The Last Bastion


That stinks.

What's that green stuff? It's disgusting.

What's cauliflower? Why is it yellow? That's just gross.

That has been the general response in the Finer Diner, the lunch cafeteria at school, when Medha opens her lunch box.

The disgusting green stuff is usually cilantro chutney or baby spinach. The result? She stopped taking chutney-cheese sandwiches – which she simply adores – for lunch. The stinky stuff? It could be cheese ravioli in delicious organic pasta sauce. Or it might be spicy red lentils. Yeow? For macaroni and cheese with a good dose of ketchup. And, yes, some kids don't know what cauliflower is. Being ostracized in the cafeteria, or having your peers tell you that your food is disgusting, is not the best place to be for a 3rd and 4th grader. Especially for one to whom retorts come much after the fact.

Soon, all she would take for lunch was a PBJ sandwich or a bologna sandwich or sandwiches with deli meats like smoked turkey, chicken or honey ham. The high sodium content in the meats bothers me as well as the fact that they are highly processed. PBJ, after a while, does get boring. Lunch boxes like these won't do either as we need the food to slide down the throat after having gone through minimal chewing action. Several times a month, I try to sneak in some Indian or spicy food in her thermos and the conversation later that evening is always the same diplomatic exchange: It was really good, Mumma! But it is more suited for dinner, don't you think?

The only Indian food that she will take willingly in her thermos is sans asafetida, turmeric, ginger or garlic. Yup, potatoes. Yup, Til Aloo. I call it the last bastion of Indian food in her hot lunch menu. It's very easy to make, does not stink, is not green or yellow in color and is not cauliflower. She takes a plain butter sandwich along with it.

Til Aloo

  • 5-6 large red potatoes, boiled and cooled well
  • 3 tbsp oil
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp sesame seeds
  • 2-4 dried red chillies, broken into two pieces each
  • Salt to taste
  • Juice of half a lemon, more if you like it tangy

  1. Dice the potatoes as evenly as possible into 1 inch pieces.
  2. Heat the oil and add mustard seeds, cumin seeds, sesame seeds and red chillies.
  3. When the seeds pop and crackle, add the potatoes and salt.
  4. Mix well so that every cube of potato is coated with the tempered oil.
  5. Cook over medium heat till the potatoes are crispy and have browned slightly. Mix in a folding action occasionally so that the potatoes don’t get scorched or burn.
  6. Pour the lemon juice, mix well and serve immediately.

  • Til Aloo goes really well with Malaysian parathas which can be found in the freezer section of most ethnic grocery stores.
  • The original recipe, from Jyotsna, requires the potatoes to be ¾ cooked. Sometimes the potatoes are just too new and once they have been partly cooked, they don't cook completely thereafter. It works better for me if I boil the potatoes the day before or several hours earlier. When cooled, they are easier to handle and dice into a uniform size.
  • When I make this for a dinner party, I prefer to reheat the potatoes in a skillet to revive the crispiness and I add the lemon juice just before serving. Reheating in the microwave or oven is easier but you lose the pleasure of biting into those crispy bits of potato.
  • The til aloo in the picture looks yellow because the potatoes were that color. No turmeric powder was harmed in the making of these potatoes.

We were discussing ethnic foods in lunch boxes with a friend earlier this week. Her daughter has it much easier this year than in previous years as there is a more international mix of children in her grade. Apparently, her Russian friend has had worse problems than she did. Now these girls make an announcement before they open their lunch boxes: I have Indian or Russian or Korean food in my lunch box. I think it is delicious and I like it. I am hoping that Medha will be able to muster the courage to do something similar. Until then, it's sandwiches that slide down the throat...

Other versions of Til Aloo that use the unmentionable ingredients that I cannot, but which make the potatoes very delicious, can be found here:
Ashwini's Ancient Spice - Til Aloo (and it looks like there are several copycats who have not credited Ashwini as the source for their recipe!)
Aloo and Til Subzi on Bawarchi


Rajesh &Shankari said...

I hear so many stories about this stuff Manisha! My niece would take only PB&j and slowly mustered the courage to take lemon rice since it did not stink :)

Kitt said...

What a bummer that your sweet kid is made to feel so bad about the foods she loves. I wonder if you could work with her school to have something like international meal days, where the kids learn how to make some of the dishes and eat them.

