The Kitchen Connection: Bonding with Indian Culture and People through Food
“Why doesn’t she spend time in the kitchen with me?” Asked Amma when I visited India the first time in 1999.
It’s not that I did not want to, it’s that I was intimidated by going into the kitchen. I am sure many Indians; especially Indian women in South India would find it odd that a girl (woman) would say this. Yes, it is a traditional culture and women often do all or most of the kitchen-work, but there was something more than that. I am only beginning to understand this eleven years after the fact.
Mixing More than Recipes in the Cross-Cultural Kitchen
Every year we celebrate the South Indian holidays of Onam and Pongal with a potluck dinner in our home in America. We invite a majority of our Indian friends and few non-Indian friends, typical Americans usually. I make this distinction because there is always a distinction when American women are in the party and Indian women. Often the Indian women (though not all) spend a majority of time in the kitchen, offering their help or simply chatting, while the American women only enter the kitchen to put their dish on the serving table or to greet me as the host, going back to the common area and mingling generally with a crowd of mostly men. As an American woman, who is still adjusting into this ‘kitchen culture,’ my impression of why many American women will not enter the kitchen and help is because she believes that helping the hostess is imposing on her. She should be able to handle everything on her own. If she needs help, she will ask. If she doesn’t need help, she won’t ask and I won’t intrude on her independence. Obviously, this viewpoint is not held by many of my Indian friends, for them it is an opposite viewpoint. For many of my Indian girlfriends to visit anyone’s home and not find something to help with in the kitchen is odd. It would also be uncommon to see the hostess in the kitchen working alone (as in photo) while all others are not doing anything. Girls and women will go into the kitchen and ask to help verbally or non-verbally (by starting to do things that look undone, or wash dishes, or arrange stuff). This is not considered imposing on the other’s independence or ability to do things, but encourages community spirit. In the Indian sense, it often seems odd to the rest of the women if a woman sits alone or doesn’t come into the kitchen to help or at least socialize. To help is to take the burden off the hostess, so she can also enjoy. The thought, I think, in helping is to ask oneself, “How can I make the other’s life easier and their time less stressful?” This was a culture shift for me when I got married. When we visited others, I would sit and talk to the men. Not because I did not want to be part of the festivities, but I did not want to impose on the hostess’ ability to do things on her own. There should not be ‘too many cooks in the kitchen.’ But this behavior would not help me integrate into this culture, so I had to get used to being part of this kitchen culture.
Back at the party scene; I am sure the American women find it odd that they are usually the only women socializing with the men in the common area and why there is such a divide in the sexes. This is more apparent when observing the menfolk who come into the kitchen more rarely than the [American] women, leaving the domain of the kitchen to the womenfolk. I don’t think it is because these men never cook, or do chores, in fact, many do. Though, some men prepare home cooked items for the party, it is generally accepted that the kitchen is ‘women’s domain.’ This is not a sexist thing. Nor is it to say the women are in the kitchen to work. The kitchen is a place for women, and often, young children to socialize, and even talk about ‘women stuff’ without the discomfort of men watching and not knowing how to respond.
So, in this sense, as an American learning the culture of Indian women, I see the kitchen as a place for both socialization through casual conversation and socialization through community effort. This ‘community effort’ means work. The first few parties I had, I was taken aback by some of my Indian friends coming in the kitchen, opening the cupboards, looking for things. I wasn’t sure what they were doing. I was confused because in the American town I grew up in, it was considered normal for peers visiting you to open cupboards and the fridge to find something to eat on their own. This was the casual culture. But, it wasn’t considered ‘normal’ to open any and all other cupboards where utensils or other items were stored. These areas were considered ‘personal’ and often were opened if the friend/host directed you to do so (i.e. Cups are in the cupboard above the sink…). I am sure this behavior would seem odd or uncomfortable to many Indians I know, especially that live or have grown up in India. If a visitor comes to your house in those families, it would be considered rude not to already have a plate of snacks or drinks ready, even for the most casual guest. To have them get their own food and drinks is unheard of, and if were to happen would be a great insult to the guest. In such a situation, the guest most likely would not know what to do, not eat or drink anything, and leave ‘with a bad taste in their mouth.’ In America, amongst my peers, it was considered an honor that your friend would let you get your own food in their house, if you were offered something it would be considered too formal and would make the other person uncomfortable because it communicates that either you don’t feel close enough to them to allow them to get their own food and drinks or that you inconvenienced yourself to do all this ‘production’ for them, and why?
