My mother knew I was becoming American before I did.
On one of my earliest trips back to India, I walked into our house and found giant saucepans of boiled water. "You can't drink the water here anymore," she informed me. "You have an American stomach now."
It wasn't just the water. A whole culture of food was suddenly off-limits, too. Street food. What we called chaat: fresh, spicy, quick bites, with a whiff of exhaust from the bus lurching by.
Now when I go home, I watch my Indian friends eat chaat on the street. I am the nonresident Indian, clutching my bottled water. I can get the runs just by looking at the chaat seller and the dirty rag on which he wipes his hand. But I craved it.
Then I discovered Viks, in of all places, Berkeley.
Back then it was a tiny place tucked in the back of an Indian grocery store. The line was out the door — it turned out there were thousands of chaat addicts like me all over the Bay Area. Owner Vinod Chopra serves hot samosas and freshly fried potato patties, with swirls of dark tamarind sauce in pools of white yogurt. When he told his wife he wanted to open a chaat shop, she was horrified.
In India this type of cuisine is looked down upon; you are not a restaurateur, you are just a hawker.
Now Viks is a Bay Area landmark. It expanded into the warehouse next door — and it's still hard to get a table.
A few crunchy, tangy snacks, and I'm almost back with my friends on the street corner. Almost, but not quite. Viks is still a restaurant.
Then I found Rana and Akash Kapur. They have an Indian version of a taco truck called CurryUpNow. When I met them, they'd been up till two in the morning cooking.
Rana explains, "There are Kaathi rolls — whole wheat bread layered with eggs stuffed with curried chicken and cilantro chutney. And fried semolina balls filled with tamarind water and boiled potato."
This is the real stuff. Street food right on the street. It brings back memories for Akash.
"In India the chaat vendors used to come right outside your house. And serve you right outside your gate. That's how I grew up. That's how my wife grew up. We like that dirty food."
Here in San Francisco, it's a different story. "We are germ-free for the most part. We are very, very anal. We got inspected two weeks ago and the guy said we were excellent."
It might taste like the streets of Mumbai, but it comes with a health inspector's certificate. Back at Viks, Chopra tells me that when he goes home to India, he's still tempted by the real stuff. "I stopped eating after my kidney disease. Then I had to be very careful especially of the water. But still I sneak somewhere here and there."
His son Amod remarks, "Yes, and our relatives would call me and tell me, 'Your dad is eating on the street again, eating chaat on the street.' And I would get mad. I learned my lesson — I ate chaat and got sick and had to sit in the middle seat the entire ride back."
It's probably been 15 years since I've dared. But my American stomach and my Indian palate have finally come to a happy meeting place on a street corner in California. I've realized sometimes you just can't go home again. You don't need to.
Commentator Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media and host of New America Now on KALW in San Francisco.