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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

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There is supposed to be a pot of chicken curry bubbling on the stove and fresh chapatis frying in the pan when you walk into my house. That would have been a telltale sign that an Indian girl lives here. Growing up, the smell of curry usually greeted anyone that entered our home.

Instead, if you were to walk into my house, your nostrils would be hit with the smell of tomato sauce. There is often a big pot of tomato sauce bubbling on the stove, a pot of boiling water awaiting the pasta that needs to be cooked, and tomatoes taking up most of my countertop real estate. Did I mention I also have 50 bottles of tomato sauce sitting in the cantina downstairs?

This was not quite how I envisioned things.

Marrying an Italian was supposed to help me embrace my Indian roots. But instead, that idealistic notion has fallen by the wayside. I think I’ve actually become more Italian than Indian over the years.

I feel a bit ashamed admitting this. As an East-Indian woman, I’m supposed to come fully equipped when I get married. You know, cooking (Indian food), cleaning and sewing. I’m proud to say two of the three skills I’ve nailed. I’m a pretty good cook – for pretty much every cuisine except Indian. (My mother is an amazing Indian cook and my skills pale in comparison.) I am obsessed with having a clean house. Sewing? I can sew a button and darn a sock. Does that count? I am a damn good baker though – even if that’s not one of the prerequisites in our culture for getting married. So, that makes up for the sewing. The way to a husband’s heart is through his stomach, right?

But ever since our children came along, I’ve been asked a lot – typically by well-meaning wives of colour and a few Indian aunties of course – if I cook my husband some “nice Indian dishes.” Sometimes these words are spoken more as a statement than a question: “I should be cooking my husband some nice Indian dishes.” This becomes even more important when it’s discovered my husband isn’t Indian.

These kinds of statements bother me. Does it really matter if I make my husband dhal (lentils) and rice or aloo bhaji (spicy potatoes)? Apparently, it does.

I even had an older Indian lady on my street offer to drop off aloo bhaji at my door so my husband can taste how great it is. For the record, I do know how to cook these two dishes. But honestly, sometimes I’d just prefer to make a big comforting bowl of spaghetti aglio e olio instead.

Sadly though, it is precisely this line of thinking that still persists for many immigrant women. A woman’s value comes from what she can offer to her husband and often this is measured in cooking, cleaning, sewing and child-rearing skills. Well, I can offer my husband a three-tier lemon cake filled with lemon curd and frosted with lemon buttercream (his favourite) and a perfectly caramelized crème brûlée.

Know what else I can offer him besides food? I can offer him my love, respect and forgiveness just to name a few intangible things that are worth a lot more than any tangible skills.

Thankfully, I was raised by progressive parents and I married a progressive man. My husband doesn’t expect me to cook Indian dishes. He would like it if I did sometimes, but he also knows where to go if he really wants some good Indian food (my mother). He’s happy with whatever meals I cook. He’s a great cook himself who loves to do the majority of cooking. Shouldn’t we celebrate that?

Marrying an Italian man was supposed to bring me closer to my Indian heritage. At least that’s what I thought would end up happening. However, it has made me realize that I was trying to be more Indian-like for the wrong reasons. I was doing it because I felt I had something to prove as a “good Indian wife.” The expectations of others and that I had placed upon myself only made me experience guilt when I couldn’t live up to this ideal.

Indian food should grace my kitchen because I want to make it not because I feel obligated to. And that is why I spent a few sleepless nights last December making traditional Christmas sweets like milk cream, kul kuls and coconut toffee. I’ll probably even do that again this Christmas – because I want to, not because I have to.

That’s also why, if you were to walk into my house a week ago, it would smell like curry. Because there was a pot of spicy chicken curry bubbling on the stove, along with some creamy raita to go with it. (The chapatis that were supposed to be frying in the pan? Well, I opted for store-bought naan.) I chose to cook an Indian meal because my husband and I were both craving it. And, do you know what I realized? Indian food is much more satisfying when cooked out of love than out of duty.

Wendy Chiavalon lives in Ajax.

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