Or maybe start something like a cooking club with your daughter and some of her schoolmates, so they could all have a similar dish to take to school the next day to "show off" together.

Easy for me to say, I know. But those potatoes sure look delicious! I'd love to have some in my lunchbox.

(I'm jealous of Biggie's Bug, who enjoys her Lunch in a Box creations. But it's also a Japanese immersion school, so no one bats an eye.)

Yash said...

I have been reading your blog in google reader for a while now, but I was really captivated by this post. I had only moved to canada last year and I remember how scared I was, even at 19 years old, that other students would make fun of what i eat.

musical said...

The first few lines of this post moved me to tears.....If this is the case in today's more cosmoplitan scenario, wonder how would it have been few decades ago.....

But the last few lines of this post felt like a warm, comforting hug.....

Thanks a ton, Manisha! Most people tend to keep quiet about these thing-thanks for talking about it in a strong, dignifed voice.

Unknown said...

My goodness! Did not know that our kids faced so many problems at lunch time...I remember something similar that Shaheen (Malluspice) was ranting about...Coriander chutney for us would be a delightful smell, cant imagine someone calling it a stink! Anyway, your til aloo looks good and wow those potatoes are so golden - if you hadn't said it, i'd have thought it due to turmeric..
I'm sure thing thing is slowly seeping into the so called International schools in Bombay as well, which is why many good schools make it compulsory for the kids to eat the meals provided by the school - which is ofcourse difficult in a multi-racial set up and to please everyone's palates in US cities.

Suganya said...

What troubles these poor kids go through in a foreign land. With a little maturity, kids will be just fine with what/who they are. Till then we have to be patient.

evolvingtastes said...

Don't hate me for this, but that is one gorgeous photo Manisha! M. Jaffrey has a nearly identical recipe in one of our books, and yes, it is really quite delicious (it was even in my drafts). I like it because of the texture of the spices sticking to the potatoes.

Indian Food Rocks said...

The objective of this post is to create awareness of just one aspect of the dichotomous worlds that immigrant children have to straddle.

Shankari, there are many factors at play. Our food has many smells and flavors that can be overwhelming. When I go to an Indian restaurant, my coat smells of the food and so does my hair! I don't expect young children, especially non-Indian children, to appreciate those flavors.

Kitt, in 3rd grade there was a winter party for sharing and there were ethnic foods from many countries but mainly USA, Canada and Europe. I had taken chakli - a crispy spiral made from rice flour - and, while many parents loved it, the children did not go near it. While Thai and Chinese food is more readily accepted, Indian food is not. When her friends from school come over, they are not willing to even taste our food. :-(

Interestingly enough, the situation is the complete opposite with the kids in our neighborhood. They eat whatever I put in front of them and even ask for seconds. The demographics, unfortunately, cannot be extrapolated to the school, even though it is a neighborhood school!

I do love your idea of a cooking club. Medha will be doing a cooking camp in Boulder over summer and I might just act on your idea based on how that goes.

Biggie's blog is a treasure. I am jealous, too!

Yash, quiet dignity and confidence are the keywords. If you respect your food, others will too. That is what my daughter still has to learn. I'm glad you decided to delurk. Welcome to IFR!

Musy, we live in a very hi-tech community where people work across time-zones and travel at the drop of a hat to the other side of the globe. Like I said to Kitt, we have children in our neighborhood who have been eating 'curry' since they were toddlers. I didn't expect this in a well-traveled community such as ours. This sort of a reaction was quite the norm where we lived before - in an outer suburb of Chicago.

Nandita, it's not just *our* kids. This applies to *any* child who has to grow up in a culture different from his culture at home. I experienced this more than 20 years ago in Kenya. But there were more of "us" in my class and together we were able to make a difference. Soon, I had to start carrying extra food because my non-Indian friends wanted to taste all the stuff I would bring to school. A lunch invitation at my home was much sought after.

The color of the chutney is green. It's very cool to refer to anything that is green as gross. While we would like to call the school multi-racial, Medha is really the only Indian in her school. Most of the other Indians in our area open-enroll their children in a non-neighborhood charter school that I am not particularly keen on.

Suganya, you are so right! And that is what I was trying to say to Yash but you said it much better. Thank you!

