Close your eyes and think back to your favorite childhood memory. What smells are filling your nose? What sights do you see? What sounds are bouncing around the room?
For me, it’s a cold winter morning back home in Henderson, Nevada. It’s freezing outside, the trees are bare and the only sounds come from a chorus of birds humming alongside the occasional gust of wind. A warm, pleasant smell drifts into my room and convinces me to abandon my bed. I get up and stretch, bleary-eyed and tired, and make my way downstairs to figure out what on Earth smells so amazing.
I end up in the kitchen and am greeted by a wave of sensations. I hear onions sizzling on the stove. I smell haldi, cumin and black pepper mix together. I see a bed of yellow rice stacked up high in a steaming metal pot. My mouth can’t help but water. My mom is making my favorite meal ever: pulao and mutton curry.
When I see or smell this meal, I feel at home, even if I’m a thousand miles away. I think about my mom and the delicious food she makes whenever I fire up the stove — she’s the one who taught me. So, to my mom who’s always worried I don’t eat enough, this one’s for you.
When I think about my mom’s cooking, all of my stress washes away. I remember clamoring around the table with my dad and my sister, excited to see what was on the menu. During Ramadan, my family would have a potluck, and each of us would make our own meal to add to the mix. We would eye each other’s dishes and see what stuck out every night (usually something from my sister). I love eating with other people because it reminds me of the time I’ve spent with my family. It’s often said that the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach — for me, that’s very true.
Eating with other people, especially those with starkly different backgrounds, breaks down social barriers and builds bridges between people who may have diverse views or come from different cultures. It provides an avenue for people to share their ideas and contribute to cultural exchange.
You can follow this cultural fluidity through the worldwide spread of cuisines from culture to culture. Indian people LOVE samosas. There are countless types of these delicious fried pastries just in India alone. They range from triangle-shaped to half-moons to filled with potatoes or ground beef. The possibilities are endless, and I’ve gotten into multiple arguments with my friends over which one is the best (it’s half-moons, don’t even try me).
The mind-blowing diversity of this snack isn’t contained within India’s borders — it reaches across the world. The humble samosa got its start in ancient Mesopotamia and spread along trade routes, from India to Spain to Africa and Asia. While Rome fell, the samosa survived and thrived, adding new shapes, ingredients and names. In East Africa, they’re known as sambusas; in Jamaica, they’re called pasties; and in Latin America, they’re called empanadas. The list goes on and on, but the evidence is clear: No food exemplifies unity among diversity more than the samosa.
Beyond bridging cultural divides, sharing a meal with others, especially if you’re eating the same food, leads to higher levels of trust and compromise, even among so-called enemies. Studies done at the University of Chicago have shown that volunteers who were placed in opposing roles (manager and union representative) were able to reach an agreement twice as fast when they ate the same food.
This is the power of breaking bread. It’s why negotiations about everything from business to politics have been done over meals for thousands of years. If you’re a fan of “Hamilton,” the famous “The Room Where it Happens” is based on a dinner party where Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton came up with a compromise that led to the ratification of the Constitution and made Washington, D.C. the capital. That’s true peace-making power.
In more recent times, former President Barack Obama’s administration had moments in which food played a role in moving policy. During the 2013 government shutdown, Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden ran out to get hoagies from Taylor Gourmet, a sandwich shop that was offering discounts and free cookies to furloughed government employees. They even brought some back for members of Congress! It was a kind image that showed the administration’s continuing goodwill, despite Republican stonewalling in Congress, and support for those affected by the shutdown.
I love food because it brings out the best in people. When I’m hungry, I have the same emotional range as a bear woken up midhibernation — I can get pretty hangry. But no matter who I’m upset with at the moment — my sister, my parents, school, life — I know that after a good meal, I will feel better. And that’s something I learned from my mom! So mom, if you’re reading this, I love you. And since I know you’re going to ask, yes, I ate today.
Nishi Rahman writes the Thursday column on cultural and political diversity as a second-generation American. Contact him at [email protected].