February 8, 2012
One of the coolest things about teaching is the way that the lessons I teach are often just as applicable to me as they are to my students. And in listening to and discussing with my kids, I’m made to think about and consider things more deeply, to decide what I think, and to figure out how to substantiate my claims—all of the very things I’m trying to teach them to do. Related side note: you know how dogs can smell fear? Teenagers can smell hypocrisy.
The unit we are wrapping up has grown out of a study of the graphic novel American Born Chinese, a visually beautiful but ambiguously messaged story about three intersecting characters who each examine issues of belonging, stereotypes, assimilation, and acceptance. Many of my students quickly caught on to some of the mixed messages in the book, and so I took it as an opportunity for us to examine the thoughts of other writers on the topic of identity: Amy Tan, Eric Liu, Claude Steele, Z.Z. Packer, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
I’ve spent lots of time thinking and writing about what it was like to grow up as the first-generation daughter of Indian immigrants in Memphis, Tennessee, but it is another thing entirely to think about one’s identity in the context of a classroom full of students, many of whom were considering the topic for the first time.
How much “Indian” am I, and by virtue of what? I feel fully American, and am legally American, but what does that mean? Does our notion of what it means to BE American still need updating? What comes with having a hyphenated identity?
This quote from Jhumpa Lahiri, short-story writing goddess and fellow Indian-American, resonated with me: “As a child I sought perfection and so denied myself the claim to any identity. As an adult I accept that a bicultural upbringing is a rich but imperfect thing.”
In as much as our identities are created, fluid, and malleable, I am still figuring out what it means to be me, what I want it to mean, what that meaning looks like. In my further-hyphenated family (Jill is Caucasian American, mostly Irish if you go far back enough), food plays a big part in anchoring the “Indian” part of my identity into our life.
You’ll need to visit the Indian grocery store for this one: fresh curry leaves (which really give this dish its distinctive flavor) and poha (flattened, de-husked, and dried rice) are hard to find elsewhere. Luckily, both will keep very well in your fridge—the leaves, wrapped in a paper towel and sealed in a Ziploc bag, and the poha in an airtight container or well-sealed in its original packaging.
This dish is typically served for breakfast, but it works just as well for lunch or dinner. Jill has become a big fan (thanks to my mom, who got us hooked on visits to our house before I started making it myself!), and I really love that.
3 cups thick poha
2 cups peeled, chopped, raw, firm-fleshed potatoes (red or Yukon Gold work well)
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 tsp. cumin seeds
½ tsp. turmeric
1 T sugar
1 T chopped, fresh curry leaves
½ cup finely-chopped yellow onion
¼ cup finely chopped ginger (less if you prefer)
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground coriander
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper, more if you are feeling brave
half a bag of frozen peas
optional: some minced Serrano or other hot green pepper
Make the vagar (base): heat a generous few tablespoons of canola oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Once the heat is shimmery, add the cumin and mustard seeds; they should pop and crackle. Sprinkle the turmeric on top of them.
Turn the heat down to medium and add the onion and ginger, plus fresh chili if you’re using it, sautéing until they just soften. Add the sugar, ground spices, and salt, then toss in the potatoes and curry leaves.
Cover the pot with a lid and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes have begun to soften and brown. Toss in the frozen peas and cover again.
In the meantime, gently rinse the poha in a colander—don’t soak, or the poha will dissolve. Once the potatoes and peas have cooked to your liking, toss in the wet poha and stir thoroughly. Turn off the heat, but re-cover the pot and leave on the stove for an additional 5-10 minutes before checking for salt and serving.
Possible serving accompaniments: squeeze of lemon, Sriracha or other hot sauce, tamarind or cilantro chutney, or ketchup, a childhood favorite which I’m not ashamed to say I still use from time to time.