Indian, Italian, American: When Food, Music and Movies Transcend Culture

Jodhaa-Akbar-Romantic-Scene-Wallpapers

From the film Jodhaa Akbar (2008), starring (from left to right) Aishwarya Rai & Hrithik Roshan

What happens when an American mutt, a Sicilian and two Indians get together?

Sounds like your classic “walk in the bar” joke, right? Well, I’m here to tell you— it’s a ridiculously good time!

I went on a recent trip that started with Pollo Marbella, some Shakshuka in the middle and ended with a tasty plate of Anjeeri Murg. Bless your heart if you pictured me adventuring off to Spain, Israel and India. That would have been fabulous, but this was a wonderful weekend getaway— one just as good for the soul, if not better.

After three long years, two children, relocations, career moves and 232 miles by car, my family and I found ourselves in Massachusetts visiting dear friends.  The last time I saw Shruti, it was at her baby shower. On this special trip, we FINALLY met each other’s daughters…and everything seemed to come full circle.

Our friendship is a fusion of two distinct, yet very similar cultures.  If you didn’t already know, I’m a bilingual, first generation, American mutt with Italian, Azeri and German roots. Basically my ancestral pie is covered in provola, minced lamb and beer braised onions. Interesting? Yes. Edible? Can’t say. 

My husband Giuseppe on the other hand, is a pure-bred Sicilian. He first ventured to America at five years old. He left after his first year of kindergarten but returned for college. And that’s exactly where we met. In the middle of a Dante Alighieri Seminar, a classmate whispered in my ear, “there’s an Italian on campus.” To which I replied, “Do you know how many vowels are in this building alone?” He explained Giuseppe was still wet behind the ears, so I went a few doors down and met him at the International Students Organization. First came coffee, then butterflies—then major fireworks. Sure enough I fell in love with his inner circle too. And that included Shruti.

Shruti and her husband Atma are both from India. Similar to Giuseppe, Atma was only six years old when he had a brief stay in America. Two decades later, Atma was preparing to return to Boston for his Masters, while Shruti was in India staying with family. Both were completely unaware of the other’s existence or that Cupid and Kamadeva were steadily flexing their bows toward the sky.

Detail of Cupid from Triumph of Galatea by Raphael

Detail of Cupid from Triumph of Galatea by Raphael

Their “meet cute” played out on a flight from India to Amsterdam. The little lovebirds sat side by side. Shruti was recovering from surgery and literally boarded the plane high on pain killers. Atma was very tipsy after living it up all night at his send off party. Given their mental and physical states, you could say the pair met at their very worst. Inhibitions were non-existent. Conversations were completely unfiltered. Yet if you ask me, what better scenario to really get to know someone?

Regardless as to how coherent they were, the connection from Asia to Europe was very real. Once their planes touched down, a few more miles from New Jersey to Massachusetts were a piece of cake.

And as fate would have it, Shruti and Atma tied the knot. Two years later, Giuseppe and I took the plunge too. Then one by one, the old college crew got hitched, followed by mini reunions— what I refer to as the UN on laughing gas.

Kamadeva

Kamadeva: Hindu God of Human Love or Desire

Since then, Shruti has become a finance guru by day and major foodie off the clock. If there’s an estate to manage, she could probably tell you how to run it in her sleep. When not working, she’s the girl you want to hit the gym with, confess your dietary and every day sins to, share some tea and a few yummy recipes with too.

Atma is the Master of Details. He’s a “Mr. Fix It” by nature and gifted mixologist. Should home appliances break and DIY projects fail miserably, he’ll pat you on the back, explain the mishap, both technically and theoretically, then graciously hand you an eye-rolling, mouth-watering mojito.

He just happens to be a controls system engineer, who I credit for curing my microwave phobia. Yes indeed. This “electromagnetic spectrum illiterate girl” right here, was brainwashed.  All my life, my father swore that regular microwave use could potentially result in a tail and beard. Rather than laugh in my face, Atma explained it in the simplest of terms—no advanced degree required. And it doesn’t take a genius to realize how important it is to have a sense of humor either.

“With mirth and laughter, old wrinkles come”…

And so do great memories. Shakespeare was right. We are not getting any younger. I fondly recall a ride through Boston in the backseat of Shruti and Atma’s car. This was before we had children and subconsciously took it upon ourselves to act like five year olds. Somehow old school Italian and Indian music came up—the kind that gives us chills (both good and bad). You know…when nonno, nonna or dadi and nani sing all high pitched and nasally?

