On our visits to India, my maternal grandmother, who I call Dida, would ask us about dinner
– before we finished breakfast. In our extended family, the matriarchs pass down cherished recipes from generation to generation. The recipes are followed strictly and the dishes are considered our family treasures.
Ironically, one bite of some of these foods puts me at risk. I am allergic to milk and eggs – they instantly make me break out in angry hives. Dida has come to understand the biology behind my food allergies. Yet, every time we gathered over a feast, I could see the sadness lurking in her eyes when I passed over the fish in a luscious yogurt gravy or the milk sweets crafted from an age-old family recipe.
Sitting at that table, and not being able to eat a single meal there, was an undeniably familiar feeling. I’m sure many food allergy kids can relate to this sentiment: standing out like a sore thumb had simply become routine.
So many times, I would awkwardly fidget with my hands as I warded off the disconcerting stares of others, their expressions ranging from pity to disdain. The offhand comments stung. One time at a birthday party, when I politely declined a slice of cake, one of my peers asked if I was anorexic.
“No,” I laughed uncomfortably. “I just have food allergies.”
“Yeah, for sure you do,” the girl said, her voice oozing sarcasm. I was mortified. So, when I saw the sadness in my grandmother’s eyes, I was surprised and touched. It moved me that she cared about accommodating me, something I often felt no one wanted to do.
Grandmother’s Special Notebook
During our most recent visit to India in 2019, Dida called me into the kitchen. She wanted me to help her. Her cookbook was open to a recipe for Paayesh (rice pudding) outlined in her elegant script. My curiosity piqued when I saw she had added some notes with a blue pen.
She looked excited as she handed me her mortar and pestle. “A slurry of tapioca powder in the soy milk thickens it perfectly for a rice pudding,” Dida said.
As I crushed some cardamom pods, her eyes monitored the boiling mix like a scientist. That night I finished dinner by spooning up her fragrant labor of love. Her wrinkled face lit up with joy.
The day before our flight back home, my grandmother gave me a blue notebook. It had several family recipes adapted for my allergies. She had researched, reached out to her network of veteran cooks, and experimented throughout the previous year.
Substitutions filled the notebook’s margins. Use boiled potato as the binder instead of egg; a dash of black salt for the tofu scramble to get the smell of scrambled eggs. Add a pinch of baking soda to neutralize the scent of coconut milk.
It was incredibly touching that Dida had gone to all this effort to ensure I was included in our coveted family cooking traditions. No allergy would stand in the way of her grandmother’s love.
Inspired by Dida’s Example
Our family has not traveled back to India since the pandemic began. But I often take out the blue notebook and look through the pages, especially the notes on the margin. They remind me of my grandmother’s spirit, her confidence to step outside her comfort zone, her willingness to take on an unfamiliar challenge.
This boldness to expand one’s horizons to embrace the new and different is what I will bring to the next chapter of my life as I attend Rice University in Houston. My goal is to embrace the independence of college and fully advocate for myself and my food allergies.
I’m teaching myself how to cook quick, guaranteed-safe meals with just a hot plate, stocking up on cleansing wipes for my dorm room, and refreshing my EpiPen administration skills. (“Blue to the sky, orange to the thigh, anyone?”)
Yet, I take great comfort in knowing my family will be just a few miles away. I hope my grandmother would be proud.
Allergy-Friendly Tomato Chutney
Here’s a sample of one of Dida’s adapted recipes. Enjoy!
half a bunch of cilantro, including the stems
1 tsp olive oil
½ tsp black mustard
½ tsp turmeric
chili flakes (optional)
2 tsp lemon juice
salt and sugar to taste
Instructions: Cut up the tomato and cilantro and grind in a mini food processor. Heat the oil in a pot and sprinkle in mustard seeds, turmeric, and chili flakes. Once mustard seeds start sputtering, add in tomato mixture, lemon juice plus salt and sugar. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes.
Indrani Maitra is a high school senior and food allergy advocate from Houston. She founded Allergy Friendly Choices, which partners with Texas food banks to provide free-from foods to families facing food insecurity Learn more at: Afchoices.org and follow her here on Twitter.