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Food as a Form of Nostalgia

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 3574 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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I have become a queer mixture of the East and West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Perhaps my thought and approach to life are more akin to what is called western than Eastern, but India clings to me … I am a stranger and alien in the West. I cannot be of it. But in my own country too sometimes I have an exile’s feeling”. [1]

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The Calcutta newspaper, ‘The Statesman’, once defined the people of the Indian subcontinent as ubiquitous. According to the article published on 5 August 1980, there were only five countries in the world where Indians have not chosen to stay’. [2]A close look at the Indian diaspora shows a clear distinction between the old and the new diaspora. The new diaspora consists mainly of professionally trained and highly skilled migrants to the developed countries of the West since the mid-twentieth century till this day and has hence retained a close relationship with family, locality, caste, region, and religion in India whereas the majority of the old diaspora, who were the early immigrants during the mid-nineteenth century, to the British and European colonies in Africa, Southeast Asia, Fiji, and the Caribbean as plantation labor and railway workers under the indenture system  has lost contact with the motherland, including the familiarity with the mother tongue.[3] Indian society is widely known for its diversity and the Indian diaspora around the world are not exempt from such practices of differentiation on the basis of religion, region, language, and caste. Unlike other diasporas, the Indian diaspora is not a homogenous entity. Although there is a dominant common identity as ‘Indians’, differences based on regions from where they have migrated have become significant over the course of years. However, such differentiation has become less prominent in the case of new diasporas. These young immigrants are bound to live in a close-knit Indian community despite their multicultural backgrounds. For instance, there is a small Indian community in Ireland. It is a replica of Indian communities found in every other western country. Festivals such as Diwali, Eid, Holi, and Pongal are organized by voluntary organizations and are celebrated with much enthusiasm. Nostalgic reminiscence about the past is very common in any diaspora. In this paper, I have outlined how Nostalgia is embodied through food memories in the Indian diaspora and how nostalgia prompts us to be ignorant of the real past and lets us reminisce about a ‘romanticized past’


Food experiences are effectual in prompting remembrance since they involve a combination of multiple sensory experiences. David Sutton argues that food is powerful in triggering memory and because of its synesthetic attributes – sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. He claims that Synesthesia gives ways by which sensory experiences are actively created between people rather than passively registered. Such synesthetic experiences contribute to sensory placemaking from a phenomenological perspective according to Pink.[4]In her study about ‘Slow city movement’ in a Welsh town, Pink considers the sensory aspects of places (shared between people such as tastes and smells around the farmers’ markets and coffee shops and places where people walk through) as “constitutive of place”. Pink’s reflexive phenomenology proves that sensory placemaking in relation to food helps unearth various layers that encompass the ‘memory phenomenon’. This supports Sharon Macdonald’s claim that, food has the ability to sensorially link to multiple aspects of an experience.[5] In the Indian diaspora, food memories act as the object of nostalgic longing So, for a culture which considers eating as important as a ritual, the sensory experience followed by a nostalgic longing associated with food is primarily a temporary longing to travel back to a world which does not exist at present. In an Indian household, the relationship between mothers, children and domesticity orbits around food. Besides being a splendid gastronomic affair itself, foodways are often romanticized and the importance of gender roles in food preparations are glorified. This reflects in Uma Narayan’s food memoir Monsoon diary as,

“As I got older, I began to appreciate eating with my hands, which allowed me to savour the warm food through pliant fingers rather than a cold, hard fork or spoon. In fact, Indians believe that hands add flavor to food. When an Indian wants to compliment a person’s culinary skills, he doesn’t simply say ‘She’s a good cook’. He says that ‘She has good scent in her hands”.[6]


