I walked into Khan BBQ on Devon Street in Chicago and immediately smelled Tandoori Chicken, a dish that we regularly ate while growing up in Pakistan. The smells of red pepper, lemon juice, and charred chicken mingled together into one beautiful aroma of Home.
Growing up in Pakistan, fast food was not an option. McDonalds and Pizza Hut did not make their way to the developing world until after I returned as an adult. I am ever-grateful that my palate was influenced by our own versions of fast food. Chicken tikka or tandoori chicken hot off the grill and wrapped in naan, or meat kebabs, spicy and cooked to perfection with a side order of hot pakoras, fresh out of sizzling ghee were the tastes that I have enjoyed since my earliest memories. Burgers and fries were not a part of my memories or vocabulary. I didn’t go to a diner until I was well into my thirties and, though I love them now, my first impression was not favorable.
In a study found in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers found that “the stronger your sense of social identity, the more you are likely to enjoy the food associated with that identity.” Neuroscientist Rachel Herz, author of the book Why You Eat What You Eat says that comfort foods are “usually foods that we ate as children because, when it comes to aromas and flavors, our first associations are the ones that stick most indelibly.”
For the third culture kid, this is an oft misunderstood part of their social identity. “Why do you love Pakistani food so much?” a colleague once asked me. “I grew up there.” I said, thinking it would be an adequate response. “So?” she said, clearly puzzled. I gave up. Though she understood her own love of chicken nuggets and fries, when it came to me she could not reconcile my response. Her unspoken words were “But you aren’t Pakistani.” My unspoken words were “How do I explain an 18 year connection to a country that began when I was three months old, that has continued through a lifetime?”
I think of my childhood memories of chai, not the Westernized adaptation, instead the real chai: steaming hot and made with full cream buffalo milk, sweetened with coarse-grained sugar, poured into saucers to cool it down. Chai was the ultimate comfort drink. If you were happy, you drank chai. If you were sad, you drank chai. Sick? Chai. Angry? Chai? In love? Chai, chai, chai. Chai was everything you needed it to be.
Now that I’ve started down the food nostalgia journey, I continue with chicken curry, so spicy that my nose and eyes run, the sauce thick and pungent on my plate. Hot chapatis, straight off the tava ready for sopping up curry sauce, spicy omelets from the tea shop across the street from my boarding school, eaten with ghee-filled parathas. The food soon turns to friends and their names and childhood faces float across my memory – Nancy, Bruce, Paul, Maylene, Marty, Gene, Ruthie, Joyce, Meg, Michael. Some I have reconnected with in recent years and the joy of these shared experiences is immense and always includes food.
Life has moved on, and with it our experiences and food choices have expanded. With births and deaths, deep joys and immense sorrows, loyal friendships and painful betrayals, our journeys no longer follow the same roads.
That is why these food memories and the journey back into a simpler time matter. Just as Pakistan has changed, so have we. For a time, she loved us well and, like any first love, parts of us will always belong to her. So our nostalgic journey is filled with tastes of hot peppers and sounds of ghee spitting off of frying pans; a journey filled with light, love, and very few burdens.