As a transplant from another place, you reach a point in your life when you think you’ve gotten a handle on things, culinarily speaking. The cooking and consumption of foods from your original home strikes a somewhat fragile balance with foods you’ve grown to love in your adopted home. You’ve tried most of what is on offer here and have gathered together all the food you miss from there. Or you think you did.
Then out of the blue, the balance shifts. A word, an image, a smell…and something stirs in your memories.
It is not like I had forgotten all about this dish. I came across the straightforward recipe often in my precious file of mom’s recipes. Yet I passed it over because of its simplicity, engrossed in the pursuit of the more flamboyant and vibrant ones. While my mind was engaged in chicken curries and palak paneers, this one sort of got lost in plain sight. Now, I realize that it has been ten years since I last ate this dish. How did I go that long without craving it?
The last time I enjoyed it, I was sitting in my mother’s kitchen. It was a day before I was about to leave for the other side of the world. It was also the day my mom finally told me how much she was going to miss me. All this time, for over a year, she had been brave about the decision her erstwhile stay-at-home middle daughter had made to leave. Videoconferencing wasn’t yet the norm and she wouldn’t see me for a long time. For a whole month leading up to the day, she had been cooking all my favourite things. There were so many last meals I requested because I love practically everything my mom makes and knew I would miss it all. I’d already made my way over the culinary map, home food and restaurants, as I knew it then. My bags were packed to bursting with mom’s pickles and snacks, my uncle’s veggie patties and chicken cutlets (he’d dropped them off just earlier that morning as he stopped by to wish me luck). These would extend the old-home experience a bit more in the new place I was to call home. I was excited and scared and sorry to leave all at the same time. Continue reading →
Stop and stare on any street in Bombay and your eye is likely to register at least three places to eat in any direction, be it the ubiquitous sandwich seller or chaat house. (I don’t suggest you do this though. You’re likely to get shoved about and cursed at in seven different languages if you stop longer than 5 seconds. Just like in New York, waffling about in Bombay will raise temperatures faster than the heat of the summer.) Bombayites, present and former, love food. We love eating it, arguing about it and seeking it out. You will be spoilt for choice with all that the city has to offer. Naturally, any native will have categorical and vociferous opinions about where the best “insert suitable food item here” is available. It will not necessarily be the fanciest restaurant around, though there are a fair amount of luxurious examples with incredible food. No, sometimes the best of things can be found in street food or in your humble, no-nonsense lunch homes.
One such no-frills restaurant was Lucky Restaurant in the West Bandra neighbourhood. This is where I first tasted biryani and where I fell irrevocably in love with it. When I was growing up, this establishment served some of the best available restaurant biryani around. For the uninitiated, biryani is one of the most delicious things you could eat. There is stewed meat cooked slowly with yoghurt and spices, along with the irresistibly fragrant basmati rice. The resultant dish is a thing of delight, a delicacy of dreams. Over the years, the quality of Lucky became a bit unreliable. That you had to be ‘lucky to have a good meal at Lucky‘ became a standing joke. I hear it still has its good days along with its bad ones, but the good ones are pretty great.
There is grating sanctimony in the general intent that you must eat something because it is good for you. Taking this quite rigourously to heart, well-meaning yet hapless parents have urged scores of chilidren over millenia to tuck into things that they have no natural affinity for. Unfortunately, the things children do make a beeline for, like sugar and chips, are quite bad for them. This makes for the eternal tussle between harried parents and their stubborn progeny who firmly refuse to open their mouths when they see suspicious and unknown things on their plate. Most children must feel that there is an inescapable, unseen plot to ensure their gastronomical suffering. As a child, I know I often did.
Eating a thing just because it is good for you makes little sense to me, though it is a sentiment with which I’ve made peace with some difficulty. I’ve been taken in by needing to eat purely for health, forcing myself at one point to try to eat fish. It was an experiment that ended in disaster, as it was doomed to from the start. We refuse to eat lots of things as children, sometimes growing to like them as adults. Yet grown-up children all around tell me that they do not like something because they were force-fed it as children. I suspect this is only half true, as I had to admit after my tryst with “chicken of the sea”. The moment you step out into the world on your own, you take the reins of your life into your own hands. This includes what you will or won’t eat, and honestly, how long are you going to blame your palate on the actions of a well-intentioned parent?
