A summary of — and a response to — an excerpt from Krishnendu Ray’s Migrant’s Table: Meals And Memories In Bengali-American Households.
Ray examines the culinary habits of Bengalis living in India, of Bengalis who have immigrated to the US, and of Americans, to explore their ethnic identities. He talks about the concept of “ethnic food” and the regional and temporal variations in its meaning, and then goes on to question the way we look at ethnicity. Through anecdotes, he explores how a people’s culinary habits at once unite them — by creating in-groups or communities that have similar gustatory preferences — and separate them from other groups with different culinary histories. The anecdotes highlight the differences among these various groups by two processes: (a) by pointing out how little they know about what other people eat everyday, how they prepare their food, and their relationship with food, and (b) by talking about their own responses to foreign food.
He touches upon how the name of a food a group eats could confuse an outsider who might interpret it literally, unaware of said group’s cultural history. Miscommunications and stereotypes often emerge from such interactions. He then examines how immigrants have changed their own habits, handed down through the ages, and thereby forged a cultural identity for themselves that’s distinct from both that of their ancestors as well as that of the undisplaced people they’re surrounded with. He chooses to focus on Bengali migrants and talks about how they’ve responded to American culture: by either incorporating it into their own culinary heritage or rejecting it completely, and how that’s either an act of embracing everything American or an act of yearning for home. There are also personal accounts of American women married to Bengali men, and their reaction to Indian cuisine. Through that new cultural lens, Ray also looks at Bengal’s imitation of “Western” food, and what these Western women thought of it.
Inside of a culture, culinary habits are pervasive and have restricting cultural myths built around them. Our cultural moorings define what we eat, how we eat it, and what eating means to us. Menus could be extremely elaborate, incorporating a wide variety of ingredients and flavours, or they could be simple and easy to prepare.
When people are exposed to a new culture, they may either reject its food or make it their own by tweaking it. Ray presents anecdotes from both a Western and an Indian perspective, and this makes the cultural differences more prominent.
In these times of globalisation, when we are exposed to other cultures and their foods, the text remains relevant to most of us. Being open to other people’s habits and experiencing their way of doing things can only add to our own knowledge, adding to it a breadth that only interacting with other groups can. Even if we ultimately end up rejecting someone else’s culinary habits completely, we would at least know what exactly it is that we are rejecting. On the other hand, incorporating parts of it into our own collective history would only enhance it, because history, by definition, only exists when it changes.