you eat what you are

I’ve written before about how, to Asians and many other immigrant cultures, food is love. Parents who find it awkward to articulate sentiment through word or physical embrace instead press heaping bowls of affection, steaming plates of fondness, crisp squares of care upon their offspring — hoping that the feelings sealed within their souls will come out through the taste, the warmth, the aroma of these dishes. Here, cherished one — try a little tenderness.

There’s a good reason why food occupies this crucial role in the transmission of intergenerational emotion: Food always bears within it the unique imprint of the individual who cooked it. My mother and your mother can both make the same dish, even follow the same basic recipe, and yet the end product, the thing that gets placed on a plate in front of each of us, will always be singular and distinctive. The inevitable tweaks and tiny substitutions — a dash of spice, an extra brightening of butter, a splash of a favorite sauce — make all the difference in the world, converting a pret a manger meal into couture cuisine.

This subtle fingerprinting is the reason why, years later, when times (and perhaps people) have moved on, eating that dish prepared that way becomes the surest means of unlocking the floodgates of remembrance, and reliving a love that may have never been spoken aloud.

The deep and inextricable role that food plays in shaping memory and identity is what inspired author and chef Ramin Ganeshram to pen her new novel for young adults, “Stir It Up,” about an Indo-Trinidadian American girl who secretly sets out to become a celebrity chef.

“Food is how we keep what we love alive,” she says — noting that it was the passing of her own parents, and the desire to understand and preserve their culinary legacies, that motivated her to pursue her love for food as a profession.

The table set by her Indian Trinidadian father and her Iranian mother was always heavily laden with both tradition and invention.

Some of her childhood meals would feature Trini and Persian dishes modified to reflect what was available on U.S. supermarket shelves.

“I remember my dad would always eat knishes with Trinidadian pepper sauce on them, explaining that when he first came to the country in 1954, Trinidadian cuisine was impossible to find, so when he craved it, he’d buy a knish and spice it up, and pretend it was an aloo pie — a Trini snack that’s basically a fried potato turnover,” she says. “By the time real Trini food was available in the States, he was used to his knishes, so he never went back.”

Other meals featured familiar American foodstuffs recreated for a global-fusion family’s palate.

“My mom would make this amazing lasagna using ingredients that were usually intended for a Persian dish called gormeh sabzi,” she says. “It’s a Persian stew, usually made with beef or lamb, chopped herbs, leeks, parsley and fenugreek. But she’d combine it with pasta and jarred tomato sauce … and American cheese! I know that sounds foul, but it was actually really good.”

A childhood spent consuming such hybridized meals led Ganeshram to become obsessed with decoding the rootstock recipes behind them — seeking to unwind the puzzle of her childhood menus, and uncover the ingredients that made up her own identity.

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