Khabaar: an immigrant’s journey, Bengali food and being at home

To Madhushree Ghosh, home is so much more than a physical destination. 

Following up on her essay “At the Maacher Bazaar, Fish For Life” that received Notable Mention in The Best American Food Writing 2020, Madhushree Ghosh’s food memoir, Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory and Family delves into the diasporic experiences of people and food alike. Along the way Ghosh details many of her own intersections, including her immigration experience as a woman of colour in science, enduring a defunct abusive marriage, and keeping her parents’ memory alive through her Bengali food.

Cold Tea Collective spoke with Ghosh about her memoir Khabaar, using food as a social justice tool, and what it means to feel at home.

Ghosh Khabaar
Photo credit: Hannah Claire Photography

Connecting Intergenerational memory through Bengali Food

For many Asians, hearing a direct “I love you,” from a parent can be rare. What is understood though is that Asian parents often show love to their children in a manner other than words. 

“The way they said it [I love you] was through food,” explained Ghosh. “And so for my father, taking his youngest daughter with him to buy fish was a bonding time to show — pass the knowledge.”

See also: Communication and complexity: the essence of cooking for others

In the Western world, it’s not uncommon for a child to tag along with their parents on a run to the grocery store or other errands. Ghosh explains though that in India traveling to a place like the fish market can be a gendered experience, reflecting why moments like these are so culturally significant.

Food remains perhaps the most culturally significant aspect for any diasporic people; it has the ability to so broadly represent widespread cultural traditions while also achieving inspiring tales of individual family dynamics. For the Ghosh family, this meant upholding the intergenerational memory of the land that they left as they were forced from Bangladesh to India. 

“It [food] represents what we left and it represents how we are holding onto memory. For me personally, it was a little bit more than that. It’s a love letter to my parents. Our lives revolved around food. When to cook it, how to cook it and how to bring ingredients to cook it. That’s what our life was, and so for me, trying to do it justice — trying to talk about food and what it represents in the Ghosh family is very important.” 

See also: True Nosh: Nourishing bodies and minds with wholesome Chinese cooking

The three dimensionality of the diasporic experience

Khabaar does focus a lot around Bengali food connecting Ghosh spiritually, emotionally, and geographically to her familial roots. However, the memoir also includes intersections from her personal life, including an unfortunately all too common experience for women of colour: marital abuse.

Over 40% of South Asian women in traditional marriages are victims of domestic partner abuse in the United States. Ghosh found herself as part of this percentile, but it was far from being the sole factor in defining her. 

“I felt it was very important for me to bring it up in this memoir, not as a main topic, but as a topic, because as people we are three dimensional… We have three dimensional personalities, and I’m hoping that people look at this and they don’t feel like, ‘Oh my God, there are so many threads.’ But the fact that there are so many different threads is what makes me, Me,” she explained. 

There is no singular event or achievement that creates Madhushree Ghosh, but rather a collection of aforementioned “different threads.” Her illustrious background spans from a Ph.D. in molecular biology, to being a decorated author, and to of course a Bengali chef. The expertises in these fields range, but applying them from one into another has helped Ghosh to fully embrace her three dimensionality.

For example, she’s taken her perspective on writing and applied it everywhere from her career in biotech, to her work in diversity, equity, and inclusion.  

“When you’re writing — let’s say writing about the sky. You say, ‘the sky is blue and it’s bland and there’s nothing else going on,’ but you have to notice what you notice. Why are you noticing that nothing else is going on? What is going on in your head that you think nothing’s going on?”

Khabaar Ghosh

It’s through this incredibly self-perceptive awareness that Ghosh is able to craft a memoir like Khabaar. A piece that through its own profound process forces the reader to examine their own relationship with food, and the greater diasporic experiences that follow. The most valuable takeaway should be that there are no rules; there are no expectations for what each personal process may look like. 

“That’s what I’d like to say this book is about. We’re trying to do what we think is the best. We may not succeed, but the experience is respecting the culture we come from,” said Ghosh.

What it means to feel at home

The process of finishing Khabaar felt a lot like cooking Naru to Ghosh. Naru is a coconut and jaggery dessert that Ghosh’s mother used to make, who unfortunately passed away prior to Ghosh immigrating to the United States. 

“I didn’t know how to make it, so I pretty much made it my way. It’s not the same as hers, but it’s similar. The taste is very similar. It’s not too sweet. It’s simple to make, it’s straightforward, and it brings joy not only to me, but to my entire community when I’ve made it. Additionally what I’ve done is I’ve also changed it up a notch. Sometimes I add chocolate to it… and then it becomes a very American, very Western dish,” explained Ghosh.

Ghosh
Photo credit: Hannah Claire Photography

“I feel that’s what summarizes Khabaar. How does an immigrant like me move from Bengal — move from India as a Bengali, respect her roots and bring in the recipe that my mother gave me? I feel her when I make Naru. I feel my community when I make Naru the way they would like it. And so food morphs, food changes. Food transforms as people and generations move through oceans and continents. And I think that summarizes Khabaar. It’s sweet, it’s simple, and it’s transformational.” 

More than anything, what Khabaar aims to answer is the paradoxically simple question: What does it mean to feel at home?

“I’ll say I feel as Indian as I feel American, but being American is so different from being Indian. But what does it mean to be American, and why am I noticing that it’s different from being Indian? Because the general trope is Americans are not South Asians, but we are. We’re right here. Home is where you feel like you belong. Home is when you are valued and loved. Home is when you are not erased.”

See also: Finding home in a cup of tea: the kung fu tea ceremony

Featured Image credit: Hannah Claire Photography

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