ET, why would I hate you when you have nice things to say to me?! The event is still on, you know! I had no idea this is an MJ recipe! I first made it over two years ago and it has become one of our favorite ways to have potatoes. And, you're right - it is the seeds that make these potatoes delicious!

Sushma said...

My god so many issues with the kids and we feel soory that our kid should hear it..

Padmaja said...

Oh yes!! I think every kid faces this dilemma every now and then.
Its hard to make them understand how healthy lunch boxes can be.
Til Aloo looks so delicious!!

amna said...

haha.. that was funny!

indosungod said...

Ignorance in kids or adults is hard to deal with. I am sure Medha will find her voice pretty soon. I have seen snide food comments passed in my office kitchen which is almost a virtual UN so you can imagine at school.

A kid in DD's class asked if a Date was a giant raisin?!
According to her girls more than boys do the Yeow. It stopped when she stood up to one of them and said "your food feels Yeow to me! you wouldn't like me saying that to you do you?"

LVI said...

Believe it or not, my not-quite-6 year old Kindergartner faces it, and understands it. He loves to eat Indian food at home, but for school lunches, it has to be PBJ, mac-n-cheese, pasta or pizza (the pizza also strangely evokes the "that stinks" label, even when it is made at home with all non-"Indian" ingredients)...
I hope this will get better as he grows older, and knows how to defend himself. For now, I don't force him to take Indian food, as I don't want him to feel alienated in his first year at public school. As it is, he sometimes feels left out by kids' comments on his brown skin (being the only brown kid in his class)... We do talk to him about this off an on, and want him to be aware of it, without it affecting him... Thankfully, he is an objective kid...
Sorry about the long comment, but I have felt a lot along these lines...Will probably write a post on it soon...

Stella Devine said...

Wow - I thought this kind of close-minded parochialism was confined to Australia in the 1960s. It's also astonishing to me that lvi's son is OK with pizza and pasta, but not with Indian food. Lots of Italian kids who migrated to Australia in the 50s and 60s talk about having to conceal things like salami and garlic so the other children wouldn't tease them.

Cynthia said...

Yep, lunch time can be a killer time when at school. Honestly, I am happy for all those people who had a great time at school but for some of us it was like hell, not the learning part but the whole socialising bit.

I am glad that there is at least one thing that you can make that she's comfortable and confident with taking to school and opening up for all the peering eyes to see.

Indian Food Rocks said...

smn, the best thing to do is to find a positive way of dealing with it.

Padmaja, unfortunately yes. Although the school district has a hug epush on healthy hot lunch and has recently included a 'Harvest Salad Bar' as part of the main menu.

Nags, or is it?

ISG, that's one way of dealing with it. However that is not the route I want Medha to take. For one, she doesn't feel that way about anyone else's food. Secondly, she may not like certain foods and she can certainly make the choice not to eat them, but she has been brought up to respect the fact that the person eating it may actually enjoy it.

Also, I feel that widens the gap and does not promote respect or tolerance of different cultures. Perhaps I have my head in the clouds...

Lvi, we've been there so I hear you. I could be wrong but I feel much of this is cultural. Food is in abundance and wastage is not taboo. Medha got into trouble in 1st grade for wanting to bring her half eaten bar back home. She was horrified when she was made to throw it away before leaving the cafeteria. The elementary school she is in now is making an attempt to have children recognize the value of food. They can take from the salad bar only as much as they will eat. They are not allowed to waste. Most people have not experienced what those who lived through the Depression Era did. Food is taken for granted and like all things that are, it bears the brunt of disrespect.

Stella, I know many children who live on boiled pasta with butter, boiled or roast chicken and pizza. Pizza is the food of choice at most birthday parties so it is a food the children see right from childhood.

Incidentally, Medha loves tuna salad and that sandwich got the same response. Tuna does have a distinct smell. She now eats tuna only at home.

So I wonder if it is parochialism? Is it another opportunity to bully or to be mean? Is it lack of proper etiquette? I wish I knew. The problem is that whatever it is, it continues to exist.

Cynthia, I think things will improve once she learns not to be hurt by the comments made by those around her.

It's 8 pm and I am rushing to post this comment as we are going to turn off all the lights in our home in a symbolic salute to Earth Hour. I hope you were able to participate, too!

bee said...

this is true everytwhere. in india, growing up in bombay, i was harassed mercilessly from bringing bread and butter in my lunchbox.i have no idea why.

i would think at least in the u.s., half an hour from denver, the schools would be more proactive in dealing with this. i hope in higher grades, it's much better for medha. it's sad that she can take her favourite foods to school.

