Category Archives: Food

One way ticket…

(‘Desh’ (meaning country) is how my mother-in-law refers to Kerala whenever she talks about her years of growing up there. I always tell her, “India is your country. Why are you referring Kerala as your country?” But she refuses to listen to me. She shifted to Gujarat when she got married almost 50 years ago. This piece first appeared in an anthology titled ‘People called Ahmedabad’. I am sharing this here as we celebrate Gujarat Day on May 1. This is about leaving home, finding home and also about love and longing)  

mummy

(The Matriarch… )

More than fifty years ago, Sowbhagyabati Menon arrived in Ahmedabad from a small village in Kerala as a young bride. She started a whole new chapter of her life in this dusty city which is so very different from the lush green village of hers dotted with beautiful houses, swaying coconut trees and paddy fields. Today, she starts her day with a cup of tea and two Gujarati newspapers. And she loves her eclectic mixed neighborhood of Khanpur, in the walled city of Ahmedabad.

She looks back at her Gujarat journey with a sense of nostalgia and fondness. “It was my first train journey and everybody in my family thought that I was really going away too far. We all had heard of Ahmedabad only through news.The first house I stayed in Ahmedabad was on rent. It was a small house but I was surrounded by wonderful neighbors who wholeheartedly welcomed this young Malayali.”

Gujarati language sounded more or less like Greek or Latin to her. But she was hell-bent on learning the language. So, she sought the help of her neighbour’s school-going daughter. With a paper and pen, they moved around in the kitchen to note down the names of vegetables in Gujarati. Later on in the day whenever she found some free time, she diligently practiced on her own, saying it gently and slowly, “bataka (potato), dungri (onions).”

In Kerala, she was used to having boiled rice and in the initial days of her arrival here, she just couldn’t stand the smell of basmati rice in her friends’ houses. In the beginning, she stayed with her Gujarati friend for a couple of days. Her loving hosts were feeling miserable that their guest just refused to touch any of the Guajrati delicacies they offered to her. Then one day, her host friend went to a small south-Indian restaurant to pack a meal of masala dosa, idli, vada for her.Probably that South-Indian platter was more precious to her than any piece of gold jewellery she was wearing.

But she has come a long way since then. Today, she loves her share of thepla, methi gota, sukhdi, khichdi, poori-aam ras and undhiyu. In fact, her children and grand-children now especially ask her to make Gujarati khatti meethi dal and every Uttarayan, she gets up at 3 am in the night to prepare lip-smacking unidhiyu. From her kitchen now comes a regular spread of both Kerala and Gujarati cuisine.  

She loves being in Ahmedabad which has given her a home, friends and beautiful memories to go back to. With a sense of love, she says, “Gujratis are nice,warm people. They are affable and made me feel at home from the beginning.”

So, what has she enjoyed the most about her life in Ahmedabad? She says, “I feel a sense of freedom in Ahmedabad. Here, I move around freely with my friends, have gone for late night movies. There is no restrictions on movement like I had in Kerala and I have enjoyed the freedom to explore life. My neighbours have taught me the art of saving money. They have taught me the art of compounding interest. So, that has definitely made my life better now.”

“I have also enjoyed celebrating festivals like Diwali, Uttarayan, Navratri and Bestu Varash (Gujarati New year).  And yes, I was a true blood Malayali before, having my share of cooking in coconut oil. After more than four decades in Gujarat, I have lost my taste for coconut oil.”

Does she miss Kerala? “Oh, I miss Kerala’s magical monsoon. Even after so many years, Gujarat’s dry, arid long summer feels really tough. In these months, I long for Kerala’s rains. I also miss the fabulous celebrations of Onam in my village. Though I try to cook an elaborate sadhya on Onam but it just doesn’t feel the same.”

But then she trails, “Many of the people with whom I grew up in Kerala are gone now. The ancestral house of mine needs constant attention. Life in Ahmedabad feels much easier now. And did I mention about the uninterrupted power supply in Ahmedabad?”

Well, home is here only.