So, when my Indian friends started going through the cupboards the first time a few years ago, I did feel uncomfortable inside. I did not say anything to them; I was trying to figure out why they were browsing around. Then, I realized why. Rather than ask me what help I needed (if I was asked, I often said none, because I did not want to inconvenience them, they were my guests), they began trying to make themselves useful and helpful. For them, they are not inconveniencing themselves by helping me. Only recently I realized that this is a way for my Indian friends to feel closer to me. Of course, first it is done out of habit, which may not imply closeness, but the amount to which one of my friends went to trouble to help and feel comfortable doing so in my house, which they may rarely visit warmed my heart. It was when I realized this, and saw it from their cultural viewpoint, and not my own, that I realized I was accepted into this social circle in a way that I never expected.
Realizing this did not happen during a magical moment, though that would be more dramatic. Rather, I realized this through a series of events over the past eleven years that culminated with an eight year reunion with my friend’s mother in Chennai last month. In visiting her, and knowing we’d be eating dinner with her, I walked into the kitchen and began helping with anything I could, even opening up her cupboards and looking for things to set or arrange. I did not consciously plan this beforehand, but out of watching my other Indian friends for so many years, and knowing what’s expected, I did it unconsciously. I am sure this took “Amma” by surprise because when I was there I think she longed for me to enter the kitchen, if not to cook, at least to watch, learn and try to socialize. Yes, we had language challenges, but the kitchen is a place that women bond, if not through talk (though talk is important if you can talk), through actions- cooking, preparing, cleaning, arranging – basically helping in anyway one can.
I have been longing to eat Amma’s cooking for eight years, so to sit at her table and partake in a typical south Indian feast of sambar rice, rasam rice, and curd rice served with chow-chow curry and few other delectable treats, I was really feeling nostalgic. While partaking in the sambar, both my husband and I mentioned how we enjoyed the taste and texture very much (this is something I need to perfect in my own sambar). Amma’s response to this was of course to offer me a generous helping of her homemade, roasted and ground sambar powder, followed by a story. In this story, she mentioned how happy and proud she is of her daughter-in-laws and how one of her sons prefer her (Amma’s) cooking over his wife’s (Amma’s daughter –in-law). Here she paused, and smiled. It seemed that tears of joy were about to come from her eyes. Following this, she said that when she visits her son’s house, she takes or makes sambar powder there and cooks for her son there. Though she did not say it directly she implied that by leaving the sambar powder behind, she was not simply leaving her spice mix behind but also something more. Most likely, she spent time with her daughter-in-law to show her how to prepare the spice mix, and also how to make the sambar as delectable as she does. It would have been much more than a simple gift of sambar powder. It would have been the passing down of tradition, and bonding through spending time with each other in the kitchen. In realizing this in the few seconds before changing topic, I realized why she was overjoyed to the point of tears. This is what she’s wanted for a long time. She wanted this kind of bonding from me too, when she asked why I did not join her in the kitchen, but I did not understand the full meaning of her question and the non-verbal undertones behind it.
There is a lot to learn through non-verbal communication. This again is not a typical American behavior. Though in America we say, “Actions speak louder than words,” we more often than not need words to communicate everything. This may not be the case in many places in India. Of course, the other side of the coin is Amma has five sons and no daughters and for that matter few female relations that lived nearby. She craved some female interaction. In her asking, why I did not come into the kitchen, she really implied indirectly (though Indians may say this is direct) that she wanted to spend time with me, get to know me better, and also teach me about the culture. If I only knew then what I know now. I missed out on so much then. But now, as I realize this, I have more to gain with my Indian friends and in-laws from this day forward!
This post is inspired by reading of two books: Culture Shock! India: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette (Culture Shock India) and Culture Shock! USA: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette
Photo in article by Krishna Kumar.
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Create your Indian Inspired Kitchen in America
List of Onam Articles on Alaivani
List of Pongal on Alaivani
Integrating Two Worlds: Life in America with an Indian Twist
International Students Orientation to America!
Entering the kitchen to help a hostess was not part of my social ettiquette. Entering another's kitchen without being asked and doing 'work' would be intruding on her independance and ability to accomplish the task at hand. That is why I did not enter the kitchen in India, when I lived there, and even why it's taken me time to adjust into the Indian community lifestyle here and enter other's kitchens not only to talk, but to help!
How have I evolved this habit? What has encouraged me to question my culture and update it to something different? How has that enriched my life and helped me integrate with the Indian community? Read inside....
tags: "cultural adjustment" india america kitchen food socializing interacting behavior adjustment adjust change "cultural change" cross-cultural understanding question culture lifestyles women parties helping
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Updated February 2011