The other day as I chatted on the phone with my good friend G, with whom I have shared many a happy meal, I was flooded with food memories. Those of you who have seen me or pictures of me, know I have this figure that belies the foodie that I am. And yet food is such a big part of my life and my relationship with people. I guess if you are born in India, food is a big part of your life. We Indians spend a long time prepping, cooking, and enjoying meals.
Right from the womb I imagine every Indian baby floats in amniotic fluid laced with spice. Once out in the world, they take in the exotic aromas wafting through the warm air. Parents can barely wait to get their toddlers accustomed to spices. If you can’t take spice you aren’t fit enough to be Indian. I laugh when I see Indian parents fret and fume when their kids push away plates of spicy curry and ask for mac and cheese.
When I was a kid growing up in India my grandma had an amazing cook, Ganga. Her caramel custard was to die for and she made the best meatball curry (back then I used to eat meat). Fish fry and chicken curry were top notch and her biryani was awesome. Her dosas were crispy and brown and her chutneys always hit the right spot. Her parathas were flaky and soft and her garlic pickle was so famous that my friend M would bug me to bring some to school every day. Well you get the picture – I grew up in the lap of culinary excellence.
My best friend G lived across the street and I was always at her house. Her parents were from Punjab/ Uttar Pradesh and the food they cooked was entirely different from what we ate. I’m drooling here just thinking about Aunty Sharma’s Aloo and Methi paratha, arvi fry and just plain simple dal. I used to hang around all day until dinnertime and then they’d ask me to join them. I’d rush to the table after quickly calling my grandma to tell her I won’t be home for dinner. Dessert was another exotic experience at the Sharma’s. Malpua, ladoo, kheer and doodhi ka halwa to name a few.
At G’s place everyone helped out in the kitchen. At my grandma’s house I was not allowed to do any chores so I really enjoyed cooking and eating together at G’s place. I think my love for cooking started here. I used to bug my Mom to make cakes and puddings and she was most indulgent. Sultana sponge cake and coconut castle puddings were my favorite. She even got a second-hand cooking range (with an oven) – sort of a rarity in India. My brother and I used to invite our friends over and my Mom would cook a feast from scratch. Sometimes I’d test out some dishes on my unsuspecting friends (like baked cauliflower and potato).
My grandma from my Mom’s side lived in Kerala and she was an excellent cook. We visited her every summer (see Summer Escapes in God’s Own Country) and she baked us cardamom cake in her electric oven. She made marvelous shrimp curry and other fresh seafood. Her sambar was out of the world and she even made chocolate for us from her cocoa tree. Her neighbor used to help her make giant vats of mysore pak for us to take home.
In school we shared lunches with our friends and I remember R used to bring the tastiest Rajma (red kidney beans) and rice. When I was in college I was the only one in my group that brought lunch from home. My other friends ate in the mess or ordered food from the canteen. At the university, my dear friend A used to bring the tastiest Bisi Bela Bath. She actually brought two boxes. One for herself and another to share with the rest of us. Years later I wheedled the recipe from her and make my own BBB these days.
G and I decided to fast every Friday when we were in college. Looking back, I think it was crazy for two girls who live, breathe and dream about food to take up fasting. But we did it all the same. We only had tea and biscuits (cookies) in the morning and then drank water for the rest of day. We broke the fast in the evening by having dinner at my place or her place. Ganga and Aunty Sharma would go all out and cook multiple dishes for us poor starved girls. It would be a regular feast that we polished off. We’d end up stuffed, lying on the bed, so happy that we’d end up giggling. Giggling to the point where our tummies hurt. This went on for sixteen weeks and then we stopped because even God has His limits!
Now you all know I moved to the U.S. 11 years ago and the food culture here has influenced me in many ways. But that is a topic for a whole other blog – Part 2 of My Gastronomic Adventure follows…until then like Julia Child says – Bon Appetit.