How food plays a role in the ongoing narrative of identity formation, for a now-diasporic, always-third-culture person, using three food-related spaces:

  • a grocery store,

  • kitchen, and

  • dining table.


In a dimly lit restaurant surrounded by traditional stereotypical icons of my country, India, ten days after I arrived in Geneva, I had my first Indian meal in Switzerland. A first-time migrant from New Delhi, India, I was ecstatic to have a meal named Delhi thali (a thali is a meal served on a platter with several different dishes in small portions). I was particularly ecstatic as one of the dishes was butter chicken. Five bites down, I realised it tasted different. Or was it that I forgot the taste of Indian food in the ten days of not having it? A few days later, I made butter chicken, and having that made me realise my palate was intact. This marked my first diasporic identity crisis.

Food is an essential ingredient in the cooking of individual and collective identities. It works as a medium to define how people’s multifaceted realities, which encompass emotional, socioeconomic, political, and cultural dimensions, encapsulate a living and lived history.

American sociologist David C. Pollock championed the label “Third Culture Kids” in his scholarly work. Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are essentially defined as
“(A) person who has spent a significant part of their developmental years outside the parents' culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any...”

I often struggle to answer one of the most asked questions “Where are you from?” in most social interactions. In my formative years of 0-8, I changed geographies four times in a geographic-ethnolinguistic diverse country, India. My parents, who are from various places in North India, have moved from one place to another as often as required due to their and their parents’ professions. Since I don’t think I have ever lived or embodied my roots, it is always difficult for me to identify them precisely. This has resulted in a sense of displacement, a lack of a distinct heritage, and a sense of rootlessness, embodying the label of a TCK to a certain level. Beginning with my parents and extending to me, this has led to us making our own rituals, adapting the stories we heard and learnt from our elders, and defining how we would like our community to be.

Amongst all the displacement, food has been a fundamental tool for imagining, creating and practising traditional and new rituals, in navigating the complexities of my different identity aspects. Dr Meredith E. Aberca, a Mexican-American professor of food studies and literature in her collaborative paper titled ‘Food Memories Seasoning the Narratives of our Lives’ mentions how food, memory and narrative play vital roles in everyday practices and rituals. These elements, when combined, offer a means by which people give meaning to their individual and collective subjectivities. Similarly, Fabio Parasecoli, a reputed Italian academic and US-based food studies professor in his essay ‘Food, Identity, and Cultural Reproduction in Immigrant Communities’ states that “…immigrants cope with the dislocation and disorientation they experience in new and unknown spaces by recreating a sense of place around food production, preparation, and consumption, both at the personal and interpersonal levels.”

The only aisle I would walk down: The grocery store One of the most recounted childhood memories by my then-working mother is always how I would want to go to the grocery store with her during her time off to buy some chips. When I moved out of home at 17 for higher education, I found myself buying the same brands of food items that my parents would buy for me as a way to deal with homesickness.

No matter how much I moved across geographies and cultures with my parents in my childhood, the flavours of home always stayed the same. Two years ago, I moved countries for the first time, being the first one in my family of four to do so. As exciting as it was, it was, in all ways, daunting as well. The culture was entirely different from what I had grown up living in and seeing. One of the things I especially missed was the food and its flavours. Two months into living in Switzerland, on my first trip to Zurich, I visited an Indian grocery store, something that Geneva does not have. The joy that I felt was like I struck gold. The spices, the snacks, the smells, the texture, the packaging, the drinks, the familiar brands — oh, it felt like I was back in India. I bought all that I could afford that reminded me of my home, all at an inflated price. Having food ingredients similar to my parents’ collection at home recreated a sense of home, familiarity, and belonging in my house in the foreign land of Geneva. I’ve often found myself eating frozen stuffed parathas for meals when I have been homesick.

Since food holds the power to provide a sense of continuity and stable frames of reference, ethnic grocery stores holding this food serve as a conduit for the diaspora. Experiencing a space wholly can be a five-sensory thing. In international cities like Geneva or Zurich, ethnic grocery stores have an all-encapsulating atmosphere where sensory stimulation is heightened, intentionally or unintentionally, which helps in experiencing the once-familiar. The props, the graphics, the store layout, the brand placement, and many more all contribute in a way to connect to your ‘roots,’ helping to cope with the sense of displacement and alienation. Dr Arijit Sen, a vernacular architecture historian, in his essay ‘Food, Place, and Memory: Bangladeshi Fish Stores on Devon Avenue, Chicago’, states how ‘descriptions of place speak a language of anchored stability of location as well as meaning.’ This statement, as well as the essay, made me realise how significant grocery stores have been in recreating the idea of home and personal identity.

