There is a moment in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God which tells of how Janie, the story’s narrator, comes to recognize herself as colored. “Ah was wid dem white chillun so much till Ah didn’t know Ah wuzn’t white till Ah was round six years old,” she says.
But one day a photographer comes around taking pictures.
“So when we looked at de picture and everybody got pointed out there wasn’t nobody left except a real dark little girl with long hair standing by Eleanor. Dat’s where Ah wuz s’posed to be, but Ah couldn’t recognize dat dark chile as me. So Ah ast, ‘where is me? Ah don’t see me.’
“Everybody laughed, even Mr. Washburn. Miss Nellie, de Mama of de chillun who come back home after her husband dead, she pointed to de dark one and said, ‘Dat’s you, Alphabet, don’t you know yo’ ownself?’
“Dey all useter call me Alphabet ’cause so many people had done named me different names. Ah looked at de picture a long time and seen it was mah dress and mah hair so Ah said:
“ ‘Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!’ ”
The passage has stuck with me since my first reading in graduate school. Speed ahead to the present, and there’s a very different sort of book by Karen Joy Fowler, We Were all Beside Ourselves–whose narrator, Rose, asks also about the moment when we come to recognize ourselves, as human, as non-chimpanzee. She describes a “mirror test” which psychologists use to determine whether non-humans, or animals, possesses the ability of self-recognition. And it struck me again: the mirror was a lot like Janie’s photograph, in that it held a likeness of herself.
It got me thinking about other objects that act as mirrors. At what point, and through what objects, do we gain this ability to see a reflection and see ourselves in that reflection? What does that moment of recognition do to our valuation of our selves? Or say about our very capacity for humanness?
For years and years, my parents’ generation seemed to find this moment, or seek it anyway, in the validations of western Science and Reason. Our beliefs weren’t random; they weren’t just superstitions. Our yogasanas were a form of exercise and health-making. Our mathematical insights, written in esoteric Sanskrit verse, made beautiful sense. Our taboos existed for material reasons. Our use of turmeric was medicinal in ways that are only now being discovered. And if western countries were turning politically toward multiculturalism? Well, we had been multicultural of course for hundreds of years.
This sort of “we-knew-it-first” assertion had only limited resonance for me. While I have no qualms about telling my children about just how advanced ancient Indian surgical techniques were, or the tremendous significance of the concept of shunya or zero, or sharing the two-line shloka that gives the value of π via music theory–and while I refuse to mock the impulse to re-value the insights of our own literatures–it is incredibly hard to identify with claims that we were pioneers in everything.
Lately, there have been a new set of mirrors held up for us to find ourselves within. I’ll name three: coconut water, coconut oil, and now moringa.
At first, how much we laughed. How completely silly it was to be evaluating coconut water–against gatorade. Calling it smart water or worse, a sports drink. Creating myths about coconut water. Debunking myths about coconut water. Reducing it to its nutritional components per FDA guidelines. Creating guides on the best packaged coconut water. (which I’d not touch with a 10-foot pole, not the guide and certainly not the water).
Something similar seems to have happened with coconut oil. We thought it was bad, but now we think it’s great because the problem wasn’t with the oil, it was with the refinement of the oil. Ah, ok! Now that we have that sorted, Huff Po can cull a list of recipes for this new and versatile ingredient and a list of some 50-odd uses of coconut oil (from curing toe fungus to HIV to Alzheimers) was doing viral rounds for a while there. Ok, still somewhat amusing, if also increasingly ridiculous.
Why are these mirrors? Well, because those of us who’ve grown up in the South of India have quite literally grown up with coconut in all its forms–on trees which often grew in our backyards, harvested green and sold on streets for water (and vazhuku, or the young coconut flesh inside), fresh for ceremonial use or in the kitchen, dry pressed into oil (yup, that’s extra virgin for ya) or used in masala mixes and powders, and the oil massaged on our bodies and into our hair, particularly in the hotter months of the year.
We’d recognize ourselves in the coconut any day.
And now, moringa–which I learned last night is an “African superfood” with an arm’s length list of nutritional equivalences. A little bit like Janie, or Rose, I did a double take.
“ ‘Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!’ ”
That newly anointed superfood is me–my diet, my taste, my childhood memories of the fragrances from my mother’s kitchen, my hunger, my history. And I recognize myself now as something I never thought I was: a powdered form of a leaf.
“Moringa” that’s all the rage is none other than the murunga-elai, or leaves of the murunga or murungya maram (tree), whose fruits are commonly known as drumsticks for their resemblance to those very instruments of percussion. Yes, the name “moringa” was derived from the Tamil/Malayalam.
