Mapping Motherhood: The Taste of Difference

What happens when home stretches across geographic boundaries and the “cultures of the family” and the “cultures of the mainstream” blur together? How does home continue?


The pillars to the diasporic home are the women and girls who “sift through the family’s past and homeland and imagine the family’s future.” In many diasporic communities, the role of carving out and communicating a sense of identity falls on women. Diasporic mothers and daughters, seen as holding the maternal responsibility of rearing and nurturing, carry the weight of passing on what is inherited from their ancestral mothers.


The complications of “home” and “away” for the diasporic person is no more clear than in how the values, artifacts, and practices of culture become magnified and even more meaningful, not only in the diaspora, but also across generational lines. Such cultural values, artifacts, and practices may consist of traditional, spiritual, and religious rites, lifestyle ideals, and patterns of creation and consumption like that of food.


Image by Devanshi Adhvaryu


Food is not merely something that fuels and sustains us. Food is consumed and becomes part of our being. Food is visceral, symbolic, affective. At once, it is anticipated and responded to with a scent or sight conjuring all sorts of feelings, thoughts, and meanings. Food can be a nostalgic comfort, i.e. making the porridge your mother fed you when you were sick as a child, or can be a site of anxiety, i.e. feeling shame in eating the aromatic dhaals of home in the cafeteria where your classmates are eating the same, unscented, clinical Lunchables. Food is how people understand and articulate themselves and others across “multiple identities — ethnic regional, gendered, or classed” that are constantly in flux. As both a cultural practice and artifact, food becomes a means to “reproduce and construct identity” as a symbol and an actuality; through our taste, the ways we eat, the ways we think of food, etc. we create a being for ourselves and carve out a sense of belonging. For the diasporic body, “home” becomes the food that moves with them and becomes a way to negotiate with the “away.”


Speaking to three mother-daughter pairs living in suburban Toronto, the mothers being racialized, diasporic immigrant women and the daughter being racialized, diasporic children of immigrants, intergenerational dissonances contained in their food relationships emerge in their process of identification and strained feelings of “home.”


Li, a 51-year-old southern Chinese woman, mother of four, and first-generation immigrant who arrived in Canada at the age of 19, explains that to her, “food is food, if there is no food, I cannot survive. You need food to have the energy to succeed.” Talking about her childhood, Li states that “back home, we didn’t have access to food because we were poor, including food that is ‘Chinese.’” While Li’s role as her family’s main cook is due to her capabilities, Li explains that:


“When I first got here, my mom was cooking. I would just go to the grocery store with her. We would have to go to Chinatown to get what we needed, it was hard to find them near us. My sister-in-law and mom cooked, so everything I learned, I learned from them. Everything else I learned was unfamiliar except Chinese food.”


Though Li brings other cuisines home often, she explains that “because I am Chinese, I cook Chinese food,” describing the typical meal to consist of a traditional soup, meat, vegetable, and rice or noodle make-up. When it comes to her children, Li hopes that she can share what she knows with her kids, saying, “one day I will be old and they will have to cook for me. They have to know how to cook food I like. I will teach them side by side.”


Image by Devanshi Adhvaryu


Li’s daughter, Silvia, a 22-year-old Chinese woman born in Canada, sees food differently. “To me,” says Silvia, “food makes me feel more connected to other people, my culture, and my parents.” Born and raised in a Toronto suburb, Silvia remarks that “because I don’t speak Cantonese, food is a way I can communicate with my family. Eating and having a palette for Chinese food makes me seem more Chinese in the eyes of my extended family, especially in comparison to my cousins who don’t eat Chinese food.” However, Silvia finds herself balancing in the middle, seeking other foods that are not made at home, like her favourite, Korean barbeque, as a result being in an “‘adventurous’ culture,” and trying to retain something of her own “Chineseness” that she could pass on.


Kritika, a 23-year-old Hindu Punjabi woman born in India who arrived in Canada at the age of 3 with her parents and sister, feels a sort of tension and responsibility in her hybridity as an Indo-Canadian. Describing her favourite food, the iconic South Asian instant noodle, Maggi, as a “treat that my older sister would make us [Kritika and her siblings] when our mother was too busy,” Kritika explains that she “took on the mantle and would make the noodles for me and my brother, when we got the chance.” When Kritika lived “away” for university, her solitary living sparked a craving for this type of “home” and formed a new connection with her family:


“Food is important to me because I have found that it is the thread that holds my family together. It has always been a sense of comfort within my family. When I was living away from home, my mother’s way of checking in on me would be to ask: ‘Have you eaten? What did you eat?’ It was something that opened the door to daily phone conversations.”

