Biting through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland
by Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
University of Iowa Press, 2013
Review by Samuel Stinson
As a child, my family was on the move. Before I was ten, I remember at least half a dozen times that we moved house. The last move in that list, relocating across country with my family from Mesa, Arizona to Bowling Green, Kentucky at age nine, caused a minor culture shock for me. In our new Kentucky home I experienced differences almost immediately. Suddenly, people began calling similar foods by different names. Locals talked about all carbonated beverages using the name of one particular drink, Coke, instead of pop, as I had previously used the word. Also people in Kentucky were determined to eat rolls with dinner, while back west we had eaten biscuits. At home I found myself using words to describe food and drinks but different words with my new friends.
In Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America's Heartland, Nina Mukerjee Furstenau offers a similar story of culture shock following her family's relocation from Bengal to Kansas. As she tells the stories of her frequent trips between her family's home in Kansas and India, she notes that returning to her roots offered her unique insights, providing her a ready supply of cultural experiences in both places: “While I was growing up, each visit to India added to my store of images: a married couple trundling along on a small motorbike, the wife's sari tucked safely out of the wheels; a man on a bicycle carrying bundles twice his width and height stacked on his head; an elephant with political signs hanging over his sides and a loudspeaker blaring a message. But in Kansas, my visions of the East existed indoors.” Because such images from India were not readily available in Kansas, Furstenau maintains links to her family through traditional meals. She shows us how food practices help transplanted individuals identify with their roots and allow them to bear fruit in different soil.
As an avid tea drinker, I identified with the importance of tea in Furstenau's family. She contrasts American commercialized tea-drinking with its Indian counterpart in one particularly humorous scene. Traveling in New York with her parents and grandparents, Furstenau recalls an image of fresh tea water in India at her relatives' home boiling “strongly for several minutes before it was deemed hot enough to brew tea properly.” She compares this image with truck-stop tea: “The tea bag came, as it had in Missouri, in Illinois, across Ohio and Pennsylvania, already undone in a piping-hot tin pitcher that somehow held only tepid water. There was never any milk or cream. The resulting drink had none of the personality of its namesake.”
What makes Furstenau's narrative enjoyable are these careful descriptions: “In India, my parents had cautioned us to not drink anything from street vendors unless it was from a coconut stall . . . . I watched as vendors of other drinks, like delicious salty or sweet yogurt lassies, put the used glasses in tubs of graying water at their feet once a customer was done. Lassies were a favorite of mine: lush and also light with froth, my favorite kind fruity and sweet. I would much rather have had a lassie. But even though I was young, I could see the wisdom of choosing a coconut drink.”
Here's the recipe for Mishti Lassie:
Makes 1-2 drinks
1 ripe mango or banana or papaya, peeled and pureed
2 teaspoons honey or sugar (to taste)
¼ teaspoon saffron threads, steeped in 2 teaspoons hot water (optional)
1 cup water with ice
2 tablespoons lemon juice (to taste)
1 cup plain yogurt
Blend all of the above ingredients in an electric blender, crushing the ice. Lovely served chilled. Optional garnishes for each glass: ¼ teaspoon crushed pistachio nuts or a sprig of fresh mint.