That’s the tree that grows in my garden–not flowering just now.
We all have memories of murunga:
I used to love drumsticks so much I once fished each piece out of the dal my mother had made with them, and then had to sit all afternoon polishing my plate. For years after, I’d not touch them. But the distaste born of one lunch overkill didn’t last. It couldn’t.
My point here is not that we knew what white folks are just discovering, though I suppose I’d be dishonest not to admit the pleasure that snide little statement brings. It’s not even that food fads and the search for the “next acai, the next coconut water, the next goji berry, the next chia seed, and the ever-elusive next quinoa” are offensive–although the exploitation of indigenous knowledge and resources, often to their own detriment, for the fad-crazed superfood-obsessed United States, is certainly that.
My point is that this western “discovery” of foods we always ate and places we already inhabited is getting a wee bit tiresome. What, did Columbus go hunting for India and find Africa this time?
Oh but wait, it gets better. You can get “moringa” in capsules and energy bars, and moringa can help people in “famine prone parts of the world improve their own nutrition.” Really? That story I told about overdoing it on drumsticks as a child–that happened in Maiduguri, which is in Nigeria, which is in west Africa. You think that folks there who brush their teeth with neem sticks won’t know at least something about the value of the “moringa”–leaf and curious fruit–that’s native to those lands?
Another double take. Deja vu; we’ve been there before. Like when the British prevented Indians from mining their own salt so that they could import the stuff with a nice fat tax slapped on. Or when raw cotton from here was exported to the weaving towns of industrializing England and loomed with designs from here–and sold back here with “paisleys” on top, if you please.
I have nothing left to say about Kuli Kuli and these strange new moringa energy bars and the leveraging of “world hunger” to rationalize and fund another superfood madness. Each move distances us from the sources and realities of our own foods and foodways–which we share freely, seeds, leaves, recipes and all–and returns them to us with FDA sanction and possibly some patents attached. Coconut water in a box. The delicate bitterness of tender murunga leaves in powders or smothered with chocolate, so that we don’t have to really figure out how to cook them or like them at all, as long as they work their superfood magic on us. “Will the price of coconut oil in Bangalore increase now that it’s been declared a valuable new ingredient?” asked a friend. I think the question is its own statement.
And something to ponder before you buy your next smart coconut water, or order your batch of moringa bars.
My lessons in greens continue. Morning, at the small market. A woman sitting at one corner, with bunches upon bunches of fresh greens bundled. I point to one variety I’ve not seen before.
“What are these”?
“Vallai keerai,” she answers. Keerai are greens in Tamil.
“What do you do with them?” The usual answers: kootu (dal-based preparation with vegetables and coconut), poriyal (akin to a quick, dry stir fry).
The greens are Rs. 10 a bunch. They wither and spoil fast, and so many of them grow wild and in small, home gardens. It’s usually women on the peripheries of the market who sell greens–cheap, perishable, with only small profit margins. Men, and more established market women, take the bigger ticket veggies.
At home, with Usha. “How do you cook these?” Same answers as in the market. But she goes on to tell me about how these greens are good for girls and women, pregnancy and menstrual health. You don’t get them all the time, she adds. I give her one of my bunches for her to take home to her daughter.
Lunch. A simple dal with the vallai keerai greens. We’re in love. And love takes me to Google to ask what these greens might be in a language I can understand. (Note the irony). After several re-tries with different spellings, I learn that these are Kang Kong greens, also known as water spinach, swamp spinach, botanically ipomoea aquatica, a distant relative of morning glories and always a survival food. Common, ignored, a weed. They’re cooked into stir-fries all over south east Asia, and are particularly good with just red chilli sambal and garlic.
Dinner, then, is a stir fry. But I have already other plans for these greens that cannot always be procured: the garden calls.
There’s just the perfect pot, not used because it lacks a drainage hole. Flood it with water. Grab a handful of kang kong, trim the ends, and stick them unceremoniously into the swampy mud. Wait–but not for long.
Sooner still, they are blooming.
If you have the heart to harvest these greens, do so before the plant flowers. Because once it flowers, trust me, you won’t have the heart to harvest these greens.
If I ever get around to compiling my beginner’s guide to Tamil greens, I’ll also get around to posting dal recipes that use kang kong, too. Stay tuned. For now, just the recipe for the stir fry that we consumed too fast and in much too poor light to leave any hope for photographs.
Update: March 8: Garden-direct stir-fried kang kong greens!
