“Indian soup again?! Urgh!” I said as my mother lovingly prepared a weeknight meal of Indianstyle tomato soup for our family. I tied my hair up immediately and ran out of the door in fear that my hair would smell like curry at school the next day. As an acceptance-hungry 12-year old I wondered why we couldn’t just be like a “normal” family and eat cream of tomato straight from the can, with not a speck of masala in sight. I didn’t realise it at the time but deep down, what I was really asking for was the soup my white friends had for their supper. I knew that we weren’t like everyone else in our neighbourhood.
I grew up in a small village in West Yorkshire. We were one of three Asian families living there and until I reached my first decade I never felt too different to anyone else. My brother and I were the only Hindus of Indian-African descent at our school and sometimes our customs would get poked fun at by the other kids, but never in a way that made us feel embarrassed. The rakhis I tied on my brother’s wrist every August on Rakshabandhan were cajoled for being girly bracelets when in fact, they were a symbol of my love, to bond us as siblings, and offer him protection for the year ahead. At that age nobody ever said anything to my face. I was blissfully unaware. But that all changed when I hit my teens.
It was the mid 90s, the Spice Girls were at the top of the charts and you weren’t cool unless you wore miniskirts and jelly shoes. Multiculturalism wasn’t as prevalent as it is now and knowledge of Indian culture beyond that red dot we sometimes have on our foreheads was about as advanced as it got. Truth be told, we lived in a small village surrounded by wonderful people, but it also happened to be a place where samosas were thought to be a type of exotic food us Hindus ate at “Ramadam”.
My family and I would go to local Pakistani shops to seek out aubergines for Baingan Bharta and unearthing a bunch of coriander in the local supermarket was unheard of. Going to Asian shops and bumping in to a friend from school in the area sca much?” It was a childish, irrational fear that felt absolutely rational at the time. But then again, I was a child.
Looking back, I’m ashamed to admit that those sorts of thoughts troubled me. I should have been out learning to ride a bike, or choreographing my own Kathak routines, but I never learned to do either of those things. The same thoughts ran through my mind when we went to the “Asian part of town”, or dressed up in (beautiful) lenghas to go to a family wedding, and sadly, when we spoke Gujarati, our mother tongue in front of people that weren’t part of our family. The funny thing is that when we got home I relished the fresh vegetables and spice blends my parents picked up from the aforementioned shops I’d previously tarnished with my ugly mindfarts. I was in my element browsing those aisles learning about picking the best coconuts and papayas, yet on edge throughout thinking I’d get caught indulging my alien heritage by a kid from school. It’s sad to think that I believed that just being me, a British Indian-African Hindu would somehow undo the “Britishness” I’d feigned in trying to fit in with my white friends. At the time, embracing my roots didn’t feel like an option and looking back on it as an adult, that breaks my heart.
My husband’s story is the polar opposite of mine. He grew up in Leicester, a city famed for its Golden Mile, curry houses and massive immigrant population. There were Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Kashmiri families on every street. Some streets comprised of only immigrants and his entire school year was made up of 95% Asians, half of which were Gujarati like him. Going to the Indian shop was a mundane chore. He’d probably bump in to 5 or 6 kids from school there and he’d most likely wave, ask how they were and swap some football stickers. Thinking about that makes my soul burn a little bit; with embarrassment, with envy, of feelings of being cheated, I don’t quite know.
Part of me wishes I had it a bit easier growing up but I also appreciate that perhaps I wouldn’t have eventually embraced Indian customs, traditions and cuisine quite as much as I had, if it wasn’t for knowing I was different – the kids at school certainly knew it. I was a running joke during the weekly P.E lesson; the 10-year old Indian girl with dark hairs on her legs. She was an early developer and has to use the teacher’s bathroom because she has started her periods already. Whispers as we got changed in to our yellow and black polo shirts and short-shorts, girls and boys together in the same room except I was the only one who wore a bra and had hair on my lower back. It was brutal and would be for any young woman. The advice I’d give to my younger self and every young lady out there is this: Love yourself because YOU MATTER. You’re unique and beautiful, and maybe one day the kids pointing and muttering will realise how isolated they made you feel for being different. Be fearless, realise your potential and the impact you have on your own life as well as the lives of others. Be kind because people don’t remember what you say, they remember how you make them feel.
My parents always made my brother and I feel special, never let us feel like we missed out on things. We were allowed to hang out with our friends, go to school discos and dress however we liked. Mum even bought me two pairs of jelly shoes in both purple and pink. They always wanted us to be fully integrated and immersed within our peer groups, and never out casted or made to feel strange because of the colour of our skin or for listening to Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on our iPod Minis. There was always a handful of kids (and parents) who saw us differently but that’s inevitable. Looking back on it now I realise how easy we probably had it in comparison to other families who have experienced outright racism throughout their lives. I also appreciate everything my parents did to help us feel like part of the crowd, yet never let our cultural values slip away.
It took me until I was about 18-years old to realise I didn’t care what others thought and that my real friends would stick around for the whole me. They would come over for Indian dinners and didn’t think pomegranates in yoghurt were weird, or that fresh, homemade cheese in creamy spinach curry was gag inducing. We’d feast on Biryani, Raita, Mutter Paneer, Roti and Channa Masala until we were ready to burst. Hell, we’d even watch Zee TV and dance around the living room together. By the time I reached university I was back to being that girl who wasn’t afraid of admitting she was at her happiest singing Bollywood songs in the car with dad, Jalebi in one hand, Samosa in the other, middle finger ready to be flipped to anyone waiting to judge. It’s sad that it took that long for reality to kick in but I don’t regret anything. I’m stronger for it. I’ll take that soul-warming bowl of Masala-spiced tomato soup now. It really is delicious.
This is one of the most soul-warming dinners from my childhood that I still make regularly. It’s a recipe that transcends borders, one that embodies my British-Asian identity down to a tee. The curry leaves are crackled in hot ghee along with cumin seeds for the most fragrant finish. And I no longer care so much about my hair smelling of Indian food.
Curry Leaf Cream of Tomato Soup
2x 400g tins Cream of Tomato Soup
2 tbsp melted ghee
2 tsp cumin seeds 1
/2 tsp asafoetida
2-inch piece ginger, grated
1 large onion, finely diced
1 large red chilli, finely chopped
10-12 curry leaves
Freshly-chopped coriander, to garnish
1. To make the soup, heat the ghee in a large pan and add the onions. Sauté until deep golden brown and caramelised.
2. Add the curry leaves, cumin seeds, ginger, chillies and asafoetida. Stir briefly.
3. Pour in the tins of tomato soup and stir to combine. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes.
4. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve garnished with fresh coriander.
Guest blog by: Sanjana Modha
Sanjana Modha is a food blogger, photographer and the voice behind Sanjana Feasts. Inspired by beautiful ingredients, people and stories, her passion lies in creating Asian vegetarian soul food recipes for the way we eat today.
Sanjana's love of food began with the traditional South Asian dishes she ate growing up as a first-generation Brit with Indian roots. She believes that food transcends borders and that a bowl of good daal can fix anything.