By Smitha Rajan | 

When I was leaving for the United States, a colleague advised me not to take my salwar kurta (a traditional Indian attire). You already look Indian, you don’t have to attract any more attention by wearing Indian clothing.

This was in the wake of reports of Indians in the U.S. being targeted by locals in hate crimes, including a fatal shooting near Kansas City.

But after a month in the U.S.,, my biggest fear is not being the target of a racial attack, but losing my high tolerance for spices.

A couple of things have contributed to my fear. To begin with, the U.S. is home to people from many countries and invariably their food finds a way here. Now, unlike India, international cuisine in the U.S. is left to be the way it is supposed to be. So Chinese food does not get Americanized. OK, perhaps it does a bit, but not to the extent it gets Indianised in India. (Yeah, we put spices in our noodles and insist that is how a Chinese dish should taste!) This means you get to taste international food, which I initially called bland, without any permutation and combination.

The end result is that over a period of time, I have had Vietnamese, Chinese, Greek, Japanese and American cuisines, among others. All from food trucks, as I still can’t afford to eat at a restaurant every alternate day. It did take me some time to wrap my head around the idea that it is possible to cook with minimum or no spices and that I can over a period of time actually come to enjoy it. (I think I am suffering from Stockholm Syndrome).

During the initial days, I craved spicy Indian food. But as the days progressed, I resigned myself to eating what is easily and cheaply available, mainly because Indian restaurants are pricey in the U.S. and no one (myself included) should be subjected to my cooking.

Now I look forward to trying new cuisines, most of which is not spicy. So why am I afraid? Well, it is because recently I tried delicious Ethiopian cuisine and ended up muttering, “Gosh, this is so spicy!” It galled me to sound like the people I liked to make fun of when they could not handle spicy Indian food. It scared me to think that I have lost my tolerance for spice. When I came to the U.S., I planned to learn many things. But appreciation for international cuisine was not on my ‘to learn’ list.

So did the U.S. rob me of my ability to enjoy spicy food? Well, U.S.-bashing is quite popular these days and I can always lay the blame at the country’s door along with capitalism, global warming, etc etc. But that would be an unfair thing to do.

I think what the US did was give me a break (even if it was a forced one) from spicy food so that I would be brave enough to try something else. As for my fear, my friends say it is unfounded. “It is in your genes; step on Indian soil and you will magically regain it. After all, there’s a reason why they call India a ‘mystical’ land,’” they joke.

A way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, goes a saying. Little did I realize the U.S. would find its way into mine, through my very-hard-to-please palate.

Smitha and the other Fellows has a replica Thanksgiving Dinner at Lisa Schwartz’s house