Asian food has always posed a serious threat to me. I am an Indian-American with a life-threatening peanut allergy. When I consume even a small amount of peanut protein, my body goes into anaphylaxis, which makes me break into hives and can cause my throat to swell shut. Coming from a food culture that often makes use of peanuts in its cuisine has made avoiding my allergen difficult. Not only has this allergy caused me to have a complicated relationship with Indian (and other Asian) food, but it has also caused me to have a complicated relationship with Indian culture.
Like many cultures, food plays a central role in Indian culture. Food is involved in religious rituals, in weddings, during holidays like Diwali, and social events. Most people are very excited about the food served at these events and celebrations. However, for me it has always been a cause of anxiety, especially after I experienced a severe reaction when I was sixteen.
Quite simply, one spoon of food almost took my life during a trip to Asia. First, I started sneezing uncontrollably, next my eyes began to swell until I could barely keep them open, and then my body broke into hives. The reaction reached its climax when my blood pressure plunged and I started drifting in and out of consciousness. I will always remember telling myself at that moment, “as long as you are breathing you are alive…so just keep your focus on your breath.”
Luckily, my Epi-pen, prescription steroids and Benadryl saved my life.
Since this traumatic reaction, I have become stricter than ever about avoiding any foods that may have come in contact with peanuts. Consequently, at Indian social gatherings I skip out on the main dishes and nibble on naan and rice. At weddings I have been the girl who plays with the food on her plate but does not really eat. As a result, I have been on the receiving end of glares—why isn’t that girl eating anything? When I am invited to people’s homes for dinner I often tell them, “I ate before I came.” This has caused some hosts to assume that I am either rude or arrogant for not eating their food. I have also been confronted with awkward situations where aunties have tried to shove prasad (with peanuts!) down my throat, saying, “This is blessed God’s food so it wont make you sick.” (Um sorry aunty…that’s not how anaphylaxis works.)
Not surprisingly, such interactions have made me feel uncomfortable when attending Indian social and cultural events. Not being able to break bread with others has made me feel insecure and even isolated. The misperceptions people have had of me because of my eating restrictions have been tough to deal with as well—especially because the last thing I ever want to do is insult my hosts! Furthermore, being the center of attention because of my allergy has consistently made me feel like the burdensome guest. As a result, I have avoided attending Indian events where food is a focal point. By distancing myself from such gatherings, I ended up distancing myself from my culture overall.
Interestingly, food, the very thing that pushed me away from my culture, also brought me closer to it. I reconnected with Indian culture through cooking. I started learning traditional dishes with my mom, grandparents, and godmother. This allowed me to engage with Indian culture in various ways. First of all, cooking brought me closer to my family and gave me a chance to learn more about my family’s history. For example, it is amazing how certain recipes have bonded me to my great-aunt—an excellent cook and a woman I never had the chance to meet.
Cooking forced me to learn about all the different Indian spices, their flavor profiles and even some of their medicinal properties. It also made me strengthen my Gujarati language skills. Now, I can identify all the spices, vegetables and lentils I use in Gujarati. I also know what my mom is asking for when she asks me to pass the dhaanaa (coriander).
Most importantly, cooking has helped me take control of both the food that poses a threat to me and the social interactions that accompany it. Instead of socializing at Indian events hosted by others, I have begun to host dinners at my place with Indian food that I have made. This has helped me build my confidence and feel more culturally rooted.
So today, although I might still fail to show up at certain Indian social functions, I will always be happy to share my Indian food—my Indian heritage— with my friends and family in the comfort of my kitchen.
Nisha Choksi is the Managing Editor of Universal Mirror. She is working on completing her Master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration (MPPA) from Northwestern University, focusing on issues related to education and economic development. Nisha is an active dancer who enjoys traveling and is obsessed with all things beauty.