Then it happened. Carpool Karaoke! Atma and Shruti randomly broke out with Toto Cotugno’s famous, Lasciatemi Cantare. Their rendition was impressive and the applause was deafening. At one point I think I wheezed. Never in my life did I imagine them singing in Italian—and with such gusto! Apparently it was a real hit overseas. In fact, my Latvian friend just lip-synched it for me on SnapChat! Who knew?

But what really stands out is a great show of respect and positive proof that music is universal.

Toto Cotugno

Toto Cotugno

Little did they know that I was secretly obsessed with this Asian Groove album I purchased. Instinctively, I reciprocated the gesture with MY version (and OH did I own that number) of Noorie featuring Gunjan. Different performance. Same gut-busting reaction. Pity for them, this wasn’t the last time I shared my love for Indian music.

When Slumdog Millionaire came out in theaters, I immediately memorized the lyrics to Jai Ho and gave them my best performance to date.

The Sauce

Indians and Italians have a singing gene and no scientific proof to the contrary could convince me otherwise.  Weddings, casual dinners or community gatherings call for everyone to stop, drop and belt one out. And if there’s an instrument around—a guitar, mandolino, sitar or tabla, even better. Weddings are all about family, age old traditions, pleasing the elders, delicious food for days on end and great music. And heaven forbid the latter two fundamentals lack in abundance or quality. They also share an incurable weakness for fine jewelry, not to mention obsession with textiles. Guilt is used as a weapon by family and friends alike. Mothers attempt to veil bragging sessions about their children’s accomplishments with “casual” mentions. Rules like, no shoes in the house or offering guests some form of caffeine, are mandatory. And guess what?  The love is mutual for tomato sauce and garlic—something I was fortunate enough to learn and taste on that very day of back seat serenades.

Shruti, knowing full well that culture is my crack, decided to speak to my inner Caucasus roots by making a Mughlai dish called Anjeeri Murg.

Mughlai is a cuisine developed in Medieval India by the people of the Mughal Empire—an empire established and ruled by a Muslim Persianate dynasty of Chagatai Turco-Mongol. The dish consists of stuffed chicken breasts (murgh) with figs (anjeer), spinach and saffron—a recipe as rich as the Mughal culture.

I was so fascinated by its history and flavor that Shruti suggested I watch a well-known film from 2008, called Jodah Akbar. It’s an elaborate sixteenth century love story born out of a marriage alliance between the great Mughal emperor, Akbar, and a Rajput princess, Jodha.

The cast is insanely gorgeous, with Hrithik Roshan (heart palpitations), who plays Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar, and internationally renowned actress, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, as the stunning Jodhaa Bai. And because they are so ridiculously good looking, let me interrupt this blog post with some necessary visuals. You can thank me in the comments.

Hrithik Roshan

Hrithik Roshan

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Moving on, if you can—is hard, just as it was trying to forget the film.

Based on the true story of Akbar I, ruler of the Mughal Empire—this movie speaks of love, communal harmony and above all, tolerance.

Never has such a message of acceptance been so relevant in a time where prejudice and violence due to race, sexual orientation, religion and political beliefs are so prevalent.

Yes, the Mughals were indeed conquerers, but Akbar won hearts. His marriage to Hindu Princess Joda Bai resulted in a shift of social and religious policies—policies that were more inclusive within such a large, diversely ethic and religious empire. Imagine how in the 16th century this man succeeded in building a hall, the Ibadat Khana or House of Worship—where he invited theologians, mystics and selected intellectually renowned courtiers to openly discuss spirituality. Not only was he accepting of other faiths amongst fellow leaders and countrymen, but he also viewed his Hindu bride on par with his Muslim family.

His example of love and acceptance certainly leads us to ask time and again “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Six years have gone by and I still can not get enough of the film or that fantastic Anjeeri Murg. For that very reason, I asked Shruti if we could whip it up again. And because she is such a great friend and superb host, we did!

So if you ask me again, “What happens when an American mutt, a Sicilian and two Indians get together?”— the answer just might be in the sauce. Check out this delicious recipe for Anjeeri Murg, plus YouTube video made with a lot of love and the best of friends.

Shruti and Atma, from the bottom of my heart…thank you.

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3 Responses to Indian, Italian, American: When Food, Music and Movies Transcend Culture

  1. Adelina July 15, 2016 at 8:00 am #

    Loved the writing, really fun and interesting to read, have not tried the sauce yet. Good job!

  2. laura November 24, 2016 at 11:41 am #

    Awesome post, loved it!!

    Laura xo

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