‘You like meat?’ I quizzed Kamal, the young Jordanian man sitting in front of me. Despite the fact that we were at a formal business dinner, he had uninhibitedly piled his plate high with kebabs, mutton chops, and pepper-crusted meatballs. For his side, he had opted for a generous portion of baked potatoes with sour cream.
‘Yes, I was pretty much raised on meat and potatoes.’ He grinned at me through a forkful of mutton. Somehow at that moment, he almost looked like a 7-year-old boy. ‘My mom always made shish-taoukon special occasions.’ He pointed to the kebab on his plate. ‘This one can’t hold a candle to the one my mom used to make but it does bring back special memories.’
His words seemed to bring forth a torrent of memories for me too. Glancing down at my own plate, I saw an assortment of mutton biryani, lachcha parantha, baked beans, and smoked sausages. A peculiar mix yes but I knew what it meant. I seemed to have made an attempt to replicate snippets of my own childhood meals. As do most of us.
A scene from the movie Bedazzled comes to mind when Liz Hurley is trying to lure Brendon Frazer by offering him a plate of cookies that look just like the ones that his Grandma used to make. It isn’t surprising how quickly he fell into her trap then is it when he bit into one and discovered to his delight and amazement that they even tasted exactly like the cookies that his Grandma used to bake.
There is always something fascinating and exciting about the unfamiliar but something equally comforting and soothing about the familiar. As we grow older, getting more and more entrenched in an unfamiliar, complex world, the need to hang on to the familiar, the known becomes more and more vital. This is even truer when we think of food.
A bowl of aromatic chicken soup (like your mum used to make) on a cold winter day or a ghee-soaked paratha for breakfast or even that humble bowl of khichdi when nothing else appealed, never fails to provide instant joy and comfort. It’s like being in a world where everything will sort itself out, everything will indeed be ok. The feeling is calming, reassuring, almost like returning to the womb.
Even as I smiled at Kamal and reached for another helping of baked beans, vivid images from the past came rushing back to me. Food was such an integral part of our family life. We weren’t a huge family, just my parents, my maternal grandmother, and me.
My maternal grandparents were both Sindhis but my father though a Punjabi, had been raised in Britain during his early formative years. The result was that the food in our house was a strange mix of Sindhi, Punjabi, and English cuisine. There were however two unifying factors between all three cuisines and those were the focus on non-vegetarian food and the richness of the ingredients.
It was normal for us to start our day with a breakfast of Sindhi loli (a wheat-based flour bread) accompanied by either yogurt or pickle, enjoy a lunch of rajma-chawal or chicken biryani and end the day with a hearty dinner of sausages and mashed potatoes. And my school tiffin box! Sighhhh!
You see, in those days, schools didn’t provide meals and children always carried their lunch boxes from home. I know that the new system is much more convenient for parents but I have to confess that there was something very exciting about not knowing what treat your mother or grandmother has packed in your tiffin that day.
Vegetable cutlets in exciting shapes with bread and butter, homemade chicken and cheese sandwiches with french fries, aloo paranthas with pickle, even the congealed Maggi noodles that were everyone’s undisputed favorite treat. Yes, the school tiffin box was undoubtedly the best meal of the day. And the strangest thing was that even though it never managed to stay hot by the time we got to eat it, it always tasted delicious.
As for weekends and special occasions, well in those days special occasions were usually always celebrated with an extravagant spread of food and non-vegetarian dishes unarguably occupied pride-of-place in our house.
Shepheard’s pie, elaichi mutton (another Sindhi specialty), Murg makhani, lamb stew, were all things that graced the dining table on birthdays, anniversaries, and festivals. And if we had guests over, then of course the extravagance knew no bounds. I remember our table quite literally groaning under the weight of wonderfully prepared food, beautifully seasoned and elegantly served. And the quantities!
Even after half a dozen guests had liberally helped themselves to second and third helpings (yes people did do that in those days), we’d have leftovers enough to last us through the weekend.
As the years passed, lifestyles, food habits, preferences changed. The ghee on the loli was replaced with olive oil and the lavish weekend dinners with one-pot, easy recipes. Our sense of health consciousness grew and after spending an hour in the gym on a daily basis, nobody wanted to eat a plateful of buttered mashed potatoes or deep-fried fritters.
Experimentation with food was becoming commoner as we traveled and traversed an array of new and remarkable places and marveled at all the previously unexplored flavors and tastes. But the memories of the loli and mashed potatoes and old-fashioned biryani remained, tucked away into the deepest recesses of our minds. And although each of these memories holds a special place in our minds and hearts, there are some that we remember with particular fondness.
