Thirty-two years ago, in 1984, I had my first experience of community cooking. In those days, weddings in Mangalore were a long-drawn out affair that lasted days and brought the whole neighborhood together. Food was organic, authentic and cooked in huge cauldrons on open wood fires. For a young city girl like me, it was a fascinating experience to participate in and a rich memory to retain for life. It was a twin wedding in the family, so I was doubly excited. The evening before the wedding, insane amounts of batter was ground by hand on huge grinding stones and left to ferment for the idlis to be made the next morning. I insisted on being included in the idli-makers team and woke up at the crack of dawn to assist. The aromas, the exuberance, the solidarity of it all, are lodged as a surreal kind of remembrance in my otherwise mostly defunct brain.
In retrospect, my whole life seems like a roaring compilation of food memories. In the tiny home I grew up in, there was no separate kitchen to speak of. From the single bed, which was my self-proclaimed throne, I could just reach out to the cooking counter. Mum used to wake up early and start working on the chappatis and omlettes. That’s the aroma I would wake up to. As I grew up, I started helping Mum with the cooking. We would work side by side in the miniscule space, humming along with the radio. To this day, mum and I bond best when we are cooking together. Like two comrades, we embark upon adventures with our new recipes, get delirious with the difficult ones and find quietude in the tried and tested. When we’re done feasting, we go on walks, she talking incessantly about this and that and making me laugh until suddenly we’re back to discussing our next meal.
The neighborhood I grew up in was a different world altogether. Walking unannounced into each other’s homes for a meal was very normal. The Koltes next door was a family of six. Mrs. Kolte was a great cook. Though they didn’t have much, she managed to put together meals that could compete with a professional chef’s. I just have to close my eyes, think of her spicy chicken gravy served with mixed lentil vadas and I’m transported back to her home. On special occasions, she would always send us food before she fed her own children. It was neighborly love on a level that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
Then there was Aunt Gertie. She was a kitchen elf who chose to spend all her free time stirring, baking and cooking. The day she made crabs, I would pointedly and shamelessly hover around until she asked me to stay for dinner. Then I would sit cross-legged in her kitchen and savor the meal in a rapturous state, unaware of the crab juice running down my arms. She would point me out to her daughter, Sheryll, who was my best friend and say, “This is how you eat. Stop picking at your food and learn something from the girl!” The generosity and honesty of a mother wasn’t limited to just her own children.
I love food, but more than that, I love the eating experience. One day I surprised our house-help, Barki with a strange request. She lived in a tiny hut just across the lane from our house. Every evening as the sun went down the horizon; she would squat in front of an open fire and make piles of jowar bhakris to feed her large family. That day I asked if I could join them for dinner. She was aghast and didn’t know how to respond. It mortified her to think that all she had to offer was jowar bhakris, bland dal and a chilli-garlic chutney. But to me, it was enough. The smell of burning wood, the bite of the chutney, the fresh-off-the-fire bread, the cool winter breeze and the happy tears in my host’s eyes made it one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.
From the kulfi wala who fed us free kulfis after school, to the grocer who packed a few extra dates as a treat, the love far exceeded everything else. Later when I entered the cold corporate world, the only solace amidst the chaos of pounding typewriter keys and mounds of paperwork was the lunch break. I’ve always been fortunate to find people who make it their business to feed me. My first job was in this huge organization where to my utter surprise, the cooks took an instant liking to me and singled me out for attention. The food they cooked was only for the top management, but they sneaked me into the pantry and fed me meals that smelled and tasted like manna from heaven.
When I moved to Dubai, the pantry experience moved with me. Only the cuisine differed. I was working with Iranians there and found a new kind of food paradise. Regardless of whether I had carried a tiffin from home or not, the cook would send steaming trays of Cheelo Kebabs, Feta Cheese, Iranian bread and salads every afternoon. One day, I ordered Tandoori Chicken as a return gesture. My Iranian bosses ate it with gusto but the spice was too much for them. The fair Iranians had sweat dripping and tears streaming down their reddened faces!
Dubai was all about food and friends. Every weekend was a big pot-luck party. In the winter months, we carried huge amounts of marinated meat to the parks and beaches to barbecue. We sat around the glowing embers and devoured juicy chunks of chicken and sausages with Arabic bread, hummus and pickles. The camaraderie of those cool winter evenings in a foreign land was an experience beyond words. It was like huddling together under a warm blanket.
Whether it’s the luscious fruits I’ve enjoyed in the heat of Bangkok, chilled coconut water in quiet streets of Phuket, warm shawarmas on the way to Hatta or sizzling falafels in the mountains of Oman, a very key ingredient of a good meal is the simplicity with which it is cooked, served and eaten. The best parantha I have ever eaten was at a rickety dhaba on the Delhi-Agra highway. It was served on a sultry afternoon with a dollop of white butter and a kind smile. The most sumptuous Maharashtrian meal I remember is at a small resort in Sogaon, served by a sincere, loving hand.
Modern life has altered the eating experience for most of us. But every now and then, I like to make the food and memories count. Since we choose friends that resonate with who we are, my flock was, is and always will be a bunch of foodies. We discuss food as if our life depends on it. We eat like there’s no tomorrow. It isn’t gluttony; it’s an expression of who we are. Our meetings are always, always planned around lunch or dinner. The way we see it, the sharing of a meal is as emotionally and spiritually nurturing as the food on our plates. It is what rejuvenates and bonds us. It is pure sustenance. My food experiences intertwined with my relationships, have defined the way I view life. There are lots of parallels to draw. But one that I uphold above everything else whether it is food, friendship or life is this: That simplicity trumps everything.