Why I Eat Indian Food in Every Country I Visit
There’s comfort in the familiar—and subtle variety.
“Can we please have the paneer tikka masala prepared medium spicy, two garlic naan, a papri chaat, and a mango lassi?” I ask the server.
My friend and I exchange a knowing smile as we wait for our food. We’re in the heart of Budapest, surrounded by deep-fried lángos and flakey, cinnamon-covered kürtös kalács on every corner, yet I urged her to come with me to one of the few Indian restaurants I could find. The aroma of spices, reminiscent of my mother’s kitchen, and the golden lanterns shining against ornate wall tapestries, feel undeniably soothing.
When I was younger, the thought of going to an Indian restaurant while traveling was laughable. All I wanted was to experience the local cuisine, which I saw as a gateway to cultural immersion and one way to savor the authenticity of a destination. But whenever I traveled with my family, whether visiting the glaciers of Iceland, frolicking through the streets of Valencia, or sunbathing on the beaches of Bermuda, a hearty Indian meal was inadvertently scheduled into our itinerary.
This used to really annoy me. I begged my parents to trade bowls of biryani laden with vegetables for Spanish paella, or opt for jackfruit tacos and pico de gallo instead of crispy pakoras. There was Indian food back at home—Why did we need to eat it while traveling?
“Indian food is delicious anywhere in the world,” my parents would reply—and in retrospect, they were right. And it turns out, the longing to eat familiar foods is not unique to my family, either.
“Our food preferences are generally determined by our upbringing and we like the foods we were culturally raised with,” says Julie Lesnik, an associate professor of anthropology at Wayne State University. “When traveling, there are a lot of different things we can't control such as language, currency, or which side of the road to drive on, but if you can find familiar food, you enjoy it more as a respite from the unfamiliar.”
This likely explains why my parents sought establishments serving legitimately Indian dishes, rather than adaptations, even when we were traveling. They wanted saag paneer with actual cubes of cheese instead of tofu, malai kofta with white potatoes rather than sweet.
For my parents, eating Indian food was a comfort in an unfamiliar place, not an aversion to novelty. However, for those who may not be adventurous eaters, Lesnik notes that neophobia—or the fear of new foods—can shape their attitude towards food, which may manifest as a reluctance to try newer dishes or accept different textures or consistencies they are not accustomed to.
“Levels of neophobia vary across the lifespan and are typically highest in children,” she explains. “These levels reduce with age as people have more positive experiences with novel foods. However, retaining neophobia can be common in adults who rarely venture outside their comfort zones.”
When I first began to independently travel in my adulthood, I wanted to prove to myself that I was neither neophobic nor conditioned to my parents’ thought process. I gorged on pastas from Italian restaurants in Turin, pomme frites in Amsterdam, and street-style kee mao in Thailand, focused solely on local foods. This was short lived. The longer I stayed in a destination, the more I craved an Indian meal—ironically, the same way my parents used to. As an adult, I had the sensibility to not only appreciate the ways that Indian food was prepared in foreign places, but to observe the evolution and adaptations of the cuisine.
As Lesnik confirms, humans have a tendency to be ethnocentric or to view cultures and customs by the standards and metrics of their own culture. I found myself comparing the way samosas were prepared in Portugal to those I ate at home in New York and recognizing subtle variations in the spices. I noticed how the ras malai, an East Indian delicacy made with milk, sugar, nuts, saffron and cardamom, tasted considerably different in Aruba because of the dairy.
The barometer I use to compare the Indian food I am eating is one I set myself, based on my own personal experiences of home-cooked dishes and restaurants from my childhood in New York. Abroad, though, I get to witness how gastronomy changes based on my geographic coordinates, but in a way I can now appreciate and which adds to the fabric of my identity. The nostalgia of my favorite dishes remains, now intertwined with new flavors that I savor and add to my ever-growing palate. In this culinary dance, cultural food becomes a bridge between worlds, a connection between the things I know and the things I'm experiencing for the very first time.