My parents were afraid of many things when I was growing up, especially spiciness. My mother was the sort of person who ordered from the "American" menu at Mexican restaurants. My father will eat in only two restaurants in New Jersey, and one in New York City. The day they uncharacteristically took me to a Chinese restaurant they came to regard as a dark day in my childhood history. I ate what was described on the menu as tofu and vegetables in Hunan sauce. The thick, spicy yet sweet sauce was better than dessert. I was fascinated with the textures of the protein and the different vegetables.
Ever after, when I asked if we could "do" Chinese, my parents would say "it was such a mistake we took you to that Ruby Palace." Didn't I understand their creed that "dinner" was a slab of steak, fish, or pasta slathered in red sauce? How did they give birth to such a child?
My love of what I later discovered was very Americanized Chinese food began at first bite. But my real passion came later—Indian food. A friend of mine from a high school summer enrichment program invited me to stay at her house for a weekend. Her mother prepared wonderful, fragrant dishes and was surprised that I ate everything, even the dishes Americans weren't supposed to like. Now I understood what my friend meant when she told me that it wasn't spices that made her eyes weep when she ate, but the unremitting blandness of American cafeteria food.
After college, when I first set foot on English soil and saw that my dingy flat was located near a Balti house, I knew I had found the right place to spend the last few irresponsible years of my youth.
Learning the intricacies of another culture's cuisine can be as daunting as learning a foreign language. I am definitely more of an eater than a cook when it comes to Indian food! But I still keep a jar of curry powder in my house: I love to throw together a quick salad of yogurt, vegan chicken, and cashews sprinkled with the spice blend to remind me of how I was lured out of my food comfort zone of processed chicken nuggets and ice cream sandwiches.
Every time I eat Indian food (and I know "Indian" is problematic verbal shorthand for a very complex array of food traditions) it is a reminder that becoming a foodie sometimes requires letting go of the traditions learned growing up, as well as honoring them.
The salad is for one because whenever I make anything with curry spice at home, it's never to share.
About the author: Mary Pagones (known as HeartofGlass) eats food, mostly plants, but still worries far too much what she is eating in New Jersey.