It was lunchtime in middle school. The plastic brown tables were all lined up ready for the next group of students to take their seats, discuss their plan for the weekend, their recent Chemistry exam, and the rainy weather that forbidden them from playing outdoors.
I opened up my brown bag lunch to find my signature meal: a turkey sandwich with lettuce and mayo on white bread, with an apple and some chips on the side. I looked across the lunch room to a fellow Indian kid, opening up his lunch with a hesitation, clear that he was embarrassed with whatever he was about to pull out. Removing his brown bag, he had in front of him a tupperware container filled with Punjabi chole (chow–lei), a dish popular throughout India consisting of chickpeas and spices.
From across the lunch room I could hear his friends jeering:
“Ew! What is that?”
“Why does it have that smell?”
“Haha. Curry boy. Where’s your red dot?”
I quickly looked away, feeling as though just by sheer eye contact I would be associated with the boy’s torment. I could feel my body heat up with anger, but not at the boys making fun of him. I was angry at him. I thought to myself, “shouldn’t he know he would have been made fun of? Why would he bring Indian food for lunch? He’s doing it to himself, and he’s making it worse for the rest of us.” As he ran out of the lunch room almost in tears, I looked at him with disgust in my eyes despite the real truth, that chole was my favorite food.
At the time, the person I was at school was an entirely different person than the one I was at home on the weekends. The hours I spent with my family friends learning Hindi and watching Bollywood movies were a well–kept secret from my middle school peers. My favorite Indian snacks were eaten only after I was alone with my family at home, away from anyone who could judge me.
Throughout high school, I continued to hide this side of me. I was embarrassed of my culture, of my favorite food, and of those who couldn’t seem to fit in with everyone else. I was ready to lie, telling my friends that I didn’t really like Indian food, that I wasn’t "in touch" with my Indian side. The idea of introducing my friends to my culture in any capacity, even by giving them chole to try, was incomprehensible.
However, there was a duality to my cultural rejection because I was so used to everyone around me demeaning their own heritage to seem "more American." My friends weren’t asking me to teach them about being Indian, instead they just smiled at the pretty Indian dresses would occasionally post on my Instagram.
I went into college expecting much of the same, individuals who kept their social life separate from their Indian culture. I surrounded myself by people who I thought would think the same as me, who were angry at those who “made it more difficult for us” or people I thought wouldn’t care.
In reality, my friends seemed to care more about my culture than I did.
The first time I spoke Hindi in front of my best friend on a phone call with my mother, she cheered with excitement, begging me to speak more in front of her. She thought hearing the language was cool and was amazed that I could speak it so fluently.
The first time I ate Indian food at Penn, my friend had asked me to go to Ekta with her. She told me how badly she was craving Indian food–her favorite food and really wanted someone who would go with her. I obliged and was delighted to introduce her to chole there.
The first time I explored my culture beyond food at Penn was when I went to go watch my friend perform in her dance team with a group of people. All of them were eager to support our friend dancing to classical Bollywood songs and really appreciated this opportunity to explore Indian culture.
The first time my parents brought up food for me sophomore year, my mom asked if I wanted any Indian food. I was eager to ask for chole, but I was nervous. I told her no and that I would just have some the next time I came home. Later that week, my friend approached me having heard that my mom had brought my sister Indian food. He pleaded to have some of my mother’s home cooked Indian food, but I had to say no. I didn’t have any because I had been too embarrassed. I promised him though, “next time.”
And next time, I ended up eating the chole all for myself. It was these interactions that taught me it was okay to be both American and Indian. It was okay to have different life experiences than my friends and that they would be here to hear about them. It took me time to realize that it wasn’t weird to be Indian, it was just different. I was no longer angry at the kids who would bring Indian food for lunch, I was jealous. Jealous that they were able to come to this conclusion much sooner than I was.
It’s still taking time but I am learning once again to love my culture as much as I love being an American. I am relearning parts of myself I had repressed for so long. And, most importantly, I’m eating chole every chance I get.
- To dry roast and grind into powder:
- 2 Bay leaves
- 2 Black cardamom
- 4-5 Cloves
- ½ inch Cinnamon stick
- ½ teaspoon Black peppercorns
- To grind into paste
- 1 medium or 1 cup Onion roughly chopped
- 2 small or 1 cup Tomato roughly chopped
- 1 Green chili
- ½ inch Ginger chopped
- 2 cloves Garlic sliced
- For the chole
- 1 cup Dried white chickpeas (Chole or kabuli chana or safed chana)
- 2-3 tablespoons Oil
- ½ teaspoon Cumin seeds
- Salt to taste
- 2 teaspoons Red chili powder
- 1 teaspoon Coriander powder
- ¼ teaspoon Turmeric powder
- 1 teaspoon Anardana powder (dried pomegranate seeds powder)
- 2 ¼ cups Water
- ½ teaspoon Amchur powder (dried mango powder)
- 2 tablespoons Cilantro or coriander leaves finely chopped
- Wash and soak the chana in water for 8 hours overnight. Then drain the soaking water.
- To make fresh spice powder, dry roast all the whole spices in a small pan on medium low heat for 2 minutes.
- Once cooled completely, make fine powder using the spice grinder.
- take onion, tomato, ginger, garlic and green chili into a grinder jar and make smooth paste. Keep it aside.
- Making chole:
- Heat the oil in a pan on medium heat and add cumin seeds.
- Once they sizzle add prepared onion-tomato puree along with little salt and cook till it becomes thick paste and leaves the sides of the pan.
- Add remaining salt, red chili powder, turmeric powder, coriander powder, anardana powder and prepared spice powder. Mix well and cook till oil starts to ooze out.
- Add soaked chickpeas and water, mix.
- Cover the pressure cooker with a lid. Put the weight on. Let it cook for 20–25 minutes on medium heat.
- Once pressure releases naturally, open the lid.
- Check the gravy consistency. If the gravy is thin and watery, then let it simmer for a few minutes. If the gravy is too thick, add some more water and simmer for 2–3 minutes.
- Add amchur powder and mix.
- Lastly garnish with chopped cilantro.