tongue will only crave water. I think of the day when spices that conjure up memories of my grandfather will only be a painful sting on my tongue. But then I see my sister’s eye twitch, ever so slightly, almost identical to my giveaway when I was younger, and I laugh at her bravery the way my grandfather joyously laughed at mine. 

Photo credit: eat kubba/Pexels

Acid: Tomato Salad with a Cardamom Yogurt
My sister prepares a Middle Eastern spread for lunch on a day two college friends come to visit. She makes hummus with mushrooms and garlic confit, menemen, roasted eggplant, pita bread, and tomato salad with a cardamom yogurt. The feast is delicious. She has prepared us a brunch (and a show with some very minor Gordon Ramsay moments) to remember. 

The star of the meal for me is the salad with yogurt. There is a running gag that some South Indians must always douse everything they eat in yogurt, and I must confess that I am indeed one of those South Indians. I love rice with yogurt, my dosas with yogurt, kettle chips with yogurt…the list is never ending. There is something about the savory acidic flavors of yogurt that perfectly neutralize any overpowering salt or spice, leaving a cooling sensation on your tongue. 

I’m very picky about the kind of yogurt I eat though. My preference, and the only one I swear by, is a local brand in Bangalore, Nandini. I remember visiting the factory on a school trip when I was younger, being absolutely repulsed by the smell of all the milk products except for the yogurt. It was almost odorless and my sensitive nostrils took comfort in that. No other brand has yet to receive the highly sought after “Shreya Stamp of Satisfaction.” I was hesitant about trying this salad. 

I take my first bite with some pita in my hand, ready to smother any foul taste with bread. But to my surprise, it’s delicious! The texture of the yogurt is smooth and creamy, and the crunch from the cherry tomatoes and onions only bolsters the acidic explosion of flavors in my mouth. I generously scoop a heavy helping of the yogurt and spread it all over the pita as my sister catches a glimpse of our 5-year-old selves licking yogurt off our fingertips. On cooler summer nights when we were young, our mother would take us out to our balcony and feed us yogurt rice from our palms as she told us stories from home and away. This time around, I hear my sister’s stories, from away and home, the best pairing to perfectly acidic yogurt. 

We flip through the pages of the cookbook with full bellies, marking them up with notes on the meals we’ve just devoured. And as my sister remarks on salt levels and roasting time, I wonder what stories my tongue will tell me next. 

Cover photo credit: Michael Burrows/Pexels

Author

  • Shreya is a recent graduate in anthropology from Vassar College. She works for a market research firm in the New York area where she mostly does qualitative research. She was primarily raised in Bangalore, India, a city that corrupted, confused, and crafted her thoughts and values. You’ll find her reading post-colonial theories one moment and watching Turkish dramas the next.

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