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Lunch breaks dissolve borders, connect people
Despite being settled overseas, the Tamil diaspora loves to recreate the life they left behind in India. Here’s a glimpse of their lives, celebrations and struggles on foreign shores.
When it comes to work days, the lunch hour is the most welcome hour of the day. It does not matter if you are in school, college or at work, a better part of the morning is spent in wondering either what’s inside the lunch box or what to have for lunch. But, what does it take for an Indian immigrant in the US to plan lunch? Can the menu contain idly, dosa, sambar vada or bisibele bath and the cool curd rice with mango pickle or roti and sabji which remind us of home or will it be a takeaway from some of the popular Indian restaurants that offer boxes of sumptuous food at affordable prices. For thoseliving in New York city or in other cities with a rich corporate industry, the chances of actually visiting one of these restaurants that offer customised Indian food, actually increases.
Also, in such cities, most of its main streets where all the offices are located are usually vibrant with eateries catering to all ethnicities. Cultural integration is seen at its best here with Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, Thai, Korean and Indian restaurants co-existing peacefully. For a casual onlooker, the intermingling cultural vibes in these areas is most evident during lunch hour.
The cart food on the New York streets usually run by Pakistanis or Bangladeshis are extremely popular among the Indian professionals who hardly think twice before ordering Greek falafel or the easy-to-eat veggie wraps. Meanwhile, at fancy calorie counters, one does not hesitate to order salads that are nutritious, filling and delicious, and available at a reasonable price.
Srinivas L, an IT professional working in New York city, said, “We look forward to the lunch break where our team usually walks to the nearby eat out joints every day. The fast-paced New York street walks, keep us brisk managing to keep us energised while easing our work pressure.”
College student Varalakshmi Srikanth who has recently taken up a job, said, “The talk on the US visa policy, the H1B current numbers, the home mortgage planning tips, besides the cricket scores, children’s education options or the expensive Michael Kores purse purchase are common topics of discussion at our lunch tables.” She added, “Sometimes, we step out but when things are really hectic at work, we order in,” said Varalakshmi.
Generally, when couples work, there are fewer chances of carrying home food packed for lunch. For, the per hour cost of the working professional justifies the purchase of the outside lunch every day instead of spending long hours in the kitchen cooking and cleaning. The typical days that begin for most with cereal or breakfast bars and the outside lunch turns out to be an easy option. But there are also health freaks and taste bud specialists who will go the extra mile to pack healthier lunch and even breakfast from home.
Lunch packing also calls for elaborate planning. Easy finger food that is less oily and not aromatic enough to disturb the smell sensitive neighbour at work, seems a necessity. “Veggie wraps, chappati and sabzi, rice, upma, sambar are the common lunch options at our home. I usually avoid onion or garlic in my cooking to keep low on smell while preparing packed lunches for my family. Healthy snacks like fruits and nuts as well a dessert complete our lunch bag,” said Anu Matha, reflecting on her concerns about the health of the family.
There is also office cafeteria that mostly sells popular American, Italian or Mexican foods for lunch. Among the Indian snacks, samosa is a popular choice even for non-desi population. As long as it is less spicy, the Indian chats prove to be a favoured choice in the office party lunch menu, observed Raji Venkat.
The lunch halls at the school are the coolest place. Most children of working parents buy breakfast and lunch at the school cafeteria. The parents fill the lunch accounts with enough money for the child to place orders at school. The children get into disciplined lines at the counter to buy scouring the menu of their choice and are thus are exposed to making independent choices at a young age. The menu usually boasts of pizza, pasta, quesadilla, wraps or boxed salads and fresh fruit, juice boxes and milk. Most Indian parents do send packed food from home. Being a vegetarian means the options are restricted for outside eating besides the feeling that home food is much more nutritional, observe many. Usually the home lunch menu includes rice, chappati, idly, wraps, pasta, noodles, bambino style upma and more. The children sit at tables usually with close friends who are curious to know what others have brought. They are not allowed to share food. The home food is to strictly follow the general allergy restrictions. The conversation about food stops with exchange of names. Interestingly the Indian kids get creative to name the food with a commonly accepted name. Little wonder that the dosas become Indian pancakes, while idlies are rice cakes and rotis are desi wraps.
There are also occasions when a child is afraid of getting bullied for a different food that it brings to table. So, kids like to play the way the friends would accept what they are eating. Definitely the lunch table teaches the kids to present themselves acceptable in a culturally mixed environment and also at the same time learn to accept others.
College goers are the most squeezed of the lot. Just beginning to start living an independent life in the college dorms, cooking their own food is stressful to manage time; while buying outside food could challenge their purse. Not ruling out the help from parents who do not hesitate to even ship home food by post meticulously week after week.
Irrespective of geographies, food dictates how we spend our time. Interestingly enough for the Indian immigrants in the US, the lunch choices are plenty, with that the much-awaited break hour promises to be the best cultural connect time of the day!
— The writer is ajournalist based in New York