Traces of Spice

A few days into my first year at Yale, I was talking to my father on the phone. As any good Asian parent is wont to do, he asked me about food.

“Is it good?” he said. “Are you eating properly?”

There was a pause on my end. My first response was to say yes, of course I was. I was doing fine. I had begun to develop that tone of disdain that first-years adopt when talking to their parents. I was a college student now; didn’t my dad understand that I was busy? But I caught myself. I listened carefully to the sweetness of his voice, the melancholy uptick at the end of each of his questions. I realized that my father missed me. So I drew my breath and told the truth: “It’s okay. Something’s missing though.”

“Maybe it’s the spice?”

He was right—it was the lack of seasoning that I missed, the salt and cumin and peppers that flavored my memories of home. I didn’t want to cry, so I hung up with a soft spoken I love you and Yelped “Asian Market.” Hong Kong Market was less than five minutes from my residential college.

I walked up Whitney Avenue in the dim evening light. The grocery store’s windows were packed with posters of xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and bags of jasmine rice. A familiar language drifted through the open door: Mandarin. It was a language I learned at a young age through my bilingual school in New York, but hadn’t heard that much since.

When I entered and asked the cashier for chili peppers, she gestured to the stairs a few feet away and asked me to follow. We went down to the basement and past a tall shelf with peeling white paint full of dried ginseng. It smelled like Flushing, Queens, the air thick with the aroma of soy sauce and natural decay. She led me to a supermarket fridge and pointed to the small plastic bags of red and green peppers. At home, we only had the bright, kelly-green kind. But the shape was right. I leaned in and realized the smell was right too. They were in that exact plastic bagging that I had only ever seen in Indian markets and inside my refrigerator. They were the quick fix I was looking for, the garnish that could make any meal taste a bit more like home.

As the subtle, crisp smell of spice crept into my nose, I remembered the warning my mother gave me when I left for college. She said I would miss the food, but I hadn’t listened. I thought I knew better. I thought I’d miss other things—the smell of my cat, the subway, the early-morning sing-song of ambulances. I had been to sleep-away camp before, deprived of my home food for weeks on end, and it hadn’t bothered me. Why would college be any different?

At first, the dining hall seemed to offer all the food that I could possibly want. But after a few days, I found her warning coming true. I missed the spice, the aromas wafting from my kitchen as my mother made fish curry, the crackle of turmeric karela hitting the pan.

Snapping out of my reverie, I was still clutching the plastic bag of chili peppers under the blue-green fluorescent lights of the Hong Kong Market. When I went back upstairs to check out, the cashier mentioned that the shipment of chili peppers had just come in.

“You’re very lucky,” she said. “A lot of students come in looking for that.”

Her response surprised me. Maybe I wasn’t the only person struggling to find home in Yale Dining food. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that other students could be having the same experience; everyone always seemed happy enough to chow down on the same unsalted mashed potatoes and chickpea salad.

When I brought my chili peppers to the Berkeley dining hall that evening, I plopped the plastic bag on the table, took out three peppers, and placed them on my plate. My best friend Irene chuckled. Clearly, I was desperate. But when other first-years at the table saw my peppers, they began listing the things they missed the most: a mother’s congee, a barbecued bit of pork, a salty soup, a certain sauce. All of our memories from home came down to our dinner plates.

The few Indian restaurants in New Haven don’t make food exactly like my parents do, but I’ll take it. Sometimes there isn’t enough ginger or methi. Sometimes there’s too much salt. I tried to be okay with the sambar from Thali Too, though it wasn’t the same as what my father makes in the pressure cooker when I’m sick. This is my new home, I keep telling myself. I have to be okay with the food being different because everything is different.

But even as I attempted to recreate pang of lamb biryani or rogan josh with my peppers, homemade food is as much about the culture the cuisine comes from as it is about the people who make it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss my parents. My roommate tells me one night that she misses the feeling of saying hi to everyone in her Greek village with the knowledge that “everyone knows everyone.” But she claims she doesn’t think much about the food. She’s too preoccupied with meeting new people, reveling in her new life here. She could go years without eating Greek food, she tells me. She’s sure that this is her home now. She’s perfectly satisfied with her meals at Timothy Dwight. But she also tells me proudly that she refuses to eat Greek food that isn’t from Greece or her parents’ kitchen.

“But,” I ask, “didn’t you go to a Greek restaurant last week?”

“Yes,” she says. “But it wasn’t the same.”

“I know.”

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