Kitty said...

i grew up in australia in the 1970s, in a fairly homogenous (read: boring) society. one day my forward thinking mother sent me to school with left over tandoori chicken (we are from yorkshire, not india!). i got made horrible fun of, because of the colour of the meat. i would have thought by now children would be better educated on cultures other than their own, and this would have been a thing of the past *sigh*

Alpa said...

It's so nice to see you back!! i missed you :)

i went thru the same thing, lol. my mom would try to encourage me to take theplas which i loved, but would not take to school for the life of me.

JS said...

[Replaced comment: I hate it when I read my comment and find spelling or grammatical errors!]

Manisha, it's disheartening to me to hear about kids behaving badly toward other kids who they think are different, but I suppose that's a fact of life. Mehda will no doubt deal with, in her own time, it the way kids learn to deal with such things. I never understood making fun of any food, though. Even as a very young kid I was fascinated by what I considered unusual foods that classmates brought to school; I remember trading half of my rather bland fare, on occasion, for something more "exotic."

I loved this line from your post: "No turmeric powder was harmed in the making of these potatoes."

The recipe sounds wonderful; I'll have to try it.

Rita said...

I think it is so sad, in America, where so many diverse people live, that children are not excited to see what interesting and delicious foods your daughter has brought in her lunch. They should be having food envy!

As Kitt has suggested, perhaps some oportunities for the deprived children to experience some delicious Indian food could change this. Also, understanding about other parts of the world and the cultures is helpful.

So many American children eat such overly processed food which to me is disgusting. So many will only eat very bland, processed food which in no way resembles its origins.

Also, the other children's responses are based in their ignorance, due to lack of someone (parents) teaching them that it is not okay to make remarks like that about what someone is eating. I always have to wonder about the parent's attitudes toward people who are different, not like them. Even though you live in a cosmopolitan area, not everyone is cosmopolitan.

This is about teaching tolerance and respect for ALL people. We have more similarities than we have differences.

Indian Food Rocks said...

Bee, that's really strange. Bread and butter was quite the norm for many of us, based on the few years that I do remember in Bombay. I had hoped that things would be different here but it's not.

Kitty, it would be unfair to say that all kids are like that. There are a couple of kids who tell the others to shut up when they see the hurt expression on Medha's face. Perhaps the food is supposed to remain exotic and not appear in a lunch box at school. Like your tandoori chicken, for which I would have given my right arm had I been in your school!

Here's an incident that happened a couple of months ago: Medha was working with another kid on a research project. After a couple of days, the kid asked Medha: "No offence but are you a black?" Medha looked at her arm and said: "I think I am more of a brown." This was an innocent exchange but it is very telling of the general awareness that exists.

Alpa, we seem to have gone through this in one way or another. I am beginning to view this as just another aspect of the negative behavior that children might experience from other kids in school - something Cynthia touched on earlier.

John, I hate it, too especially since I noticed a couple of mistakes in my previous comment. Blogger does not let us edit our comments - yet. I still remember the days when comments were not possible on Blogger!

Do try this recipe. It's very easy. You can up the heat by adding more red chillies. The mustard seeds, sesame seeds and cumin seeds add a great crunch and nuttiness to the potatoes. It helps to use a thick or a heavy bottomed pan so that at least one side of each piece of potato becomes nice and crispy. Some crispy bits will stick to the pan and that's okay. Scrape them off and mix them into the rest of the potatoes.

With a little more self-confidence and a little more maturity, I think Medha will be able to handle this. On most days, she is simply hurt and bewildered at how rude the other kids are.

I really do like Kitt's suggestion a lot.

Indian Food Rocks said...

Rita, it's great to have your perspective. And yes, not everyone is cosmopolitan. The good news is that the school district is bringing healthy foods back into the lunch menu.

Anita said...

Medha can be sure that as time passes, she will be made to feel quite the opposite!
But there is time till then... and it has got to be really hard for kids her age. Kids can be mean.
As a parent you seem to have handled it quite well: supporting and at the same time, finding ways for her to have the food she does enjoys.
There is a lot kids have to deal with today...more than we had to. ...even more if one is 'different'.

