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Food is Culture

Food is a language passed down from generation to generation.

A photograph of Rushi's grandparents in formal wear.

"You're selling culture," stated one of my Day One peers.

I was stunned because I had always thought of selling culture as something dirty.

In September, I launched Zameen for so many reasons: to promote equity for small Indian farmers, to slow down climate change, to create representation as a Queer Indian Spice business owner in a space that lacks BIPOC, and to bring quality ingredients to customers. ⠀

These aren't marketing phrases that I am throwing out there. I've put these values into action. Each Zameen spice comes in a mini mason jar with no plastic packaging, along with a spice guide and 3 recipes. Every spice is single-origin, which means it is sourced from a single farm or a single region in India. Our Indian partner organization audits every farm for regenerative practices to ensure farmers go beyond organic to protect the land and environment. All of our farmers promote fair labor practices. We pay our farmers above-market prices to support their families and communities better.

When I started Zameen, I had envisioned it as a place to tell stories through food and, of course, spices, the key ingredients to most South Asian cuisine. Food was a large part of my culture growing up. It's a part of your DNA when you come from grandparents who owned thali hotels (restaurants) in Mumbai.

While my parents worked, my grandparents watched us after school. I would often come home to find my grandfather, Dada, tending to his massive vegetable garden, with all sorts of foreign vegetables like bitter melon, bottle gourd, so many varieties of eggplants and chilies. In the kitchen, my grandmother, Dadima, was cooking up a storm. Our family jokes that she cooks like she's going to feed a village.

One of my grandmother's signature dishes was bajra na rotla, a pearl millet roti. She shaped them with her hands and cooked them on a concave terra cotta pan, called a tavari. The dough is impossible to work with and requires tremendous skill. Imagine shaping a flatbread out of wet clay. The cooked rotlo texture is scrumptious, crispy on the top with loads of melted ghee, and chewy on the bottom. She would serve this with oro, a Gujarati version of baingan bharta. Think fire-roasted eggplant curry slow cooked in ghee, cumin, mustard seeds, turmeric, red chili powder, fresh ginger, fresh tomato, green garlic, and onion stew. These weren't dishes that you could find in an Indian restaurant in America. When she passed away in 2013, she left this world with her recipes. She never wholly told her daughters and daughters-in-law how to make her dishes.

Food is a language passed down from generation to generation. Language is an integral part of the culture. It helps us understand where we come from and how our family thinks. Years, later when I was working in a village near my ancestral home. I understood why my family felt feeding others was so important because most of my elders didn't have food growing up.

Thankfully, all is not lost. Mummy and I often try to recreate Dadima's recipes from our memories and research (mainly chatting with Aunties and eating ). We've been successful with some, and we continue to try with others.

What food traditions have your family lost? How are you trying to revive them?

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