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A story turns 10

#10YearChallenge : Few weeks back, my social media timeline was full of photographs with this hashtag. Well, here it’s a little different. I wrote this story for my niece Simrita in 2009 (She turned 8 then) as a birthday gift. Ten years later, in 2019, she is all set to join college in couple of months. Two days back, I found the story in my Gmail inbox when I was in a combative mood to delete old e-mails. I am sharing this short story out of love, affection and nostalgia. I am also realizing that how fast kids grow up. Simrita is all set to celebrate her birthday on February 15.

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A birthday to remember

Sui Moi is a beautiful little girl who’s just seven years old. And let me share a secret about Sui Moi — she’s crazy about her birthday (in addition to watching Tom and Jerry on television and eating large pieces of chocolate cake). She has always thrown big birthday parties for her friends. She loves to call all her six close friends and also three close friends of her brother Koko Moi who is six years old. Koko Moi loves his sister a lot and is always ready to think of new ways to bring in special surprises for Sui Moi’s birthday. Are you wondering when’s Sui Moi’s birthday? Her birthday is on January 15.

This year Sui Moi as usual had lots of plan in mind before bringing in another birthday. She along with her papa (whom we will call Papa Moi), mama (whom we will call Mama Moi) and Koko Moi had checked out the menu of a restaurant from where she had planned to order the food her party. And with every passing day, she was getting excited about her birthday. So also Koko Moi. He spent hours in painting a huge card for his sister.

baked birthday birthday cake blowing

Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

But alas, sometimes things just don’t go right in spite of our plan. On 15th January morning, Papa Moi got a call from the restaurant saying that there had been a fire in the kitchen of the restaurant the previous night. Though no one was hurt in the fire but they had closed down the restaurant for some repair work. That’s why, they wouldn’t be able to deliver the food and they would give back the advanced amount. “Oh No, God can’t be so cruel to me,” screamed Sui Moi when she first heard the news and tears rolled down her cheeks. She couldn’t imagine what would happen to her party which she had so meticulously planned days in advance.  What’s a party without food? What will she do? There are just some hours left for the party. All these years, Sui Moi’s birthday parties were much loved among her friend circle for the decoration, food, fun and loads of laughter.

But as they say every cloud has a silver lining. And immediately there was a family discussion on what to do next. Both Koko Moi and Sui Moi wore a very sad look. But then came brilliant ideas from Papa Moi and Mama Moi who declared cheerfully, “Let’s cook for the party and as they say nothing tastes like homemade food. All four of us will be the chefs and the party will rock as usual.” Sui Moi at first thought Papa Moi and Mama Moi were joking. But seeing their determination, she and Koko Moi decided to go ahead with this sudden plan.

The first thing on the menu was something from Koko Moi. Well, you might think he’s a little boy but don’t forget that he’s our little champ. So, Koko Moi said with a big grin on his face and a packet of Gelatin powder in his hand, “I will make Jell-O sweets for everybody.”  Bingo… and Sui Moi said immediately “I am going to be Mama’s assistant and help her in the kitchen.” And immediately Papa  Moi said, “Hey you guys, don’t forget me. I am also going to have fun in the kitchen and make some delicious potato sandwiches. But before that let me rush and get the cake and of course some packets of chicken nuggets and pizza bases.”

With so much of enthusiasm in the air, everybody got into action. And Mama Moi immediately rushed to the kitchen to boil some potatoes so that Papa Moi can make the sandwiches once he returns from the market. And she asked her assistant Sui Moi to take out capsicum, mushrooms, tomatoes from the refrigerator.
Then Sui Moi said, “Well, Mama, how about putting some music so that we all can dance a little  while cooking.” Our little Koko Moi simply loved the idea as he’s always the first one to shake a leg. Even as Papa Moi went to the market (this time he went alone cause there are so many things to do at home and Koko Moi was too busy to go with him), Mama Moi braced herself to cut those capsicum, mushroom, onion for making pizzas. And Sui Moi then had a request, “Mama, can you make those lovely chilly egg fry which you made just a week back.” Mama Moi hugged Sui Moi and said tenderly, “Darling, today is your day. So I  will do anything for my dearest princess.” And she took out eggs to boil while Sui Moi watched her with a big smile on her face.
In the meanwhile, Koko Moi was all set for making Jell-O sweets. He added the powder to the boiling water given by his mother… and after that he put them into small containers to be put in the refrigerator.