It is also important to note that while physical access to ethnic food in these grocery stores helps to connect to the idea of ‘home’, there is always a matter of financial access, as the products in these stores are often more highly priced than regular products in a grocery store, or than the regular price of what you find at home. This is mostly due to amplified trade costs which include applied tariffs, transportation, insurance premiums, border levies and fees. As summed up in simple terms by a Pakistani aunty selling Indian clothes in Geneva, as she told off a customer in front of me “Yeh plane mei udd kar bhi toh aaya hai, iske paise kaun bharega? (This flew in a plane to come here, who is going to pay that cost?)” to the question of the reason for the inflated costs of traditional clothes there.

A theatre of memory: the kitchen
I still am figuring out my feelings and relationship with the kitchen. It fluctuates between embracing its complex history and hierarchical associations with labour, power, and gender and using the space to brew connections with my close ones and myself. I may have inherited this perspective from my mother, who used this space primarily to create nourishing food for her family but didn’t enjoy being in this space. On the other hand, my workaholic father used this space to show his presence at home and provide my mother relief from kitchen chores. For my parents, the kitchen has been a space where they cooked dishes passed down from their elders, adapting them to their lifestyle and schedule constraints.

I actively ran away from the kitchen whenever my parents tried to teach me how to cook. My teenage self hated the idea of confining myself to the space of the kitchen. I feared that knowing how to cook would make me embody the traditional role of a woman, without considering that cooking was a basic survival skill. However, during the pandemic, I found myself stepping into the kitchen to cook dishes, that I would generally eat outside the home, for me and my family. I found cooking as a communal act and one of self-care, expressing love via food-filled plates.

I carried this newfound connection with cooking to Geneva where I used it in two ways. One was to put in the labour to cook elaborate dishes as a form of self-comfort on days I felt lost and lonely. Second, to use it as a language to hold a conversation, since no one here spoke the same language as me. I found myself cooking to show love and share aspects of my home with friends. I found myself cooking different regional Indian cuisines I had grown up eating, which often held a story behind them. For example, one of the first dishes I cooked for my friends in Geneva was a yoghurt aubergine dish – a favourite of mine that my mother used to cook. Since I loved it so much, my mother learned to prepare it from one of our neighbours in Delhi, who hailed from the Indian state of Orissa.

When I found myself eating cold food, sandwiches, and salads in Geneva, I missed the warmth of hot and traditional food. Traditional Indian recipes, which bring warmth to one’s heart, are often laborious. I found this warmth nostalgic because there was always someone cooking all three meals for me, mostly my mother. Recognising the effort behind these traditional and freshly cooked recipes led the kitchen to become a space for critical reflection, helping me understand why my mother viewed the kitchen the way she did.

A kitchen is incomplete without its pantry. My mother sent me to Geneva equipped with a collection of spices, each ground from raw materials for the most authentic flavour. While I was well-stocked on the spices front, I did need other ingredients to recreate home-cooked meals. One day, to satisfy my craving for Kadhai Chicken in Geneva and to save time on cutting tomatoes, I accidentally bought a bottle of tomato pasta sauce. This led to a more nuanced flavour but was different from the traditional taste. Now, every time I want to use tomatoes in a curry-based dish that calls for cut tomatoes, I use tomato pasta sauce. On most days, I garnish my dishes with dried basil instead of dried fenugreek leaves, a common garnishing element, due to its non-existence in a regular grocery store, and its expensive price in an Asian grocery store. I enjoy these regular mixes and matches. Combining, mixing, and matching traditions with novelty is common among migrants, adapting traditional cuisine to one’s own style of cuisine, influenced by the tensions between the old and new cultures.

Growing up, my mother, with a low tolerance for spicy food, prepared food that was not heavily spiced. When I moved out to the culinary haven of Kolkata for my undergraduate studies, I developed a good tolerance for spicy food thanks to the local cuisine. Unfortunately, the meals at my student residence, in my four years there, were among the worst I had ever had. To make my daily dinner bearable (as eating out every day was not feasible as a student), I started pairing it with a side of jhuri aloo bhaja, a Bengali crispy grated potato fry. This side dish would add texture and flavour to an otherwise lacklustre dinner. When I shifted back home for work, I found myself continuing this habit with different namkeen (salty snacks) instead. In the first communal meal I cooked in Geneva, I paired the dishes with chilli-flavoured potato sticks. When someone asked if this is how we eat traditionally at home, I informed them that this is just how I eat. It is now a tradition for me to crumble some salty snacks over my dishes here in Geneva or pair them with French fries, just so that I can enjoy that extra crunch and flavour. I adapted my palate to the different regions I lived in and formed a tradition that suited my ever-growing tastes well.

