I believe in the power of food to bring people together. I believe that it is hard to hate or fear someone with whom you have shared a meal. I believe that to explore the food of a people is to explore their culture and their history.
I work in the field of technology and I am an American of Italian descent who loves to eat and cook Indian food. (I use the term generically to include all food from the Indian sub-continent – Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani.)
I acquired this taste in the early 1990s well before the current trend of outsourcing technology work to India. In those days I worked at a company where we used a technology not common in America but common in India – so we had a staff in my department largely made up of Indian consultants who had recently come to this country. They brought lunch from home and each day the most exotic aromas would emanate from the cafeteria microwave.
I had no prior exposure to Indian people and I found their accented English difficult to understand at first. I had my own lunch table crowd but gradually the groups meshed and I began to ask questions about their food.
As outsourcing gradually became popular some years later, the fear of losing technology jobs to offshoring sometimes translated into members of my profession making jokes about turbans and snide comments about strange smelling food.
But my own journey took me through the self study of Indian food and the culture as well:
* Frequenting restaurants and stores in Chicago’s Little India on Devon St.
* Soliciting cooking tips from the mothers who manned the counters in the little family owned shops, who enthusiastically welcomed my questions
* Collecting a dozen cookbooks on the subject
* Reaching out to my colleagues at work for recipes and bringing in samples for them to taste and critique.
* Growing my own “exotic” Indian herbs
* Turning on my steak and potatoes colleagues to a different cuisine
* Teaching my husband that a perfectly good meal does not need to include meat to be complete
* And finally inventing an Indian version of lasange
I began to read – reading about the religious and other cultural aspects to food. I learned that devout Muslims have a practice very similar to Jews’ keeping kosher. I learned about Indian independence from England and the subsequent partitioning of the country. I read a number of novels by Indian authors that I would not otherwise have read. I immersed myself in the culture.
The culmination of this experience was the unlikely relationship I forged with an Irish colleague from my employer’s Dublin office, based on small talk made during a conference call about our mutual love of cooking and of Indian food. I sent him my hand ground masalas, that is, spice mixtures, through overseas interoffice mail. When he came to town on business, my husband and I had him over for a multi-course Indian meal. He’s been to dinner twice and has a standing invitation any time he visits.
We are an unlikely pairing, due to age and distance, and yet we stay in touch even though our present assignments no longer bring us together. Our dinners made our company newspaper under the heading of “where employees eat when they travel out of town”.
I believe that food breaks down barriers. I believe in the power of food to teach us that we all have much in common – that we are more alike than we are different.
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