And then after 45 minutes, Papa Moi came back from the market with packets of chicken nuggets and pizza bases and a huge chocolate cake (which he had ordered the previous evening). Everything went off smoothly and with music in the background, cooking for friends became almost like a picnic at home. So, in the end the guests at the party had : Delicious crusty pizzas, potato sandwiches with oregano, chicken nuggets, chips, cookies, colorful Jello-O sweets. And of course they had chocolate cake. It might sound funny but some of Sui Moi’s friends just couldn’t get up from their chairs after polishing off such a delicious home-made meal. After taking rest for a little while, they all danced like crazy and screaming at the top of their voice, “Sui Moi’s party rocks.” Ha ha, what’s new, didn’t we tell you before?

Are you wondering, what all Sui Moi got as B Day gift:

* She got story books, toys, cookie packets, nice colourful stationary sets, a beautiful necklace and a lovely beaded bag.

 

Pasta in pesto sauce

While growing up in a sleepy town called Bhubaneswar, Sunday morning luxury was all about my father packing a breakfast of idli, masala dosa and sambar  from a small restaurant. These were earliest memories of pushing the creative boundaries of my palate. Having a South Indian breakfast is what we looked forward to. The same happened when I shifted to Delhi to pursue my higher studies. On some Sundays, the hostel mess used to serve masala dosa and coffee. And if I remember correctly, the girls from UP, Bihar, Orissa (then) and West Bengal were more excited to have the so called exotic Southern breakfast more than anybody else. The same emotion was recently shared by my Gujarati friend’s 80 year old mother. She told me, “I used to feel pampered and loved when my husband ordered a meal of butter naan, paneer butter masala and kaali dal in a restaurant. It was a refreshing change from the roti, shaak and khichdi at home.”

It’s a different story now in urban India.  Many of us probably took the 10 year rule of UPA government with a remote control in Sonia Gandhi’s hand too seriously. Suddenly, pasta became omnipresent. Every neighbourhood kirana shops started stocking pasta packets in different size and shape. With great difficulty, he gives you a list of Fusilli, Penne. From chicken tikka masala and paneer butter masala, urban India has graduated to pasta in pesto sauce, nachos and Mexican hotpot. Suddenly you see restaurants showing signboards displaying proudly, “Punjabi, Chinese, Italian, Mexican.” If you happen to stay in Ahmedabad (as yours truly), you will get a Jain version of everything. From Punjabi, Chinese, Italian and Mexican. You will always have a choice of Jain pizza in Ahmedabad. Please don’t ask me how it’s as I have never tasted it.

three different pieces of macaronis on top of black surface

If you thought that Bollywood with its all jazz and item songs is minting money, then hold on  the food industry is ahead of the film industry.  The all consuming ‘eating out economy’ is on a roll. According to a FICCI report, the restaurant industry is expected to contribute about 2.1 per cent to the total GDP of India by 2021. Eating out is big business in India. If you have not booked a table on Sunday, you will be condemned to stand in queue for hours and count the stars in the sky (if you are lucky to spot them).  In developed Gujarat, if you walk on the road on a Sunday, you might think that there’s a Kumbh Mela waiting to start soon. You have to push through forever hungry men, women and kids to find your own way in between cries of ‘one veg manchurain, one fried rice, double cheese pizza (whatever this means),’ The roads are chock-a-block with milling crowds waiting to have their share of world on their platter.
There’s a gourmet revolution happening in India. Post-liberalised India is on a platter high. And everybody is in a race to be cool. So cool that he finds it uncool to have anything other than Italian and Mexican. So, the uber cool stylish new ‘kids’ on the block are pastas, pizzas, cookies, garlic bread and hold on how can I ever forget ‘cupcakes.’  Few days ago, a colleague bought a box of cup cakes to celebrate her birthday at work. Yes, I did bite into it and wished her very warmly.  But by evening, my sweet craving was so intense that I did run to the nearest mithai shop to have my sinful share of ‘jalebi with rabri.’  Hot jalebis literally soaked in rabri. I could have died of happiness. You can call me ‘desi gal’, I will take no offence.
Yes, food needs to be celebrated and I see no harm food being looked at boundaries. After all, aren’t we living in an age of globalisation? With every other person turning into a food blogger or food photographer, I can see the winds of change sweeping our platter. There’s a glasnost happening there. Modi’s much talked about ‘acche din aayenge’ actually arrived on our plates some years ago.
It’s not just that people are tasting different cuisines at restaurants. But there’s a silent revolution happening on the kitchen shelves. The refrigerator is also witnessing a revolution. The ‘maharaj’ (the man who cooks and takes a salary) needs to be on his toes to master the perfect art of making the pesto sauce. He has to be a globe-trotter in the kitchen, otherwise there is every chance that he might become another Lehman Brothers employee in late 2008.
But I am still unable to understand why urban India is in a rush to prove its CQ (Cool Quotient) only by having pasta, nachos and garlic bread? It’s fashionable definitely. But to link your CQ to your platter might not a very great idea. Or so do I think. But you need not agree with me. India is all about having thousand opinions.