Anthropologists David Sutton and Michael Hernandez in their collaborative paper ‘Hands that Remember: An Ethnographic Approach to Everyday Cooking’ formulate “What might it mean to speak of cooking memory as residing not in our heads, but in our hands?”. My father on most Sundays would cook upma, a South Indian semolina porridge, a dish he learnt from his mother. One of the tasks involved in this recipe is to roast peanuts and then peel them after they cool down. This peeling of peanuts would generally be a father-child activity. I distinctly remember this small action because I hated how cumbersome this was. But recently, while recreating my father’s upma I found myself buying whole peanuts instead of peeled peanuts, specifically so that I could experience this father-child activity again. That dish would have not been the same if I had bought peeled peanuts. Another way my father would show his love was to peel and deseed litchi, followed by intentionally chilling it in the fridge, and then enjoying it. For some reason, litchi comes to Switzerland in winter. The first time I bought it, I just ate it casually because litchi is an Indian summer fruit and I thought I would recreate summer during a particularly grey winter. The next time that I bought it, I ate them the way my father would feed us. I do not exaggerate when I say they tasted sweeter and better. It was a particularly emotional moment. The American philosopher Edward Casey refers to this process of habitual bodily memory as hexis, which includes how food is prepared. He claims that these habits serve as a way for memory to be maintained in a regular and orienting way and that engaging in them helps to root a person in their new environments.

The kitchen often oscillates between being a communal and personal space. In its capacity as a personal space, it bears witness to one’s encounters with food and other related object, triggering and creating multidimensional aspects of memory. Becoming a theatre of memory, it is here, that the flavours of taste, sound, and smell blend with the mundane yet essential rhythms of every day.

A regular mealtime with my family would start with the radio being played, with 70-80s Bollywood music, in the kitchen by my mother, the music of my mother’s bangles clinking while she prepared and cooked, the smell of the ginger-garlic/onion caramelising on the pan, her shouting at her shameless children five times to come to the table, the sounds of the slippers rushing to the kitchen to get their plates and food and everyone gathering together to eat.

Giggles, tears and quick glances: Dinner is on the table
I shared the same roof with almost 100 girls for four years in Kolkata. The mess or the dining room would be the place where most of us would learn of each other's existence, forge new connections and maintain them. You would call your friends out of their rooms and walk together to the dining room. It served as a place for my friends and me to unwind and discuss our daily news and thoughts. Not just those of your friends; you would also catch and hear a quick glimpse of other girls' lives as well, as three big tables of 15-20 would talk over each other.

From home to student residence, to living alone and sharing a communal space in Geneva, the use of this wooden rectangular panel has been to initiate, develop and maintain connections. In a constant flux of change, this table has functioned the same. It would be a lie to say that eating alone on most days in a new country has not been hard. While the silence of this space has never been so loud, and people have been replaced by the sound of a TV series/ movie, eating alone at the dining table has fostered an unexpected connection. It has led to building a connection with myself and being more comfortable in myself, my body and my company.

As a server in an Indian restaurant, I have the great pleasure of witnessing a lot of different stories happening at once on these small panels of wood. A parent and child reconnecting; a couple holding hands and enjoying each other's company (or fighting!); a potential/new couple on a date, having a conversation trying to impress each other; friends catching up on life; a person enjoying, embracing or hating their own company; tears, laughs, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and many more. These hold their own universe for a short period of time. It is also this space that I have used to connect to different people from different walks of life, exchanging various traditions and preferences, and just being in a space of narrating, embodying and defining our own stories to each other. In addition, I enjoy seeing people's perception of the food being served, as it brings me a lot of joy to share the food I have grown up eating, with other people, hence, informing them of my home, in a way.

I saw my dining skills change from one place to another, mimicking how people around me would eat. At home, I would generally eat everything with my hand and a spoon, at the hostel, I would generally use my hands to eat, with the occasional use of a spoon, and in Geneva, I switched to eating with a fork and a knife. My hands went from a utensil to a medium to hold the utensil. I see myself from time to time, eating food solely with my hands, as a way to honour my ancestral way of eating and also enjoy the flavours of food better. I was in for a rude shock when I had my first pizza in a restaurant here and everyone started eating that with a fork and a knife. I felt so primitive and alienated because I did not know how to do so and ate it with my hands like a ‘normal’ person.

There are benefits to being a diasporic, third culture kid – allowing one to invent their own space, rituals and identity, by assimilating the different narratives from diverse environments. It becomes a source of empowerment. However, within this complex identity lies the struggle with a perpetual sense of displacement and rootlessness.

Because the diasporic gaze romanticises and idealises the past while ignoring the nuances of hierarchies and power structures, it is often restrictive. Balancing the tensions and complexities of personifying both the traditional heritage and the influence of the host culture becomes a challenge.

A significant aspect of navigating this balance is found in food and the spaces it occurs in. It acts as an anchor point, manifesting that privilege while negotiating the norms and values of different cultural spheres.