Yet, this food that binds her family together also strains Kritika’s own self-expression: “I identify with the food differently, depending on which setting I am in. I would have pizza for lunch at school and rajma for dinner at home. Eating Indian food at school was not comfortable.” This compulsion to compartmentalize herself is something Kritika wants to push-back against, saying “I wish I could show my mom those same recipes she is so proud of to show my appreciation for her.” Even the small food rituals her parents practiced back home are something she wants to maintain: “The feeding of sweetened yogurt as a wish of good luck is something my parents still do that connects me to my culture and I will keep doing that.”

Unlike her daughter Kritika, Nita, a 64-year-old Hindu Punjabi woman who arrived at the age of 44 with her husband and children, eats to live, she does not live to eat. “Though food is important to me because it is a piece of India that I keep alive in my home away from home,” Nita says, “I take great pride in making sure my family is eating nutritiously.” When she first arrived, Nita realized a stark contrast in her experience of food back home to her new home: “Getting groceries was different because unlike in India where I could walk or take a rickshaw outside and get fresh vegetables or spices, in Canada, I have to wait for my husband and when the car is free to go on a whole shopping spree.” While Nita incorporates other cultural staples or unfamiliar ingredients into her cooking as “healthier alternatives'', she maintained the cooking lessons she learned from her mother that lies in Indian cuisines: “Indian food is the thing I know how to cook best. All the ingredients I buy can be used in multiple Indian dishes. Nothing goes to waste. I did not stick to cooking Indian food with the intention of maintaining our culture but it is something I am very proud of.” Thinking of her children, Nita knows her children’s tastes are not always familiar to her but feeding them when home and teaching them to cook when away is her way of reminding them of her love


Image by Devanshi Adhvaryu


Satwinder, a 52-year-old Sikh Punjabi woman, first generation immigrant who arrived at the age of 20, and mother of two, finds a thrill and pride in her ability to traverse between her own culture and the culture her children are enveloped in, saying “I like to find recipes online and try them out, or experiment with recipes myself that I can then add to my collection of knowledge. My sasa [mother-in-law] can only cook Indian food, but I can cook foods that both my children and my elders can eat.” However, arriving to Canada during a period of strong anti-Sikh violence in India during the 1980s, Satwinder expresses a necessity in sharing her own childhood foods with her children, from feeding them her favourite foods of saag and makhi di roti to drafting her own set of recipes to give them once they leave the home a way for them to get to know not only her, but of her pindh [home village] and of their home country. “These foods represent me, my culture,” Satwinder says, “Yes, I think more about Indian food than my kids do. I am known by the foods I make and eat.”


“I was taught that food is a symbol of love,” says Pavan, a 23-year-old Canada-born Sikh Punjabi woman and daughter of Satwinder, “and when someone prepares food for you it’s because they love you.” While she was learning this idea of food from her mother, Pavan had a vastly different relationship to her cultural foods: “I see Indian foods as foods I have to eat whereas my mom sees Indian foods as foods that she wants to eat.” However, Pavan realizes that as someone “away” from the Indian home, both her actual home and the home of India, her relationship to her culture and her identity are at a crucial-point: “I have no other connection to Punjab other than through food and I can only maintain it by eating the food. If I stopped eating Punjabi food, I would lose that connection with India as I am not very culturally involved to begin with.”


“Because immigrants have always been particularly prone to repetition - it's something to do with that experience of moving from West to East or East to West or from island to island. Even when you arrive, you're still going back and forth; your children are going round and round. There's no proper term for it - original sin seems too harsh; maybe original trauma would be better.”
― Zadie Smith, White Teeth

The repetition, the moving back and forth, the going round and round that Zadie Smith describes in their novel, White Teeth, takes hold of something so slippery: what it means to be “diasporic.” Being “diasporic” is much more than just having a history defined by a transplanting of one’s roots from one delineated territory to another. Rather, being diasporic rests on the experience of “home,” the experience of “away” or “outside of home,” and the differences and tensions that emerge between both that then creates certain ideas of “return.” The tension and the notion of “return” manifests itself in varying ways, depending on variant reasons, be it the conditions of the movement and settlement, the class, gender, and racial identities that frame their experience, or the sociopolitical spaces that surround the individual.


To these diasporic women, food is something that is fraying on their connection to each other but also a way for them to constantly reaffirm themselves and each other. Though food reveals a taste of difference and is a site of which the mothers go back and forth between “home” and “away” and the daughters go round and round in what “home” and “away” can even be, food becomes a way to navigate their dissonances. Through their relationship of mother and daughter, through their wants to learn, to teach, to pass on, to adopt, “home” and “away” are not so disparate.