It is said that the key to a person’s heart is through their stomach. But in India, you may have to find one too many keys that will lead you into people’s hearts, especially if you are planning a love marriage. What is the connection, you ask? Well, Indians — with all their sub-cultures, communities and religions — only ever bond over two things: food and cricket. The former is supremely important because if you can manage to satiate a person’s appetite, you can certainly make them — and their family members — ecstatic.
It is also true that the traditional Indian mindset often frowns upon the idea of love marriage, least of all a union that brings together people belonging to different faiths and communities. Many couples spend years convincing their families to allow them matrimony of their choice. And then there are those who are able to find a cultural middle-ground through food.
Indianexpress.com spoke with some married people who have managed to bridge the gap with their culinary choices to bring families together. They have been navigating their life and relationships through food, which has allowed them an initiation into their spouse’s culture by understanding their cuisine and eating habits.
Anirban Halder and Namita Gahtori
Thirty-one-year-old Anirban, a media professional working in Delhi, married Namita (also 31), a communications professional, in 2019, but it was not that hard to convince the families. “There were no major reservations or apprehensions from my side of the family. My mother did say that whatever decision I take, they are with me, but to take it after giving it some thought,” he said.
Namita said about her parents, “I think the only concern they had was about the different lifestyles and food habits since I was mostly a vegetarian at that time.” While Anirban, a Bengali, is a non-vegetarian, Namita’s family is Pahadi.
A cross-cultural marriage can be challenging — in terms of adjustment in the initial few months — and Anirban said sharing his personal space “was a new experience”, while Namita remarked, “[It was] super awkward for me, despite the fact that I speak my mind. It was the added sense of responsibility and the expectation from myself to act a certain way, which was difficult at the beginning.”
Anirban said in terms of food, he “got lucky”, because he did not have to repudiate any culinary habits. “I still get the best of both worlds; the staple vegetarian food — kadhi, rajma, choley and traditional Pahadi food like bhang ki chutney.”
But for his wife, it was “difficult at the beginning”. “Not because I have any problem with non-vegetarians, but that I had not lived in such a household; the entire process — from getting the food to cooking it — was new, uncomfortable and challenging. I’m still mostly a vegetarian, but better-adjusted now,” she said.
The couple loves to experiment with different cuisines by preparing them at home, and Namita has become “especially fond of eggs”. While Anirban was “never big on parathas and puri-sabjis before the wedding”, he calls them “a complete game changer” now.
“I think it is all about consideration. If one knows the food preferences of their partner and their family, then all you have to do is be considerate. Rest all will fall into its place,” he said about food bringing two unlikely families together.
Divya Ratan Sangam
The 30-year-old clinical psychologist from Pune, a Tamilian, got married into a Muslim family in 2015, and while her husband’s parents were “chill about it”, convincing her own parents “was tough”. “Eventually they were okay with it. My parents were worried about me getting converted, adjusting to a totally different culture, etc.,” she said.
Divya agreed that while a cross-cultural marriage can be “very challenging”, in her case, her in-laws and husband made her “feel at home”. “I guess, they were more adjusting to me and my needs than I was! I come from a south-Indian family and my in-laws never tasted any of the south-Indian dishes,” she told this outlet, adding that they were, however, open to trying new foods. “So were my parents!”
While Divya’s family is from Kerala, they are settled in Maharashtra. Her husband’s family hails from Karnataka, but they, too, live in Maharashtra. Talking about how the families bonded, she said, “There were a lot of lunches and dinners, where everyone tried different foods. I did not have to give up any food, as such. In fact, I learnt how to make biryani and many non-vegetarian dishes that I had never made at my parents’ house, because they are pure vegetarian.”
She joked that biryani played a role in bringing her closer to her husband’s family.
“Food is love! A lot of disagreements can be resolved over food. Trying out different cuisines brings people closer. [One must] learn to respect their partner’s culture, the same way that they respect yours,” she said.
Parna, who lives in Ernakulam, Kerala, said that when she married Joseph — a Malayali Christian — in 2010, it was “quite an accomplishment” considering that they had been “courting for five years and really wanted to start a life together”.
“As easy as it sounded, he had to really go through a tough phase of convincing his family,” she said about her husband. “We stood by each other through the entire process of logical arguments, bitterness and emotional outbursts, before we finally won over his family to finalise the wedding,” said Parna, adding that the “absolute different cultural background” was the biggest roadblock.
“Like, we had different ideologies, tastes, religion and festivals, along with a totally different upbringing.”
Luckily for her, there weren’t too many challenges post-marriage as the couple was living independently. “My husband did not bother to infuse his family mantras. Moreover, he was always more tuned in to the Bengali way of life, as he had grown up with it.”
In fact, Parna said her culinary habits did not change too much after marriage, “My husband loved Bengali food and I, being a foodie, was very much interested in trying out new cuisines.”
When the couple was living in Kolkata, there weren’t too many culinary shockers, but when they shifted to Kerala, Parna realised that the one major difference in the style of cooking was the use of coconut oil — instead of mustard oil — and the smell of curry leaves with mustard seeds tadka.
So, did she discover a new dish that she started to cook? “There were a few actually. The crepes — appam, pathiri, idiyappam etc. — came as a revelation as to what all can be prepared with rice. Then, there was the use of coconut milk in curries (such as fish molee) and also fish cooked with a bit of sourness added to it either with mango or kokum which blows your taste buds,” said the 46-year-old homemaker.
“Anyone who loves food should have no problem in finding different flavours enticing. I have always believed that the way to your partner’s heart is through his stomach; at least for me it has been that. Moreover, accepting and enjoying another’s food choices is integral to the relationship,” she told this outlet.
For Swathi Dugar, getting married in 2018, “was not at all an easy task”. The 30-year-old freelance fashion stylist and designer from Bengaluru told this outlet that there were a lot of apprehensions from her side of the family. “We are Jains and pure vegetarians, and my husband is a hard core non-vegetarian from the coastal side.”
Swathi said her husband Raj — a Mangalorean Hindu — is eight years elder to her, and was turning 35 at the time of their wedding, which was another reason why her family was not too thrilled about the match.
“[His] family accepted me with open arms. But, [there were a] few adjustments, like the smell of non-veg [food] when it was cooked at home; especially fish. I used to lock myself in the room, but now I am used to it,” she said.
She added that while her husband’s family eats non-vegetarian food, her mother-in-law prepares “amazing veg food”. “And even when it is a ‘non-veg day’ for the family, I get to eat something special (vegetarian) prepared by my husband, who is an amazing cook.”
Swathi also said that post-marriage, she discovered a dish called ‘Bassaru‘, which turned out to be one of her favourites.
And what would be her advice for other couples trying to bridge the cultural gap? “Cook together, go out for dinners quite often with respective families and stay happy!”