P S: Eons ago when I was working in Delhi, there was a colleague who used to come and share his breakfast menu. To be fair, I used to ask him also to derive some unexplainable pleasure. Rolling his attractive eyes, he used to say, “Oh, normal…bread, butter, omelette, bacon and orange juice.” Poor me used to go green with envy as I was munching my so very ordinary veg puff available in the canteen.
Once he fell ill and didn’t come to office for few days. Out of concern, I made a call to his home (there were no mobile phones then) and his mother picked up the phone. And we had a nice chat and in between she told me, “Beta (She was a Punjabi. As you must have realised Punjabis are capable of addressing their enemy as ‘beta’), please tell him to have his food. Before he had this fever, he used to eat a hearty meal of roti, gobi/tinda ke sabzi in breakfast and go to office.” The moment I heard this, my mind went back to my friend’s talk of ‘eggs, bread, bacon with orange juice.’ Well, the irony called life.
Should I have pasta in pesto sauce for dinner tonight? Let me think.

Of love Notes, samosas and jalebis

It’s a sudden realization. For the last three weeks, I have been only talking or listening about money. I am also reading quite a lot about money.

I am tired. Don’t get me wrong. I love money. For all the temporary possibilities money offers.

Late last night, I listened to Ravish Kumar’s wonderful talk titled ‘Love in the time of Note Bandi’ in Timeslitfest, New Delhi. The house was deep in slumber. I was the only one sitting in front of a flickering laptop, enjoying the words of Ravish Kumar.

Delhi suddenly felt near, intimate. Geography seemed irrelevant. Airports felt meaningless. Memory and desire felt warm in the heart and veins too. So also the huge, dark gulab jamuns of Aggarwal Sweets in Munrika. The piping hot jalebis of Moonlight. The jalebis felt complete with samosas, they made a happy couple with their sweet-salty combination. Life’s XL pleasures. Managed with little money.

Why do I still remember the taste of those jalebis, gulab jamuns and samosas? Why is it so difficult to let go of young, delicious memories?

jalebi             samosa.jpg

I am thinking of love. Young love. Adult love. Aching love, smiling love, happy love, teary love.

Some loves are so intense and organic that they actually don’t need much money to survive, to flourish. These love stories are wrapped in richness. They don’t need pumping of money to look or feel rich.

These love stories don’t need diamonds, birthday celebrations in swanky five star hotels, Louis Phillipe shirts or LV handbags. They are just rich by their very nature.

On November 9, 2016 morning, some love felt like Rs 100.  And some felt like Rs 1000.

Who knows what lies ahead?

Bur I feel like sitting down one Sunday and counting the chillar (coins) in my little piggy bank. I have a feeling we can still buy a nice meal for both of us with that money.

Let them talk about cashless India, debit cards, credit cards, netbanking, paytm, this and that.

My India is still safe in my little piggy bank.

