Sweet, silky plantain, creamy cinnamon custard massage my tongue. It’s new and addictive and comforting. A dull headache lingers reminding me that I am now thirty-four and sleep is not disposable. I take another small bite savoring each delicate moment with it and wonder what life is like in El Salvador. I pretend I am on a beach sitting next to a pyramid of plantain empanadas and smile. It feels familiar in a way that is deep-rooted in my soul.
As a new addict, I did what any normal foodie would do–researched its origin and recipe. While empanadas are mostly eaten in Latin and South America, I found out that Spanish colonists actually brought them over. More than that, the roots of an empanada actually reside in India; born from the samosa. It suddenly occurred to me that like stories, all food is tied. Like in Genesis from the Bible, each dish begat the next.
The first time someone said to me, “I don’t like curry,” I actually had a physical reaction and had to sit on my fingers to stop myself. People declaring they don’t like Indian food because they don’t like curry used to mean that I would cut them off right then and there. It annoyed me that these people didn’t know that: a. curry is actually not a spice used in Indian food; b. that curry is actually the name of a type of sauce and can come is a million variations. I used to rudely reply: “do you mean the spice or the sauce?” To which I usually got, “uh, I didn’t know there was a difference…I guess I don’t know.” Infuriating me further. Not liking Indian food declared a closed mind, a closed palette. It was hard to accept that maybe people just didn’t like it and it had nothing to do with me.
I moved here in the 90’s to a neighborhood in which we were the only Indians, to a school where we were the only Indians. I spent a lot of my teen years assimilating, softening my Indian edges so that Americans could take it. It wasn’t until my senior year that I confessed to my best friend that I still ate with my hands at home and with my Indian friends. She was stunned and unsure. When my friends spent the night, I had to introduce them to Egg curry, or fish fry; there was no pizza at hand. The truth is all food is connected in ways that we don’t always acknowledge just like all people are connected in ways that we don’t always acknowledge. However, it’s comfortable to stay in our sandbox never crossing the long bridge.
I spent my twenties doing the same–judging all who were not ready to walk over that bridge towards my culture. As an aspiring actress and a woman trying to date not knowing on which side I really belonged, I wrestled inside holding both tightly. Guarded and unsure, I stewed in insecurities some days and watched from my soapbox on others. This was a time when being an Indian actress seemed like an unrealistic goal. Before Bend it like Beckham, and Kelly Kapoor on The Office, before Aziz Ansari on Parks and Rec, and The Mindy Project. The reality that directors barely saw an Indian girl playing an American character was my truth. Too timorous to fight the fight, I let go of my dream. I remember sharing my regret with an actor friend of mine who responded with, “yeah, I guess I had/have passion for it; I don’t think that I can do anything else with my life.” I nodded believing that maybe it was true; I didn’t have enough passion to pursue it wholeheartedly. Yet today I know it wasn’t passion I was lacking. No, I was unable to see the bridge that was so clearly glistening in front of me.
An immigrant identity, I have. It’s sweet, silky on the outside with a creamy custard, cinnamon core. Wrapped and fried, changed and evolved, I stand–a network. A sum of all the connections I’ve made; some with my mind, some with my heart, and some with my palette.
Gratefully linked to this empanada, I eat my last bite aching for more.