Connecting to Culture & Family through Food with Nisha Vedi Pawar
Nisha Vedi Pawar's blog, Love Laugh Mirch, started very organically out of a need to record recipes she was learning from her mom via Facetime. Nisha recalled, “I just wanted easy recipes to cook homemade food, but there wasn’t much out there. There was a lot of, like, restaurant-type Indian food books and recipes but I just wanted my mom’s food.” Nisha had moved to New Jersey for a job from her home in Florida, but she was determined to learn how to cook the dishes she grew up with from her Mom. She used the blog initially as a record of these mother-daughter lessons. Now a celebrated culture and food blogger with tens of thousands of subscribers, Nisha has filled Love Laugh Mirch with accessible recipes for beginner home cooks, busy parents, and families cooking together. Nisha’s own daughter, Arya, is now learning those same recipes and, through them, connecting to her own Indian culture.
Anyone who has been to a cultural festival in their city for the food alone knows that culture and food are intrinsically tied. At the heart of Nisha’s blog is the tenant, “infusing the everyday with culture and family first.” Every cultural moment in life has particular foods associated with it. It follows, then, that Love Laugh Mirch has grown to be a place that celebrates both Indian food and Indian culture more broadly. For Nisha, it’s important that Arya—or Little Mirch as she’s called on the blog—grows up connected and proud of her heritage. Cooking with her family is one way to do that. Nisha started introducing traditional and familiar Indian spices early into her daughter’s food. She remembers putting cardamom powder in banana and yogurt—a snack Nisha says is delicious enough for any adult—and would add some roasted ground jeera (cumin) to give Arya's zucchini a slight smokiness. Nisha experimented with enough flavors and spices in small quantities here and there so that, at a very young age, Indian food was just simply food for Arya.
Nisha credits this early introduction, at least partially, for Arya’s confidence about bringing her Indian food to school for lunch. It’s no different from the lasagna or the tacos Nisha might make for dinner. Indian food is simply what she eats at home. It’s important to Nisha that her daughter doesn’t have to change her personality just to fit in at school. For example: Arya doesn’t like cold food, which, for Nisha, was a recipe for worry. Nisha explained that Arya takes her time eating and Nisha was worried about her daughter having enough time to eat at school. Like most kids in the US, Arya only gets a very tight 20 minute lunch break. Talking about why her daughter probably doesn't like cold food, including sandwiches, Nisha explains, "it’s a very cultural thing. We joke around that moms are always on this mission to give their kids garam garam roti, which means hot hot rotis. It’s almost like, if we’re giving them hot food, we feel like they’re nourished." That's what Arya is used to eating at home, so it's hard for Nisha to force her to eat something she doesn't like just because she's at school. Nisha laughs and adds, "I have found the most creative ways to keep her thermos warm, trust me."
Unfortunately, even Arya is not immune to hurtful ignorance from classmates. Nisha recalled an experience her daughter had at school almost two years ago when a classmate said that Arya's lunch was, "stinky." Nisha addressed it the best way she knew how and had a conversation with Arya's teacher about the comment. In the classroom, the kids had a discussion about how some people like flavors and spices that other people may not like and that's okay. "The teacher was such a great partner in talking about it," Nisha says, "she offered me a day to bring in some Indian foods for the class to try. It was wonderful." Nisha brought in samples of deliciously sweet mango juice and her daughter's favorite snack: spicy banana chips. Many of Arya's classmates opted to try the spicy variety of banana chip (and liked them!), instead of the alternative plain variety that were also provided. Nisha believes it is moments like these that are critically important for kids because it builds their confidence and pride. "Arya felt really proud in that moment. For her, it was like, “I got to introduce my class to one of my favorite snacks.” It felt nice," Nisha explains.
In Sandwiches and Samosas (2020) by Suhani Parikh, the central characters—sisters Neeva and Nimi—are afraid of an experience similar to what Arya faced, which compels them to ask their mom to pack them sandwiches instead of their favorite idli for lunch. Nisha believes that a lot of people connect to their culture through food and that bridging gaps between cultures can happen by sharing food. It's why Nisha loves the message and representation in Sandwiches and Samosas. "I love the book," she says, "honestly, a huge way to connect with culture is food. I feel like for a lot of immigrant parents, that is how they pass on culture, it’s via flavors.” Sharing food not only helps bridge the gaps between cultures, but it helps connect us to our own family. Nisha has seen this with Arya and her grandparents, "their food is so similar to what I make that she ends up feeling that comfort and familiarity when she visits them." Just like Arya, Neeva and Nimi end up sharing food from their home and culture with their friends at school, who in turn, share their own special cultural foods. Speaking about the resolution of Sandwiches and Samosas, Nisha says, “I loved that it became a cultural exploration of all your friends. I think that’s so important."
When asked about her advice for parents about expanding their kids' palate or connecting with a child through shared food, Nisha recommends three things. First, and most importantly, get them into the kitchen and garden. Second, try everything once. Third, don't force them to eat something they don't like. Nisha has had Arya alongside her in the kitchen for as long as she can remember. Nisha explains how it piques her daughter's curiosity about what the food will taste like, "when she prepares something, she is more willing to try it." Kids are mesmerized by gardens and being able to cook with what they've grown themselves. Arya will frequently request to use the basil or chili peppers from the garden when they're in season. Plus, when it comes to food, there's one hard-and-fast rule in Nisha's house: you have to try it once! Nisha emphasizes, however, that as long as Arya has given it a chance, she won't force her to eat a food she doesn't like. "It seems like such a simple thing," Nisha says, talking about giving her daughter the power to choose her own food and be a part of the process, "but honestly it gives them the ownership. Kids love to be bosses, they love to be in charge!"
When Nisha started out, Love Laugh Mirch was a place to record family recipes from her mom when she was just learning to cook. She's held on to the passion for sharing and prides herself on creating easy, accessible recipes that families can cook together. When asked if she had anything else she wanted our readers to know, Nisha says, "I just want people to know that other cultural recipes don’t always have to be daunting!"
Check out Nisha's samosa recipe in the back of Sandwiches and Samosas and her favorite lunchbox recipe below:
Nisha says, "I have a friend whose husband is Chinese and she’s Hispanic and they tried that recipe during lockdown and she has a three year-old and she told me that they make my Dal-ke-Parathe all the time. Mind you, she’s not Indian! She just loves the flavors and the lentils and spinach and how many spices were in there but it’s not an overpowering type of dish.”
All photos and recipes are from Love Laugh Mirch and are property of Nisha Vedi Pawar.