I want my fingers to be messy with the syrup of jalebis. I love my fingers, I love his fingers. I love it more when our fingers are intertwined. There’s certain mellowness about lovers and their fingers.

I want to run my fingers through his hair. Like I used to do when I was 22.

Neither of us need to be rich to do that.

It is complimentary

There were 11 of us on a trip to Udaipur, the beautiful city of lakes. We were staying in the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC) hotel. In the morning, me and my friend went to the cafeteria for a cup of tea. As we were waiting for our tea to arrive on the table, the restaurant manager told us, “You are staying here, na. The breakfast is complementary.”

I immediately called up one of my fellow travellers on his mobile phone to share this good news. The ‘hangover man’ sleepily answered his mobile phone. “Breakfast… no. I want to sleep till late. I just don’t feel hungry.”  I told him, “The breakfast is complimentary.” With that magical sentence, everything changed.

In less then 10 minutes, the ‘hangover man’ along with many ‘birds of same feather’ arrived in the restaurant with a big grin on the face. Ready to savor the complimentary breakfast. Did anybody utter the word, ‘Sleep-deprived?’ Or ‘just not hungry.’

Well, the story did not end there. The breakfast buffet had an array of parathas, upma, poha and bataka vada. They filled up the plates with generous helpings. And suddenly one of them discovered that ‘The omelettes were also complimentary.” In no minutes, they were all queuing  for  omelettes. The parathas, upmas, pohas were abandoned in no time.

P S : Some days ago, I had gone to a restaurant. The chicken sizzler came with a cola pitcher. I told the waiter, “I don’t drink colas.” He gave me one of those looks and said, “It’s complimentary.” I told, ‘Well, I don’t drink colas.” He again told, “It’s complimentary.” I let the cola to grow hot till he realized the seriousness of my refusal.

I wish the sizzler was complimentary.

 

 

Almost home

(When your parents are there (and if you share a happy relationship with them), you talk to them, write long letters in your curved hand-writing. You call them may be six times in a day and then laugh telling, “Just because I am calling you again doesn’t mean I am not busy’. In between phone calls, both of you recognize love. But it’s not all sugar syrup too. You get angry with them, shut doors, throw tantrums, use your secret weapon of refusing to eat. But the dust always settles in the end. And when you miss them so much that you can’t wait and you book a train or flight ticket to arrive home. To collapse in happiness. To recharge yourself. To fill your senses and soul with lip-smacking home cooked food.

What do you do when they are gone? If you can weave memories into words, you write. Writing is sacred. Like the way your parents love you or you love your parents)

It’s exactly two years since my mother left us on October 18, 2013. Today, I sit in front of my sleek beautiful black qwerty keyboard and let it all flow. The sound of the keyboard feels like music to me. )

I remember coming back to work in less than two weeks after I lost my mother. I walked into my office and they all huddled around me. Somebody told me with all sincerity, “It was good that she passed away (My mother fought a bitter battle against cancer).” The timing of that sentence was wrong. I wanted to cry. I love my work. I love my office. This vibrant work space in the dusty city of Ahmedabad has given me four really close friends and a soccer-loving, guitar playing cool Godson. But that day, I felt like a stranger in my familiar world.

Somebody asked me to check a page, we needed a better headline (my junior colleagues now call me as ‘headline queen’), I was so hurt. How could I check a page and give a peppy headline when all that I wanted to do was cry? I thought of the memory of cutting a delicious kiwi cake in my office to celebrate my mother’s birthday just three months back. I had asked the baker to carve ‘The cub wishes her Tiger Mom’ on the cake and everybody had a good laugh as I cut the cake. I was a happy cub then. The space is the same. My desk looks the same. But I was feeling so wounded remembering that cake cutting act.
Half way through the painful day, I made a call to my mother-in-law to tell her that I was feeling very tired and I wanted to sleep. I wanted to be with her in her bedroom. I was wanting to be with people who are far more older to me. That gave me a sense of comfort. Strangely it still does.

The world of strict deadlines doesn’t allow to you to grieve generously. Speed matters in my work world. We are all always in a hurry. But I wanted to linger, to go slow. I wanted to linger, pause and look back at the memories I weaved with my mother. I did not want to move then because moving meant leaving Ma behind. I didn’t want to leave her. I wanted her to be with me. The world around me was impatient. ‘Move on’ was the silent command from the world around me.

