How Indian Is Your “Turmeric Latte”?

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Upstate Stock is an airy café-cum-rustic shop on the corner of a congested street in Brooklyn, just where the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint collide. The jams lining its shelves are artisanal; its candles are made by hand. It has exposed pipes the size of armadillos, and they’re strewn with Christmas lights even though it’s a Tuesday in the middle of February when I walk inside. I hear they sell a turmeric latte here, and I’ve decided to give it a try.

My barista can’t understand my order at first. It’s because of the way I say it: turmeric, emphasis on pronouncing the first syllable. I utter it the same way my Bengali parents do; we’ve never gotten behind the tendency to omit the word’s first r.

So I repeat myself, suppressing my mother tongue a little more, turning my tur into a two, and she finally gets me. She asks if I’d like my turmeric with some almond milk, and though I’m not aware that’s the default, I’m not here to fight her. I say sure. It costs $4.50. A few beats pass, and she hands me a drink that is the color of her latticed mustard beanie, an atomic cloud of white foam in its center.

It’s a hideously awful drink. Its heat is a mask for turmeric’s innate pungency, a profile so strong that it mutes everything around it, like the poor, aspirant notes of honey. The turmeric gives it a flavor I recognize from my mother’s curry, one that never touched milk.

If I’m at my parents’ apartment, we tend not to call this spice turmeric at all, but instead by its Bengali name, holud. In Hindi, India’s most widely-spoken language, though, it’s haldi. In those Hindi-speaking parts of India, what is known as the “turmeric latte” is called haldi doodh, the Hindi phrase for “the milk of turmeric,” though it’s typically frothed with cow’s milk. Some families within India treat haldi doodh as an adjuvant, cradling kids through common colds.

For the past year, I’ve watched writers, many of them Indian or Indian-American like me, expend a great deal of anger in re-situating the turmeric latte firmly within India. When trend pieces first began noting this drink’s appearance in stateside cafes, they detached it from India, so it fell on writers like us to pick up the slack and reclaim its roots. I’d join in, too, if I had any anger to summon. Everything about this scenario has instructed me I should’ve been outraged.

Instead, I’ve been sitting here staring at this fury unfold with confusion. My roots are in India, too, but this drink is as foreign to me as it was to Gwyneth Paltrow.

Café Gratitude, one of Los Angeles’ many culinary churches for the wellness-oriented, has been serving a drink it calls the turmeric latte since 2013. But it wasn’t until 2016 that it gained enough groundswell for it to ossify into a “trend.” Turmeric is most commonly a fixture of curries, used to sour their flavor and give them an amber tint. But searches for turmeric rose briskly to the top of Google Trends maps for superfoods as more people got wind of the palliative properties of circumin, the compound that affords turmeric its antibiotic potency. It makes the drink a buffer against any ailment imaginable, from the flu to inflammation to depression, even cancer.

Early last year, other eateries in cities as far-flung as London and Sydney began to follow Café Gratitude’s lead. Here it was: an analgesic with the charisma of a cold brew. Turmeric’s stench is horrifically unpleasant, and it tastes like alkaline. But when it is blended with the dulling agent of cow’s milk, infused with honey that offsets its astringency, heated to a simmer, and garnished with black pepper, it becomes self-help. It is bitterness disguised as betterment.

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In English-language outlets primarily concentrated in America and Britain, the drink’s popularity has been reported on with obsessive, exalting fascination, the lingua franca of lifestyle media. Are we “tired of Pumpkin Spice Lattes”? Well, we’re in luck, because turmeric lattes are “the one drink you shouldn’t feel guilty about having.” The turmeric latte is the “hugely popular coffee alternative that’s good for you.” It is a drink of many names, too; the turmeric latte can be the “golden latte” or “Moon Milk.” And though my nut milk-fortified turmeric latte at Upstate Stock wasn’t called this, it has sometimes, in the absence of lactose, been termed “golden mylk.”

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According to this flurry of articles, the drink may as well have come from space. This coverage was consistently devoid of any cultural context that pointed to the drink’s origins. As reports of this drink’s sudden stateside popularity began to surface, so did a reactive economy of opinion pieces from Indian writers, all motivated by a desire to salvage this Indian drink and put it in its rightful framework. As one particularly provocative piece claimed, the drink “is to Indians what Windex is to the big, fat Greeks,” so reclamation was a matter of necessity. To this body of writers, America’s newest tonic of the moneyed masses was really just India’s medicinal nectar in dress-up.

