Alumna curates stories and recipes from three generations.
As a child growing up in Orange County, California, Nyssa P. Chopra ’07 found great comfort in her mother’s traditional Punjabi cuisine. It wasn’t until later that she learned the backstory— including poverty, oppression and forced migration—behind some of these well-loved dishes.
Chopra’s grandparents had resided in the Northern Punjab region of British India and had grown accustomed to a lavish lifestyle they had built over generations. But with the Indian Independence Act of 1947, the area was divided into Pakistan and India, and with the threat of religious violence, Chopra’s family fled with only what they could carry on their backs. As they crossed over the newly established border into India, they became part of what is generally regarded as the largest mass migration in human history—a movement that saw more than 14 million people become displaced overnight. As refugees in a new country, they had to adapt many of their previous practices and traditions, even in the kitchen.
“Eating meat at the time was a sign of prestige and social status,” says Chopra. “When my grandparents fled Lahore to the Indian side, they couldn’t afford meat anymore and instead changed to a vegetarian lifestyle. To this day, my mother is still a vegetarian, because that is all she has ever known.”
Over time, her grandparents rebuilt their lives in the rural lands of Punjab, India. Chopra’s parents were later married and lived in Mumbai before moving to California in the early 1980s.
Faced with a new culture and language, her mother was challenged by her new home, yet attempted to continue the legacy of traditional Punjabi dishes even without having access to authentic ingredients.
“I love the interconnectedness between food and culture,” says Chopra. “Each person brings a bit of their own culture, their own history, and their own upbringing through the foods they create for you.”
As a way to connect her children to a homeland thousands of miles away, Chopra’s mother experimented with new ways to recreate traditional dishes. She can recall her mother’s inventive way of making paneer, a type of cheese in India, adapting her cooking to what was available at her grocery store in the U.S.
“The closest thing she found was ricotta cheese and that’s what I grew up eating,” says Chopra. “I didn’t actually know any better until I got older,” she laughs.
Today, Chopra is curating a collection of stories and recipes from three generations into a new cookbook, Sapphire & Spice. It is the story of a family’s journey through the lens of food.
“I want to connect the past to the future and preserve my family’s history so it is accessible to future generations who will not have the privilege of hearing these first-hand stories from their ancestors,” says Chopra. “I want future family members to know the richness of their history and culture and take comfort in the idea that a piece of that history is always only one recipe away.”
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