- Anand and Ashwini are second generation Indian-American living with their parents, Murugan and Rajeshwari, in Schaumburg.
- Immigrant Experience: Although they faced some difficulties at school with their food restrictions, Anand and Ashwini are learning and following the dietary practices of their parents more as time goes on.
- Diet and Nutrition: They are strict vegetarians that emphasize consuming diverse vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices.
Murugan and Rajeshwari immigrated from Chennai, Tamil Nadu and lived in different places before settling in Schaumburg when their youngest daughter was still a baby. Their son, Anand, is currently a student at UIC studying biomedical engineering and their daughter, Ashwini, is in high school. For their family, wellness means eating a vegetarian, homemade diet rich in a diverse array of dishes, spices, and herbs. One way they keep in mind the importance of a balanced diet is to consider how many different colors of vegetables they can incorporate into their diet. Rice and lentils are family staples that they feel are good for the body and give them plenty of energy without the need for animal protein. Murugan and Rajeshwari have worked hard to pass down their vast knowledge of south Indian food to their children, and Anand and Ashwini feel that they have grown to appreciate this heritage more as they have grown older.
Murugan and Rajeshwari
Murugan remembers when he was growing up that the food culture in his household was very different. Food was made fresh everyday and leftovers were eaten as soon as possible since there was no way to preserve food for long periods of time. He had almost no experience with processed or packaged food until later in his education when he occasionally had access to chips. When he initially moved to the United States, Murugan found it difficult to cope with the new environment. Finding Indian vegetables and spices was hard, and he couldn’t get used to the cheesy, processed convenience foods like pizza. Rajeshwari remembers that when they lived in Boulder, Colorado, there was only one Indian grocery and since some of the products were not as widely available, they were more expensive. Eventually Murugan got used to American food but their family still prefers homemade Indian food to processed foods and cheese-laden American favorites.
Anand and Ashwini
Anand and Ashwini are still learning to cook on their own but they have learned a great deal about health and cooking from their parents. Anand and Ashwini say that dosas and idlis are their favorite because of their health and energetic benefits. Dosas are paper thin, fried pancakes and idlis are steamed cakes made with rice and lentil flour dough. Anand says that Indian food has cultural value for him, something he didn’t come to appreciate until his high school years. When he was a child, he thought his parents' combination of rice and vegetable dishes was boring and repetitive. As he grew older he eventually realized that his parents’ pattern of having every meal consist of rice and several vegetable dishes or soups was a balanced and healthy approach, rich in vitamins and other nutrients. Now he says that whenever any of these components are missing he feels that his meal is unbalanced. His favorite vegetables are okra, unripened ivy gourd, snake gourd, and bitter gourd.
Anand said the fact that their family is vegetarian made eating at cafeterias, where meat is often the main dish, extremely difficult. In Anand’s freshman year of college, he was required to use his campus meal plan and felt his health deteriorate as he had few options besides pasta or pizza at his school’s cafeteria.
Treating Illness in the Home
When Ashwini had a stuffed nose recently, Rajeshwari put coriander, turmeric, dried ginger, peppercorn, and om seeds (chia seeds) into a pot of boiling water and had Ashwini sit over it with a blanket to steam her nasal passages. Their family likes to drink hot milk with turmeric and black pepper when they are sick. Ashwini also uses Zicam at the onset of a cold to stop the cold in its tracks — it’s a homeopathic remedy that Rajeshwari says has no negative side effects. Anand says that when he gets a sore throat, the first thing his mom tells him to do is gargle with salt water. He also uses the steaming, the milk, and “basic Western medicine.” Rajeshwari uses a soup with horse gram lentils that instantly relieves a cold when eaten often, which she learned about from a friend who is also from the same area of India. Rajeshwari cracks the horse gram before cooking it into a soup with pepper and turmeric. Rasam is an important soup consumed for illness and is made with tomato, coriander, black pepper, ginger, garlic, and tamarind —it is mixed up with rice to make a porridge. “The beauty of rasam is you can flavor it ‘n’ number of ways,” says Murugan. You can add extra or different ingredients to create different kinds of rasam; for example, there is malai (pepper) rasam or mulligatawny, ginger rasam, jeera (cumin) rasam, wheat flour rasam, and neem rasam.
The Value of Neem
Murugan says that in India they used to take the neem flowers, dry them out, and store them for later use. Then for neem rasam they would take a small spoon of the dried flowers and roast/ fry them before putting them in the soup because neem has very good medicinal value. Murugan said that little amounts would be added to each of the dishes during festival meals. When Murugan was growing up in India, he recalls that when you got chicken pox, people would pick neem leaves and spread them on a blanket on a cot. After the person slept almost bare wrapped up in the leaves, they would recover faster. Rajeshwari and Murugan remember their families used to take the tender, brown neem flower buds and grind it with a stone and make the family consume the bitter paste to cleanse the digestive system.