Be brave. La Cassata Siciliana is like a journey through alien territory to which you have decided to stake a claim. Once —
And then once more —
I confess, I’ve been wanting to do this post ever since my friend Laurel remarked on this Hong Kong-manufactured warming liniment called Po Sum On–which is no joke or mispronunciation but which actually means “Protect the heart’s peace.” An oil used to treat muscle and joint aches with that sort of double entendre? Too good to be true.
“Cong you bing some green onions from the market today?” I ask Verne, who of course has no idea what I am talking about. “Cong you what??” he answers, and proceeds to explain that “bing” is bread in Mandarin, qualified by the preceding words which tell just sort of bing it is: Fa mian bing is yeast-risen bing, Laobing is pan-fried bing and so on.
Me, I wish “Cong you bing” had had some more inspiring meaning beyond the literal “green onion pancake”–something like “path to happiness” or “feeling of a rainy morning.” But no such luck. It’s not even really a pancake, as it’s made with dough instead of batter. I’m left to my own (bad) punning devices. read more…
It’s one of those bottle-able mornings in Pondicherry. Quiet, breezy, and until the sun returns to his glowering ways, perfectly, wonderfully cool. A lovely day to make some new friends.
We live amidst the notorious “fishermen” off-center from Pondicherry town: that part that’s neither “white town” [where the French once resided] nor “black town” [where wealthier Tamil traders resided] but the “village” that adjoins both. Here are a series of kuppams or fishing villages that lay on the seashore: Kurusu-kuppam [where the lower caste Christians lived], Vaithikuppam, Angalakuppam and on, each named after headmen or local deities or the composition of its residents. read more…
We live in Cashew country. All around us, cashew orchards. Stretching far until the highways cut them off.
We should have been delighted, but the delight of living near commercial farming areas is invariably fraught with anxiety. We knew about endosulphan use, the genetic havoc wreaked by entirely discriminate pesticide use in places like Kerala. The stuff is Other Aurovillians told us to simply stay away in February, when the spraying happens. “You can smell it in the air,” they said, as though that was a good thing: at least we would know when the poison was there. read more…
When I’m not playing mom or baker or market-explorer or cultural interpreter of grocery stores in foreign lands, I’ve a bit of a peering-into-the-future ninja role with the Institute for Customer Experience or ICE. Here’s a report I worked on for ICE, on Future Food, Food Futures. It’s not precisely ethnographic, intended mainly for UX and future-seeker audiences, though it does make me wonder: what, then, would an ethnographer’s take on the future of food really be? I suppose I’ll spend the rest of my days working that out in this blog space.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, and have your slash-and-burn feedback on the slide share deck below, too, of course. [She takes a deep breath—]
Breath for fragrance,
who needs flowers?
With peace, patience, forgiving and self-command,
who needs the Ultimate Posture?
The whole world become oneself
who needs solitude,
O lord white as jasmine.
–Mahadeviakka, 12th century Virasaiva poet [translation by A.K. Ramanujan, in Speaking of Siva, 1973]
On a whim and with a secretly stolen hour, I found myself in the flower market aisles of Pondicherry’s “big market” (proper name: Goubert market), in search of Madurai malli–or the sambac jasmine from Madurai district. read more…
Time-pass silliness in the wake of all this talk of biryani diplomacy.
The talking heads are, in order of appearance: Narendra Modi (just sworn in as Indian PM); Manmohan Singh (accidental former PM); Raja Pervez Ashraf (former Pakistani Premier); Shashi Tharoor (author, UN career official, fmr. Congress Party Minister of State); the ever-dimpled Pappu, Rahul Gandhi (somewhat unintelligent last male scion of the Gandhi clan); Nawaz Sharif (once-again premier of Pakistan); Jayalalitha (famously authoritarian Tamil Nadu Chief Minister who pretty much owns the state now, having wiped out the opposition, and sells idlis at hugely subsidized rates and huge public costs); and the one-and-only larger-than-life Tamil film star demi-God Rajinikanth–without whom no story from these parts can ever be complete.
I hope all the folks in Delhi are enjoying their no-biryani snapshot-of-India diplomatic dinner somewhere cool by now.
This one’s for my friend Iryna (who asked at just the moment when I most needed a creative outlet) and for everyone else who’s ever come home for dosas and chutney, company and conversation. It takes inspiration from Krish Ashok’s crazy-funny infographics, which taught me to take inspiration from my parents, and all our funny, idisyncratic, and completely weird our ways of doing routine things in new ways.