Indian foodways have played a central cultural role traditionally in Indian diasporic literature. Arjun Appadurai claims that Indian civilization has instilled food with “moral and cosmological meanings”.[7] To support the claim, the tropes of food and foodways have helped explore synesthesia in recent works of the Indian diasporic authors. Also, based on the titles alone, it can be understood that food has become one of the significant means of representing Indian diasporic life. Literary texts like Nisha Minhas’s British Asian novel Chapatti or Chips? (1997); Carl Muller’s The Jam Fruit Tree (1993); Kaveri Nambisan’s Mango-Colored Fish (1998); Kamila Shamsi’s Salt and Saffron (2000); and David Davidar’s The House of Blue Mangoes (2002) explore the alluring aspect of Indian foodways. Writers use food to examine the ethnicity of Indian foodways: mealtimes in a familial setting, shopping for authentic ingredients and representations of ancestral heritage and cultural identities.[8] Thus, exploring the authenticity associated with food in an Indian diasporic context will describe the ways in which food acts as a source behind creating ethnic identities and in the remembrance of experiences. Gender roles within the diaspora and the stereotyping associated with them are the central thematic in many literary works. Amulya Malladi’s South Asian American novel The Mango Season (2003), focuses on the relationship between food and Indian women and inherited gender roles. The protagonist Priya, who moves to India after living in the US for seven years, is portrayed to be culturally displaced because she is unable to cut mangoes into even cubes. And her realization that wrongly wielding the “sharp . . . heavy knife . . . used” for mango-chopping could result in “missing a few fingers[9] seems to symbolize the social threats unmarried diasporic Indian women undergo on returning home to a traditional setting. The British play ‘The Trouble with Asian Men’ (2006) by Sudha Bhuchar, Kristine Landon-Smith, and Louise Wallinger, depicts how Indian society expects women to cook and how diasporic Indian women are criticized for adapting to a ‘westernized’ way of living. This is wittily represented by the ‘Chapati vs naan’[10] debate. The debate is a direct reaction to how some British-Indian women prefer store-bought naan bread to making Chapatis from scratch as traditionally done in Indian homes. This stance represents the diasporic desire to maintain family traditions and how women are expected to act as conservators of culture. Even though the concept of assigning cooking as a woman’s duty is misogynistic, some diasporic Indian writers and filmmakers have celebrated their mothers’ cooking in their works which represents the intimate relationships and memorable experiences brought together by foodways. In Hardeep Singh Kohli’s Indian Takeaway: A Very British Story (2008), the writer’s mother is portrayed as an extraordinary home cook. He accepts failing to match his mother’s impeccable culinary skills by saying that,

“I have rarely tasted Punjabi food better than that lovingly prepared by my mum. So good is my mother’s food that I have stopped cooking Indian food myself, knowing that I will never come close to her standard. My lamb curry will never have that melt-in-the-mouth consistency, the sauce will never be as well spiced and rich, my potatoes never as floury and soft. My daal will be bereft of that buttery richness, that earthy appeal that warms you from inside. My parathas will never be as flaky and delicious and comforting.”[11]

In his short film A Love Supreme (2001), Nilesh Patel pays an emotional tribute to his mother’s culinary skills. The film’s dedication ‘to my Mother, her Mother and your Mother’ conveys a delicate message that its mothers who cook in an Indian household; rather than fathers. The use of black and white filmography exoticizes the process of preparing samosas. The focus of the camera is solely on her hands which indicates that the mother who prepares the food and what she represents is as important as the food itself.[12] Aside from its deliciousness, the food here is perceived to be a part of habitat: a representation of ones’ childhood home, parental love and the sense of safety that comes with it. This justifies why Kohli gives an emotional description of his mother’s food like ‘lovingly prepared’, ‘earthy’, ‘warms you from inside’, ‘comforting’.[13] The love for food is actually the love and remembrance of an aging mother through the eyes of an adult who develops a fascination for the preparation and consumption of traditional foods.[14]



Indian cuisine, just like its people is diverse owing to its regional and religious diversities. India’s internal north-south divide has over popularized certain cuisines and neglected some. Until now, South Indian cuisine is less popular than North Indian cuisine outside the subcontinent. Generic Indian restaurants around the world have Mughlai paintings adorning their walls and largely carved elephants welcoming the patrons. Nothing about the ambience gratifies the nostalgia of South Indians visiting those restaurants regularly. Dishes that distinguish South Indian cuisine have more or less been absent or less popular in the ‘take away’ culture.

Monsoon Diary by Suba Narayan is a heartwarming memoir to South Indian cuisine. She explains the ingenuity behind the origin of different dishes that balance flavors and offers various health benefits. For Narayan, the need to cook traditional food developed only after she started living in the US. Unusually, only after emigration cooking becomes ‘a voyage of personal discovery’.[15]She has penned her difficulties in re-creating ethnic foods which she found perfection in. Such perfection is deeply associated with a place when she says,


I have never eaten a good idli in America, although countless Indian restaurants offer them. American idlis are hard and lack a tangy sourdough taste. For good idlis, you have to go to my hometown”.[16]

South Indian cuisine is primarily rice based. Sometimes they take the form of Idli and dosa, rice cakes and crepes which are popular all over India. The vegetarian staples include sambar- a lentil-based stew with vegetables cooked in a tamarind broth, Vegetables like potato and okra cooked in coconut oil with a blend of spices that are not found outside South India and its diaspora. Rasam is a soupy tamarind juice tempered with chilli, peppers and curry leaves. The common Non-vegetarian staples have a special spice powder ‘Chettinad masala’ – which is a blend of coconut, coriander seeds, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. Meat is cooked in a spice and tomato-based gravy.

Most of these common ingredients are available in South Asian grocery stores in every country. There is also a mysterious ingredient in all of these recipes called Asafoetida. It is a common product used in every recipe in India. Asafoetida smells horrible. If you taste it with your finger, it is bitter. It is impossible to believe it does such wonders to all the spicy Indian dishes making all minor flavors come out. Other South Indian dishes include chutneys – spiced dips made from coconuts or tomato and tempered with mustard and chilis. Most of the meals end with ‘curd rice’ – Rice mixed with yogurt topped with pickled mango or lemon. Every time I prepare these dishes, the flavors and aroma of the spices remind me of the many meals I had with my family as a child.

