When I first tasted red beans and rice, that quintessential staple of Deep South cooking, it was, quite appropriately, the "special of the day." After a marathon session of grading and teaching freshman labs, my friends and I had set out to the soul-food restaurant that had prices that fitted our graduate- student budgets. We were caught in a sudden downpour and arrived at the eatery soaked to the skin. Four steaming plates of the lunch special materialized at our table. We devoured every morsel of that comfort food.
I knew that red beans and rice was made with beef broth – a minor detail to my friends, but it was relevant to a Hindu like me.
The world considers the hamburger the national dish of America. So, in theory, I knew when I left India that I would be reaching the culinary antipode of home, but I had not pondered the practical implications of the fact. The orthodox sect my family belongs to considers not just the cow but all forms of life sacred – so all meat was taboo for me.
Although we have been vegetarians for generations, diet is not really a hereditary trait, I came to realize.
Of course, I am not the first Hindu who left home; all of us are confronted with choices. I was fascinated by the food I saw in the college cafeteria. The first week, I held up the breakfast line by staring at what appeared to be severed tongues done to a crisp. (It was just bacon.) Lunchtime had me gaping at the pink nakedness of cold cuts. Previously, the only meat I had seen was dressed in spices – skewered or swimming in curry.
The school's welcome party was a crawfish boil. I bit into a small potato that had simmered in spices with the strange orange-red seafood. A fellow student, a native of New Orleans, obligingly demonstrated how to peel "mud bugs" – I wasn't the only one eating them for the first time.
This was just the start in a series of culinary discoveries. Crawfish étouffée turned out to be a nonmessy way to enjoy the crustacean.
While the South indulges all food lovers, it was particularly partial to rice eaters like me. The familiar okra beckoned from a delicious gumbo.
Jambalaya was a word in a song for me once, but with the local bands playing in the background, the food version tasted like perfection itself. Po' boys – local sandwiches bursting with golden-fried seafood – seemed to be designed just for students.
Sometimes, I wondered how my family would view my dietary digressions. Would my parents consider it a rejection of their values?
Despite these vague misgivings, I often bought a muffuletta sandwich – stuffed with salami and relish – to eat by the levee with classmates when the weather was good.
Once, after an evening of jazz in New Orleans' French Quarter, I sank into a seat at Cafe Du Monde – an establishment that has been serving just two items for more than a century. Their beignets – dusted with confectioners' sugar – are eaten between sips of café au lait.
At the table next to me, a woman had bags stuffed with gift tins of the cafe's coffee. The word "chicory" on the ocher background caught my eye.
In South India, those who add chicory to their coffee are scorned by connoisseurs. Certainly, my parents would consider it nothing short of sacrilege, I thought.
Before long, I had savored nearly every Southern specialty, as I also slowly immersed myself in American culture by watching prime-time TV shows.
Television's most popular Indian immigrant must be the convenience-store clerk Apu in the "The Simpsons." In one episode, Apu, the reluctant groom, quizzes Manjula – his bride-to-be and virtual stranger – about her "favorite food, movie, and book," to get to know her better – and quickly.
Her witty response – fried green tomatoes – wins him over, and they plunge into matrimony. By then, I could no longer picture myself in an arranged marriage – the cultural norm for Indians – but, like Manjula, I liked the Southern dish.
In New Orleans, a foodie paradise where even the coleslaw tasted delicious, it was not easy to pick one flavorful dish over another. I wanted to sample them all.
On phone calls, when my mother asked if I was eating well, I answered truthfully – but without going into details – yes. Nor did I tell her about my Catholic boyfriend; this was news I knew I had to break gently. Mentally, I rehearsed my lines.
It turned out that I had worried for nothing. "Your father and I would most certainly like to meet him," my mother said, "and I would also like to try that coffee."
I was relieved. Little things – such as centuries of ingrained ideas – could not come between us.
When I graduated and moved to the East Coast, the regional cuisine did not tempt me. Perhaps my parents' tacit acceptance of my culinary adventurousness also had something to do with it, but I became vegetarian again – this time by choice.
Now I don't need to replicate Southern cooking in the kitchen. For me, red beans and rice has become the spicy rajma-chawal I make using an old handwritten recipe as a guide. The familiar flavors have reclaimed me once more.