This responsive coverage, though well-intentioned, didn’t clarify exactly where within India this drink is consumed. The drink was simply “Indian,” a rhetorical device far too generous and nonspecific. Instead, these pieces gestured towards turmeric’s origins in the texts of Ayurveda, a body-cleansing practice so ancient that it predates Christ.

This one-size-fits-all narrative began to intensify once this news hit the Indian press, most of its media companies centered in the metropolitan, northern areas of Mumbai and Delhi. “Remember those times when we came home with broken bones and our moms shoved a glass of turmeric milk down our throat?” one outlet asked. To another, it was a “wanted item in every Indian family.” Some believed it was the beverage “we’d refuse to drink as kids.”

Reading these articles may make any unsuspecting reader believe that haldi doodh is a constant of Indian identity. It is as if drinking haldi doodh constitutes a rite of passage for having an Indian childhood, in the way Whopper consumption is sewn into the modern-day American Bildungsroman. In all of these pieces, there’s a presupposition of a shared Indian “experience” huddled around the same drink.

But they eliminate large swaths of Indians, like me. It’s no shock that the situation panned out this way. The conversations surrounding the turmeric latte inadvertently reveal the limitations of the ways we talk about Indian food, like in the manner food that’s primarily eaten in northern India has become a de-facto representative of Indian food writ large. It’s a power dynamic bolstered, innocently and accidentally, even by the people who are primed to discuss this drink best: those in India and its diaspora.

India is an enormous country, fractured by colonialism, partitions, wars, and modern-day border disputes. Its diversity is staggering in every imaginable capacity. This bleeds into its food, too, but many of these stories don’t get told. My parents came from the Indian state of West Bengal, my mother from a village called Balrampur, my father from the state’s capital, Kolkata. Or, to put it another way, they came from two different universes contained within the same state. It bleeds into the way they cook: Neither of their egg curries resembles the other.

Turmeric is a stubby root with skin as beige and silky as ginger’s. When splayed open, it can stain your clothes, burrow itself inside your fingernails, or blemish your countertop with a smear that looks like a stroke of sunlight. Turmeric’s pigmentation, though, is marvelous; after its shavings are strained and brewed into milk, it takes on the color of a balefire.

Turmeric’s discovery predates the existence of anything resembling an Indian nation-state. Its first appearance was in pots near New Delhi from 2500 BCE, with visible residues of turmeric, ginger, and garlic. 500 BCE saw the emergence of turmeric as a staple of Ayurveda, the ancient system of holistic medicine and natural healing that’s now become popularized amongst those who swear by yoga and meditation, prizing cleansing the body of undigested foods. Turmeric is a staple of Ayurvedic cooking, as good in curries as it is on its own.

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It’s in this latter period when women living in northern India were prescribed two glassfuls of turmeric paste and dried ginger powder, mixed with honey dissolved in a glass of milk. This was a cocktail for women to consume after childbirth to relieve postnatal ailments. The habit stuck, and the practice gained a toehold up north.

Turmeric had different names in the Sanskrit of Ayurvedic literature. It was jayanti, victorious over diseases; kanchani, exhibiting golden color; lakshmi, prosperity; patwaluka, perfumed powder; vairai, free from desires; and vishagni, murderer of poison. One name has stuck in history, though—Hindi calls it haldi, as do its sister languages, Gujarati and Punjabi. In the South Indian languages of Tamil, Malayalam, and Tulu, what some in the north may call haldi doodh is known as manjal paal. Few, if any, Indian outlets—much less American—have deigned to refer to it with this name when reporting on its popularity.

To understand how this even happened, consider the fact that the landscape for current-day Indian media resembles that of American media. It is headquartered in Mumbai and New Delhi, and thus sequestered from India at large. With this silo comes a media that speaks to its audience of urbanites and renders this northern experience dominant.

Months ago, Madhur Jaffrey, the woman who has reluctantly but heroically assumed the mantle of the godmother of Indian cooking for Britain and America, told a roomful of people at the James Beard Foundation Food Conference that Indian food has not had its American moment yet. I didn’t understand what she meant. Weeks later, when I met her face-to-face for coffee, she repeated herself, this time with greater force and passion. What I wanted to ask her was, well, what do you mean? The vast number of Indian restaurants surely could’ve proven her point moot—Indian food has taken off.

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She wasn’t talking about that Indian food. Little did I know that this woman, six decades my elder and from a completely different part of India than that of my parents, was, in fact, talking about the Indian food I always knew. It’s the food that’s spiritually similar to what Rinku Bhattacharya writes about in her Spice Chronicles: bhaate-bhaat (quite literally, rice and rice), maacher jhol (fish curry), dishes crafted by hands like my mother’s, more hearty and less rich than the ones you’d find in most Indian restaurants.

