In Defense of Non-Spice

Living in India has been an experience nothing short of transformative – it has changed how I see people, cultures, work and religion. However, one of the most meaningful changes I have experienced here has been in my relationship with food.

Coming from Brazil, I was not introduced to Indian food until 2 years ago when I first got to Penn. Ever since then I have considered myself an appreciator of Indian cuisine, joining the rounds of Penn students who swarm Ekta or New Delhi to feast on butter chicken and naan. Trader Joe’s frozen channa masala became a staple in my fridge and a favorite late-night snack. I always thought of myself as a person who’s very open to new experiences, especially new foods. I was never a picky eater and although I had never tasted Indian food before – or Thai, or Israeli, or Korean, for that matter – I readily embraced it and made it an occasional part of my diet at Penn.

My introduction to these new types of food changed the basic palate I grew up with and was used to. Brazil has an extensive culinary tradition, but our food relies primarily on salt, garlic, herbs and black pepper as seasonings – the word spicy is almost exclusively restricted to the coastal cuisine of the tropical Northeast. My taste buds were used to food that is extremely tasty but non-invasive, whose flavors highlight the main ingredient and not the spices in the dish. Our culinary is influenced by Portuguese, Italian and French flavors, so for most Brazilians the most exotic thing we eat is the soy sauce and wasabi that accompany sushi.

Coming to the US the story was of course very different. Most people at Penn were very used to and greatly appreciated dozens of cuisines I had never come close to tasting, from Ethiopian to Malay. I was faced with a culture that complained about the lack of spice in dining hall food and labeled any dish that did not contain at least 8 different spices “bland”. For most people, good food necessarily meant spicy – or at least heavily seasoned – food, and anything that did not fall under this description was looked down upon. I was surprised to see that saying you like something as simple and tasty as pasta with tomato sauce would get you the terribly negative label of “basic”.

Over these last two years my relationship with food has adapted as my spice tolerance has increased. And although I’ll never understand my friends who drown their food in Sriracha or Cholula I’ve come to enjoy curries from Tyson Bee’s or spicy Pelicana fried chicken as much as any other Penn student. So I thought that I would be ready to face any food that India could throw at me for the two months I am here. Of course I was terribly wrong.

For the first few weeks here I was delighted to eat my favorite Indian delicacies in their place of origin and also discover new dishes that I loved. I ate more dosa than I could count and delighted on paneer, parota, dal and roti, excitedly sending my family back home pictures and descriptions of this strange food they knew nothing about. Even the repetitive cafeteria food at work tasted great to me.

But as time passed and the excitement of the first few weeks waned the flavors of Indian food started to weight down on me. I became increasingly aware of the fact that although I occasionally ate Indian food at Penn the food here was definitely not what I was used to eating regularly. The strangeness of the food was added to the strangeness of the language, the city, and the work in the list of things that made me miss home. I started to get tired of the spicy food and crave anything that tasted like home. It would be short of impossible to find a Brazilian restaurant in Bangalore, so I started making do with Italian take-outs and some home-cooked meals.

I have come to realize that as much as I appreciate and like Indian food, it will never be my comfort food. It’s not what I grew up eating and will always taste “different” to me – it might fill my stomach and satiate my hunger, but it won’t fill me up entirely and make me feel all cozy inside. Even though I eat rice every day here, I crave rice and beans with Brazilian flavor, with simple and rich seasoning that doesn’t make your mouth tingle.

In some ways, my relationship with food has become even closer in my time here. I’ve come from eating as much Indian food as possible to trying to have it at least as possible, all the while understanding more and more how important food is not just for nutrition but for overall happiness and satisfaction. I’ve been thinking a lot more about how much the food I grew up with impacted my preferences now, reflecting on how intrinsic food is to our human experience, and watching a whole lot of Chef’s Table and Masterchef Brazil (highly recommend both).

Yesterday I decided to order biryani for dinner. I have loved this rice-and-chicken meal ever since I first tried it, but last night I couldn’t finish it because it was too spicy for me. My roommate and co-intern, who is Indian-American, tried it and said it was very tasty and not that spicy at all. After that we had a long conversation about our relationships to food which led me to the only conclusion that our opinions on food are nothing but a product of our backgrounds.

My biggest takeaway from this whole experience is: spicy is not necessarily a synonym of good or even well-seasoned, just like non-spicy does not mean bland or bad. There is no cuisine, food or flavor that is inherently better than another – independent of the level of spice.

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About joaocamposd

My name is João and I'm a Junior at Penn originally from Belo Horizonte, Brazil. I study International Relations and I'm really excited to be working at Shahi Exports this Summer.