Looking back, I think 2014 was the darkest year of my life. Even though I bought a house for myself (Banks should call it House loans not Home loans, you don’t buy a home (Home is not a commodity), I had lost all sense of my own self and home. I had no sense of home.

We are living in aggressive times. We all want to give it back, hit back, score a point. Always in a rush to surge ahead.  At the same time, when loss hits us hard, all we need is tenderness. There are very few who will allow you to grieve, to let you be in that ‘still’ mode of grieving.

After my mom’s death, I lost something which was sacred within me. I was desperate, I was not kind to myself. I became the person I have always hated.  I had hit the rock bottom. I had moved away from being a generous person. I neglected my home, both real and virtual (this blog is my virtual home which lets me to express myself. I love being here.) I had stacks of books on my table yet I managed to read only Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend for most part of 2014. I was reduced to pulp. I was just fleeting in and out. Aimlessly. Too desperate, too eager, too mediocre to fit in everywhere and anywhere. Just opposite of what I am.

I have learnt my lessons. Loss/ Grief/pain is like a dish cooked over slow fire throughout the night. Grief is not a two minute instant noodle. Grief is not even your so called gourmet dish ‘Pasta in pesto sauce.’ Grief takes its time. Let grief sit on the fire, don’t be in a hurry. What it will offer you in the end will simple purify you and your soul.  After days of intense darkness, you will arrive at light. May be you will be all alone to revel in the joy of light, but it will be soul-elevating.

I am arriving there. I am almost home. I have started falling in love with my home once again. I look forward to being at home in the evening. I am not waiting for somebody to rescue me and hand me over a slice of fleeting happiness that has all the potential to destroy my soul, my essence. I am just happy being home. Home doesn’t eat me up as it used to. Home loves me now. I love my home. I look at my home with tenderness now. I read, I write, I look for light and shadow inside my home, outside my home to capture it in my camera. I write innumerable notes on my laptop, on my phone. On India, identity, Hindus, Muslims, Gandhi, loneliness, isolation, dissent, love, longing. I write, I just write. I have found the words. The words have found me. We are happy to be together.

Just few days back , I opened my eyes to beautiful sun rays streaming through my curtains.  I put on my music, made a cup of Earl Grey tea and then got into the act of cleaning my kitchen pantry. It almost felt like prayer. My mother was the queen of her kitchen. She loved that space. Being in the kitchen now brings her closer to me. I cook the food she once cooked for me. On many occasions, I used to call her up to check the recipe while cooking. It’s a luxury, I miss now terribly. But sometimes when I finish the dish, I just look at it and say to myself, “It exactly looks like Ma’s dish.” I put emphasis on the word ‘exactly’. I know it from the color, from the smell. From the texture. There comes a time in life when you don’t look forward to travel far. You just want to sit in the comforts of your home. You feel content. Everything you have loved/love is all within you. The world calls it memory.

All you who are grieving for someone you have loved intensely and lost (a parent, child, lover, companion, sibling, friend, pet), just hold on. Don’t be in a rush.  There’s no end to grief, there’s no end to love. A day will come when your love will be merged with grief. And the other way too. And you will be home then. You will love more, better. This love will make you feel beautiful from within.
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Today I am at work. I’ m wearing my mother’s beautiful black and white ikkat sari. This sari was bought by my father some 40 years ago. In this sari, both my parents’ lives are intertwined. I wrap myself in their journey of togetherness. The sari is actually three of us. I eat the same food which my mother cooked for me, I am essentially the same story teller they had encouraged me to be. My food comes from the way they brought me up with their values, the education they gave me and their willingness and kindness to let me fly.

I am almost home. I am a better lover now. I can be strong and fragile too. Without worrying much about whether I am fitting into the image the world has created for me. “I am my mother’s daughter”, I told my colleague with a hint of pride when she complimented me for looking so elegant in a sari.

Yes, I’ m my mother’s daughter. I AM. Almost home.