There was this book I had when I was four. Just like all my books at the time, I had inherited it from my elder sister. It was this beautiful cloth-covered hardbound volume called ‘365 stories‘ with ostensibly a story for every day of the year. (Apparently the authors pretended the extra leap year day didn’t count or that it could be be swept under the rug like so many cookie crumbs). There is a marked difference between my sister and I. She is marvellous at maintaining her things. Me? Not so much. At the time, I thought this was only because I was four and she was fourteen. But as it turns out, the only thing I got better at taking care of, was books. Practically everything else I had, including my haircuts, look like they have survived the ravages of war. But my sister, she had used socks and stockings that looked brand-new seven years later. (Granted, she had little use for stockings in tropical Indian climes, but you get the picture). Her books, toys, clothes had this amazingly unused air about them, as if she tenderly placed them in crystal cases and refused to even breathe on them. Fact is, she did use them, and often. She played with all her toys and most certainly wore all her clothes. But she treated with a tremendous amount of respect for someone so young.
I, on the other hand, drew a moustache on her wooden dog, glued a tail to her teddy bear and coloured outside the lines on all her preciously maintained fairy tale books. I’m not proud of it, but in my defense, I was four! I didn’t know better. Giving me access to all my sister’s stuff was probably not the best move my mom could have made. (She thought the second one would be just like the first. We all live and learn.) Keeping the books away from me didn’t help. All those beautifully preserved words had woven their spell. At one time I had been read to, but allegedly I had started grabbing books and doing it for myself very early on. Once positioned on this path, I could not be dislodged, much like a limpet on a favourite rock. I loved books. I eventually learned that you don’t colour on all books, and have several of my childhood books saved in fair condition to this day. But every book I had before this had already lost its shot at such posterity. Which, as I think about it, might be why my younger sister never took to books and reading quite like us older ones. (Would you want to look at the words on the pages when the gingerbread house next to them, tastefully decked out in virulent green and electric blue vied for your attention? I didn’t think so.) Continue reading →
I hadn’t enjoyed a proper vacation in almost two years! The tumultuous times we live in had me keeping my nose steadily to the grindstone. Slowly but surely, the strains of life had been building up and I didn’t even know it. Then there came this opportunity for a whole week of vacation in the form of an invitation from friends in Salt Lake City. It would be great to see them, it had been a long time. There was real snow to jump into that was calling my name. But before that, there was packing. I hate packing. That coupled with life in general had me in low spirits that Tuesday morning. On the plane, my fingers wouldn’t stop beating a crazy tattoo on the airline seat. I’d left the daily grind behind but the subconscious mind wouldn’t rest or relax. It is hard to turn all your thoughts off like the flip of a switch. The brain just wouldn’t cooperate.
Then we got to Salt Lake City. It had snowed a couple of nights earlier and there it lay, a soft, white blanket covering the ground. It was a proper winter’s day; wonderfully crisp and bright, the ice crystals twinkling in the sun. There is a strange peace that reigns in the softness of it, and a hush, almost like every sound is muffled somehow. Next to the ocean, this was something else that soothed the senses.
Amey and Sanjeev have been friends even before Amey and I really knew each other. They survived college together, learned to play the guitar together, were in a band together. They have similar personalities yet each is very distinctly their own person. They argue, rib each other and criticize one another with ridiculous ease, one borne out of a long friendship that I’ll bet they never really talk about. Guys don’t do that kind of stuff. They hadn’t seen each other in almost four years. They talked, they laughed, they played guitar; two voices in harmony, sounds I haven’t heard in a long while. They did this often at one time. But life has evolved to new adventures now. A wonder of this evolution is Sanjeev and his lovely wife Vandana’s precious little baby boy. A bundle of the most beautiful smiles you ever saw. A couple of hours spent in their beautiful home, playing with this engaging little person, and the buzzing of things in my head faded away. It was like taking a deep, deep breath and letting go. The relaxation was inevitable. We drove up into the mountains in the next couple of days. The imposing snow-covered scenery was breath-taking and also an effective balm, taking away all remaining vestiges of care. Continue reading →