Every meal in my grandmother’s kitchen was prepared by all the women of the house. My aunts and my mother would start the preparation by chopping the vegetables in an Aruvamanai (peeler) and grinding the spices. Some meals on special days would take hours to prepare. Mealtime, like every other ritual in my family, followed a strict order of hierarchy based on Gender and age – and gender always trumped age. The men and boys always ate first. We sat cross-legged on the floor of the living room and food was served on rinsed banana leaves. We drank water from stainless steel tumblers, the type that one can find in Indian restaurants everywhere. The women would carry the vessels with various dishes and walk along the line of men and boys and serve as much as requested. At the end of the meal, the women pick up the banana leaves and dump them in the backyard for the cows to eat. Only after cleaning up the dining floor, the women sit down to eat.

Lunches are always followed by the men taking naps while the women clean up and have a chitchat with us kids.


In the 2007 Disney/Pixar film Ratatouille, Ego, the food critic, tastes the ratatouille made by Remy the rat, which transports his imagination back to his childhood in a rural French village when his mom would make the same dish for him. A spoonful of a simple vegetable dish was shown to give a satisfying sensory experience. Nostalgia is prompted by such ‘Ratatouille moments’ in our life. Food memories trigger nostalgia rather than memory phenomenon as a whole. The Childhood memories we nostalgize about are mostly a way of looking at our past through a ‘rose tinted glass’.[17] The Nostalgic remembrance brought out by food memories focuses only on a momentary good feeling. Nostalgia might not always be the right way to characterize a phenomenon as it focuses on the ‘good’ part of the past and ignores the rest.Diasporic Indians rely on hybridized, watered-down Indian food variations to satisfy their gastronomic cravings. Nostalgia, in these cases, is beyond food cravings. It is a longing to go back to the intimate sphere of one’s childhood home which one associates with a sense of safety and joy. This is emphasized by Bhogal on Cooking with Mummiji as,

our home food is much simpler than the food you find in Indian restaurants. We use very few spices…The main element missing from restaurant food is the female energy. The kitchen is… the best place to be in an Indian household. Full of women joking…gossiping, confiding…The wisdom, love, and culture of these women rub off from their hands into the food to give a special taste”.[18]

This corresponds to the conception that a woman’s hand imparts extra flavor as mentioned by Narayan in Monsoon diary.[19] Also, this correlates to my earlier argument about ‘celebrating’ the societal gender norms in Indian households. Even though the takeout curries and my multiple attempts to recreate authentic recipes fail to deliver me a ‘Ratatouille moment’, I will never have to serve a line of men and wait to eat until they are high on food coma. Indian food along with its deliciousness, remind me how far women of my generation have travelled and the compromises our mothers have made for us to be unbound by the societal gender norms, cultural rituals and the expectations that held back generations of women of my family and a thousand others in India.


  • Macdonald, Sharon. Memorylands: Heritage and Identity in Europe Today. Routledge, 2013.
  • Narayan, Shoba. Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes. Random House, 2007.
  • Nehru, Jawaharlal. Toward freedom: the autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru… The John Day Co., 1942.

[1]Jawaharlal Nehru, Toward freedom: the autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru (New York: The John Day Co,1942),296.

[3]T.L.S. Bhaskar and Chandrashekhar Bhat, Global Indian Diasporas: Exploring Trajectories of Migration and Theory (Amsterdam: Amsterdam university press, 2007),90-91.  

[4] David E Sutton, “Food and the Senses,” Annual Review of Anthropology (2010),209–23. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.012809.104957.

[5] Sharon Macdonald, Memorylands: Heritage and Identity in Europe Today (Routledge, 2013), 90.

[6] Shoba Narayan, Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes (Random House, 2007),34-5.

[7] Ruth Maxey, “Mangoes and coconuts and grandmothers,” in South Asian Atlantic Literature 1970-2010 (Edinburgh University Press, 2012),163-208.https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1wf4cbs.8.

[8] Ibid,164.

[9] Ibid,165.

[10] Maxey, “Mangoes and coconuts and grandmothers,” 165.

[11] Ibid,167.

[12] Ibid,169.

[13] Maxey, “Mangoes and coconuts and grandmothers,” 171.

[14] Ibid,169.

[15] Ibid,187.

[16] Narayan, “Monsoon Diary: A memoir with recipes,” 72-3.

[17] Macdonalds, “Memorylands: Heritage and Identity in Europe today,” 108.

[18] Maxey, “Mangoes and coconuts and grandmothers,” 195.

[19] Narayan, “Monsoon Diary: A memoir with recipes,” 34-5.


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