What do we mean when we talk about Indian food? To some, the mere phrase “Indian food” corresponds to a flat, flimsy dosa or the airy, porous weightlessness of an idli. To most others, though, it will dredge up images of chicken tikka masalas, scorched-earth tandooris, and cubes of paneer drowning in mud-puddles of spinach. Our rices look like rainbows; our meats are weighed down beneath small sierras of yogurt.

These are all foods of India’s north, specifically of Punjab. Blame the proliferation of restaurants in the United States that primarily serve north Indian food. This can be traced back to the Indian restaurant industry’s origins nearly a century ago, and the way these spores flowered in major urban areas.

Hearing Jaffrey’s words made me consider the foods of my childhood in a new light. It put them alongside the Indian food I had come to know through restaurants in my youth, when it felt as if I was beginning to learn what Indian food was all over again. I’d stare at the menu, faced with words I’d never uttered in my mother tongue of Bengali: palak paneer, bhindi masala. I wondered why I didn’t know what they meant.

If non-Indian friends asked about whether I had Indian food at home, I wasn’t sure how to respond. Was my mother’s Bengali food even Indian? Did it count? I must’ve been eight years old, but even then I recognized a profound dissonance between home-cooked Bengali foods and the offerings of north Indian restaurateurs. It was a matter of familiarizing myself with a text I was told was supposed to be my own.

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Then, as now, the Bengali foods I grew up eating did not find themselves plastered across menus, let alone most of the writing that exists about Indian food. That does not make them any less Indian. I’m just waiting for the day that Kashmiri pink chai will explode, a more savory, indelicate version of the chai Americans have come to know through Indian restaurants. Will the thalis of Nagaland, a state deep in Northeast India that borders Burma, ever evoke the same acknowledgment as sambar? A small sliver of land known as the Siliguri Corridor, or the “Chicken’s Neck,” connects West Bengal to the Seven Sister states of the Northeast. That chicken’s neck is a gateway to a wholly disparate vocabulary of cooking people may not know beyond the teas of Assam gardens. But this region’s foodways remain criminally under-explored (it was given especially little real estate in SAVEUR’s widely-decorated “India Issue”) and thus further segmented from any mainstream understanding of India’s culinary spirit.

Indian food, sans scare quotes, remains distressingly misunderstood, enormously simplified, its valences smoothed over to fit a rubric imposed upon it by restaurants. Perhaps reckoning with vastness requires oversimplification. There will always be a gulf between what dominates greater cultural understandings of a country’s foods and the culinary truths we hold in our homes.

I’ve found, lately, that writing on Indian food flourishes when it’s specific. I’m thinking of Tejal Rao’s beautiful, tangled paean to haldi doodh in The New York Times from a few weeks back. Rao writes carefully about the newfound popularity of a drink fed to her by her Kenyan-Indian grandmother, who ladled turmeric into potfuls of sweet milk. Her writing is anchored in the specificity of an individual experience without reaching for any greater truths about a monolithic Indian experience.

It’s writing like hers that helps me accept that haldi doodh is one of many foods that composes India’s culinary identity rather than defines it wholesale. As I’ve begun to write about food for a living, I’ve started to reconcile my two understandings of Indian food, the one passed on to me by my mother and the one I learned from restaurants, seeing them as congruent rather than incompatible cuisines.

In recent months, I’ve made a habit of asking every Bengali I knew whether they’d had haldi doodh growing up. Most, like me, didn’t know what it was. The few who did were the ones whose parents grew up in Delhi, who’d borrowed it from those cities and brought it into their own Bengali homes.

It makes sense: India is a nation with regions that borrow from each other’s flavors. As for my family from West Bengal, our cow’s milks tend to stray far from turmeric and make their way into desserts, like sandesh, those small droplets of milk and sugar rolled and ground into a paste, or payesh, a rice pudding with saffron and raisins that most people may know by its Hindi name, kheer. Our turmeric lands in forsythia-hued curries, and it by and large stays there. But I’m only speaking for my own family, and the prism through which we’ve come to define Bengali cuisine—which is to say, on our own terms.

When I first came to know of haldi doodh and its imprecise Indian roots, I sought the counsel of my mother, the woman who was the first to teach me about Indian food as I’ve come to know it. I consider her dinners my first textbooks, ones I’d encountered well before anything from KT Achaya or Padma Lakshmi. “Of course not!” she told me when I asked her if she ever gave me this drink as a kid. She hadn’t even heard of it. “Sounds disgusting. I’d never feed you that.”

Kit Mills is an illustrator and designer based in Brooklyn.

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