Indian Food Rocks said...

Anita, she just wants to be a normal boring kid and hates it when the spotlight is trained on her.

And...nothing about the post actually having a recipe in it? Or that you will surely try it? Hmmph!

indosungod said...

Manisha, it no way means she actually felt that way about the kids food actually quiet the opposite, it was her way of ending the bullying. Kids are tiny adults, when they find out they cannot get away with it, they stop. By nature she is very laid back and easy going so the reaction told me something about what was going on.

Anita said...

Of course...
Thanks for the recipe (at last!)...will surely try it. :D

Indian Food Rocks said...

ISG, so you're pretty sure that in your daughter's case it was a case of bullying? Good for her that she stood up to the bullies!

In our case, I am not entirely sure that it is bullying.

Anita, and you will surely come back to tell me how you liked or did not like it? Surely?

Pelicano said... should have seen me and my continuous international parade in the break-rooms of some of my former employment establishments! But Medha isn't obnoxious like me... :-D I purposely would bring things like squid avec tentacles and offer them around...Indian vegetable dishes now, well it parts the seas: people who like vegetables were intrigued and often wanted to taste everything, and then there were those who were strangers to the produce department who looked on in horror! I think one day Medha will not be so much affected by the opinions of others; you're doing the right thing by letting her judge her own steps, frustrating as it might be right now. Things change, and I think much of this is her age and wanting to fit in right now.

Pelicano said...

And then, too, think of the savings! If all of Medha's school-friends started trying your cooking you'd soon be broke from having to pack extra! Gotta look at the bright side... :-)

ThreeTastes said...

You're a wise mother to allow Medha to find her way. As she grows older, I think her friends may also mature in their taste buds and will be more willing to try something "outside the box." I didn't have the luxury of a mother who made lunch for me, but my youngest brother did and he got "yuck" comments until junior high school. By then, my mother was packing enough lunch to feed 6 people everyday because everyone wanted a taste of his lunch! The thing that changed everyone's opinion? Dumplings. Whether it's Japanese gyoza, Indian samosas, Chinese potstickers or Polish pierogies, everyone loves a tasty hand-sized treat. Send little Medha our aloha.

Sheetal Kiran said...

Gosh, Manisha! The things kids have to face these days! I remember lunch-break being the most exciting part of the day ... ... there were just so many things to taste and experience!! I remember I would polish my friend Leena's khakra's before the poor thing had a chance to take a few bites. And the darling that she was, would quietly eat my "bhaaji-poli" in return.

I am sure as Medha grows older, she will find positive ways to assert herself and enjoy the same food she loves so much at home.

I am a big fan of til, and here, it's in combination with my all time favorite -- potatoes. I am definitely going to try this :D

Indian Food Rocks said...

Pel, Manju and Sheetal, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Now here's something I would like to share. It's a minor victory of sorts. I made a veggie curry today that was a huge hit at dinner. The sauce is rather like the makhani sauce but has no cream. I used poppy seeds, sesame seeds and also threw in some almonds for good measure. After dinner, there was a request that tomorrow's lunch should be this veggie curry with a bread and butter sandwich. If you felt the earth shake beneath you, that was me doing cartwheels. So yay!

She had to come to this point herself and I am surprised that it came so soon. Still, you never know. I might be counting my chickens before they are hatched.

Children, especially girls, are mean, mean, mean and there's no telling when the innate nastiness will surface, like what happened yesterday. Their school's largest fund raiser is a Jogathon where you can be sponsored a dollar amount for each lap you run or it could be flat amount. This is Medha's third and until this year, 12 laps (1.5 miles) in 20 mins was her best. This year she did 14 laps. When I hugged and congratulated her for doing well because I know her limitations, there was a girl standing close by who laughed because 14 is more of a straggler's score. The average number of laps is more like 16 and 17. That this child only did 12 did not matter. What was more important to her was to put someone else down. Unfortunately, I did not see her as I was busy hugging my child before being bustled out of there otherwise she would have got a earful from me.

So the long and short of it is that I don't know what the outcome will be but it's very important that she has taken the first step. I am proud of her.

Anonymous said...

That's a bummer! We're lucky coz there is a diversity of ethnic backgrounds at our school and even the administration supports by having a International Potluck night, where we feast on food from all the different nationalities.