personal essay

Self Acceptance with a Side of Ketchup

published Jan 21, 2023
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Illustration of ketchup on scrambled eggs.
Credit: Jessie Wong

In Bombay where I grew up, the street food scene is ridiculously vibrant, and no street food is complete without ketchup. There’s a very popular dish known as egg bhurji, which is a hot, steaming plate of spicy eggs; heavily buttered bread buns; and, you guessed it, a generous squirt of ketchup. It’s life.

When I moved to the U.S. in 2005, I realized that ketchup on eggs didn’t really translate. I was now married to a tall, handsome American from Richmond, Virginia, who grew up a little differently than I did. One morning we were having breakfast with his family, and I was having eggs. I squeezed a small amount of ketchup on my eggs. OMG. There was cringing, side-eyes, and, in some cases, total avoidance. It occurred to me that perhaps putting ketchup on eggs was a faux pas in this neck of the woods. 

Not wanting to look like a complete immigrant weirdo, I scraped the ketchup off my eggs and sloppily spread it on my potatoes. Crisis averted. We may have moved on, but I was never more aware of this cultural divide.

I could handle the staring and the cringing, but what I couldn’t handle was eggs without ketchup.

Eventually I learned how to bridge the gap. I was getting really good at making these “hybrid” meals where I would take a traditionally “American” food and put the “Indian” in it. Things like putting tadka in my pasta, or adding cardamom and ghee to my apple pie. Where self-acceptance meets public approval: That’s where I lived.

Why did it feel riskier? What made it so … dangerous? Because I never saw ketchup on the table! Salt, check! Pepper, there it is! Butter, you got it! Ketchup? Ketchup? No ketchup! I couldn’t just get up and go get it, could I? I knew that if I did, I’d be happy, but I’d also be an outcast. 

After a while, though, the constant pressure to be myself was beginning to outweigh the need for acceptance. Whereas before I would never dare to put ketchup on my eggs in public, now I wasn’t so concerned with what others thought. I could handle the staring and the cringing, but what I couldn’t handle was eggs without ketchup.

Sometime in 2019, I decided that enough is enough. I was having brunch with friends, and I reached for the ketchup. Feeling the stares, I unapologetically put ketchup on my eggs. No longer would I hide my true self. I forcibly made eye contact with everyone while I kept adding ketchup. Yeah, this is me … you got a problem with that? I don’t think so! We’re doing this! The ketchup flowed!

I quickly realized that in my zeal to add ketchup, I added about five times the amount I would normally add. My eggs were now drowning in ketchup! So I scraped some of it off, and offered onlookers (yep, they were staring) a chance to try ketchup with their eggs (no takers). 

Maybe we need more ketchup on eggs, maybe not. All I know is that I had a front-row seat to the clash of two cultures, courtesy of ketchup and eggs.