I remember one exceptionally lucidly. When I was in middle school, my parents would take me for a celebratory dinner of butter chicken and butter naan every year after my annual day function. We always went to this particular restaurant which was famed for its butter chicken.
Rich, creamy, velvety chicken accompanied by a crisp yet soft naan done to perfection. I don’t think my memories are solely about the butter chicken though since food memories very often do not have as much to do with the food itself. It’s also so much about the place, the people, the joy. It’s about recollections of happy times and joyous occasions. I suppose that’s what makes it so special. Thankfully, that restaurant is still around and hopefully one day I will be able to revisit, perhaps even with my own son.
Of course, that is not to say that all food memories always stir up positive feelings. Plenty does just the opposite. For me, it’s admittedly paneer. Now let me mention right at the outset that I have nothing against paneer, in fact, I do know that some people literally swear by it. The problem is something else.
As a Delhiite, paneer was as much a part of my life as the Qutab Minar. In fact, it was more than that. It was literally omnipresent. One minute it was being served at a wedding as a replacement to chicken or mutton in a tikka or gravy dish to appease the vegetarians, another minute it was making an appearance as a patty in a burger or a topping on a pizza at Nirulas or Wimpy or even as a stuffing in a dosa at my favorite South Indian restaurant.
‘You Delhiites do love your paneer I know. But in a dosa! My Tamilian great-grandmother would turn in her grave,’ commented a friend from Chennai when she was visiting me a few years back. And do you know what the most aggravating thing was? Going for a Chinese meal with a vegetarian friend. For every chicken, fish, or even pork dish that I ordered, the restaurant seemed to be able to offer an equivalent paneer dish! Can you imagine? Everything had a paneer substitute!
So it’s hardly surprising that even the mention of paneer now stirs up kinda uncomfortable memories for me, you know the kind where I’m shaking my head and muttering, ‘What’s with the paneer?’
Anyway, good or bad, pleasant or squirmy, the point is that food memories can stay dormant for many years, deep inside our consciousness but when they’re aroused, they can stir up quite an emotional reaction. Let me share a strange experience I had recently.
My husband and I had heard of a new bakery in town. My son’s birthday was coming up and we thought we might want to consider this new place for his birthday cake. So one morning, we decided to visit it. It was an elegant place with soft piped music and a heavenly smell of baking in the air.
The manager was busy with another customer when we reached so I decided to amuse myself with the gorgeous displays of glass-encased shelves laden with the most mouth-watering confectionary of all kinds. Butter cookies, jam cookies, marble cakes, chocolate pastries. Easter was just around the corner so they also had a dedicated section for all their Easter goodies. I suddenly stopped.
‘What is it?’ asked my husband, puzzled to see me staring at a line of marzipan eggs. I hadn’t seen a marzipan egg in years. Back when I was little, confectionary shops used to make them by the score before Easter but in recent years, the festive-looking marzipan has given way to chocolate as the preferred choice for Easter eggs.
‘Could I have one of those?’ I asked the boy at the counter. I pointed to the eggs, completely ignoring my husband. It was like I was in a trance. Marzipan eggs do that to me sometimes. You see, when I was a little girl, we used to live in a leafy neighborhood in Delhi. A short walk away from our house was a bakery owned by a mother-daughter duo.
Other than the fact that they made the most delectable pastries and patties I’d ever eaten, they were also famed for the best marzipan Easter eggs in the city. My parents and I would go there every Easter to buy Easter eggs and other festive goodies. I guess the sweetness of those eggs has stayed with me all these years.
Add to that the fact that my birthday cake came from the same bakery every year and it was no wonder that it held a special place in my heart. Anyway, even as the boy handed the egg to me and I bit into it, I had a sense of déjà vu so strong, it almost took my breath away. The taste was unchanged, even after all these years.
The smoothness of the almond paste, the same hint of nuttiness, the little sugar sprinkles on top. It was like being transported back into time, all the way back to that tiny little bakery with the apple-cheeked woman at the counter and me watching in anticipation as she plucked out the best Easter egg from the row in front and slipped it into a box for me.
‘Who owns this bakery?’ I asked the manager then.
‘Mini Mehra,’ he responded. The surname had changed but the recipe had not.
‘What about her mum?’ I enquired.
‘Passed away a couple of years ago. Mini Ma’am sold the old place and opened this one. Do you know them?’ he enquired then.
Did I ever? I nodded and then pointed to the Easter eggs. ‘Could I have 6 please?’
‘What about the cake?’ My husband looked at me enquiringly. ‘Do you want to look at the book?’
‘Oh I don’t need to,’ I confirmed. ‘The cake’s definitely coming from here. As did mine for all those years.’ I was beaming all over. It was like all my Easters had come at once.