Food can say what words can’t

When it comes to Indian food, this other side of me flourishes.

Issue #26

This post originally appeared on Beena’s Meera’s Kitchen pop-up newsletter. You can buy tickets to Meera’s Kitchen here.

Loaded up on $6.50 worth of Indian vegetables and a warm, fresh roti on a recent Tuesday evening, I handed over my cash to the worker at Punjabi Deli — the Indian vegetarian food haven on the border of the Lower East Side and East Village in Manhattan. A tiny, legendary hole-in-the-wall.

“Thank you,” I said. He thanked me back.

Maggi Noodles — Indian instant noodles with spicy masala packets — were stacked in a display case. The palyas steaming in his serving platters looked just like my mom’s. Was his family in India OK? I’m like you. Brown. I couldn’t say any of it, though I badly wanted to. I don’t know Punjabi or Hindi or likely any of the languages he knew.

Our diaspora is so vast and my language skills are so weak that I usually can’t communicate with others. So I said nothing. In our only shared language, English, my words would have sounded jumbled, fake and muffled behind a mask.

In my family’s language, Kannada, I can say anything you’d tell your grandma over the phone — the weather, work, health. And often, what I was making for dinner.

Kannada is the official administrative language of Karnataka, a state in southwestern India. I only spoke it with my late grandmother, my mom’s mom. When I can get Kannada to tumble out of my mouth, it never sounds like me. I’m always tripping over conjugations and vocabulary, muddying my message. I watch edits of “Meera’s Kitchen,” I see my monologuing, and I wonder if this American unaccented English is who I’m supposed to be. Writing feels OK. When I speak, neither language feels authentic. I’m pretending to be American when I speak English. I’m pretending to be Indian when I speak Kannada.

The restless cycle continues: I was embarrassed of my other language as a kid, so I didn’t speak it. I realized its importance in my teens and tried to keep up my skills with my grandma, while juggling high school French classes. An academic requirement to learn a whole other language when I didn’t even know my own. After my grandmother died last year, I tried to find an online Kannada class. But it’s not offered on Duolingo or Babbel.

When it comes to Indian food, this other side of me flourishes. My vocabulary defaults to Indian words, Kannada words, even Tamil words and Hindi words when I know them. These words, I know how to pronounce correctly. On a few special occasions, my mind only knows the Kannada word for a vegetable or dish or spice. I never bothered to learn the English translation because it didn’t matter. This emboldens and validates me; maybe, deep down, it’s why I wrote a play about food. It happened that day at Punjabi Deli, mixed in with the potatoes in a steaming vegetable display case at the deli, seeds falling out of the sides.

It had to be chowlikai. The suffix, kai, is the Kannada word for vegetable, and it’s appended like so: Badnaykai is eggplant. Bendaykai is okra. And chowlikai is crunchier and more bitter than green beans, so rooted in my childhood that I didn’t even learn its English name until writing this essay. I looked it up. In English, it’s a cluster bean. That word means nothing to me.

Learning French was easy. Easy to have a textbook, to have classmates to speak it with. A regular class. Grades to measure your progress. English class was always easy for me, an early reader, an early writer.

Kannada is harder. My only grade is the depth of my relationship with my grandma, built on a basic vocabulary. There is no textbook because the script is non-Latin and curly and I have no hope of learning it. Progress is looking back and regretting but trying not to feel too guilty. Knowing I should have learned the language better as a kid, so the failure is my fault, but also that I did the best I could.

Once on the subway, I remember hearing a family of four gabbing in fluent Kannada to each other. Kids and their parents. Twenty years ago, that could have been my family. But my sister and I responded in English every time our parents spoke to us in Kannada. Sometimes I’ll hear Kannada in snippets of other people’s conversations, floating by me on the street, in the grocery store. I always want to respond. I never do.

Without my grandmother, my Kannada is slipping. I’ll try to use it on calls with family, I’ll try to watch Kannada TV shows on YouTube. It’s not the same. The language feels hollow.

I hope I’ll return to it one day. Reclaim it. Until then, I will always have chowlikai. Times when the Indian parts of me can shine through. Cooking on-screen during “Meera’s Kitchen” and hearing these words roll off my tongue. I listened to a podcast featuring Michelle Zauner, author of the memoir “Crying in H Mart,” who reminded me that food is its own language. It speaks where words can’t.

In another time, I burned when I had to repeat myself to my grandmother, because my Kannada pronunciation is often horrendous. There’s so much I wish I could have told her. I didn’t know the words. All I have is food I only know in this other language, food that looks like mine, a shared language with other Indians that says more than pleasantries could express. Food I bite into on the side of a street in the Lower East Side. I’m transported back to my parents’ kitchen, my grandmother eating handmade chappatis right next to me, or making chutneys with donmensunkai (bell pepper) at the blender. Maybe, all along, these were all the words I needed.

Beena Raghavendran (@thebeenster)
Co-founder of Red, White and Brown Media

Next week’s newsletter

Next week, I’m actually writing the essay I promised you this week: A note thanking my inspirations, my muses and my collaborators. And I’ll talk a little more about the premiere of “Meera’s Kitchen” on June 6, how you can get tickets if you haven’t already, and other ways you can help me spread the word and stay in conversation. Next week is the last of my weekly pop-up newsletters, though you’ll probably hear from me at least one other time about what it was like to see my show premiere.

About the guest editor

Because life doesn’t happen in a silo, every issue of Inside the Kitchen is edited by a special guest editor — a person in Beena’s life who’s also intimately familiar with the subject at hand.

Paul Pierre-Louis is a quality editor at Bleacher Report. He first met Beena almost exactly 10 years ago at Maryland orientation as fellow journalism majors. Ironically, the closer the two got — which can be taken literally as they once shared a small East Village apartment for 14 months — the more their differences stuck out. Beena is a go-getter while Paul often prefers to go with the flow. Still, the two have always been able to connect deeply through their emotional honesty, passion for storytelling and experiences growing up as children of immigrants. Paul has marveled at Beena’s writing since she asked him to edit her internship cover letters in college. Now, her writing is inspiring him to reflect on the pillars of Haitian culture that shaped his childhood (similar to Beena’s chowlikai, Paul just learned last year that soup joumou is pumpkin squash soup in English). Most of all, Paul is proud of how her growth as a storyteller has coincided with her growth as a person, and he can’t wait to see Beena share herself with us all.

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Red, White and Brown sparks conversations about culture and politics in the United States through the lens of South Asian American race and identity. Please tell your friends and family to subscribe to this newsletter and follow the latest posts on Medium.