Category Archives: Food writing

2012-12-28 14.48.18

A Matter of Taste

republic-jalebi

“Uncharted continents began opening up before our dazzled eyes, great landscapes where Allan Sealy’s Smarmite shared the same table as Kesavan’s all-inclusive, nationalist feast from Looking Through Glass, and Daniel and Ramdoss made a mango pilgrimage of India (and, in the literary magazine Biblio, a controversy broke out over whether ‘Blue Mangoes’ was really a slang term in Tamil for certain umentionable parts of the male anatomy). Frank Simoes expanded on the virtues of fresh fish in conjunction with Goan feni; but read Rohinton Mistry if you want to learn, in mellow comic fashion, about the perils of placing too great a premium on the freshness of your chicken.”

~ Introduction, A Matter of Taste

“Familiar yet original, like a good meal with an aftertaste of snug contentment.”

~from Sonia Faleiro’s review in Tehelka.

From A Matter of Taste:

Githa Hariharan:

For a while I haunt the dirtiest bakeries and tea-stalls I can find. I search for her, my sweet great-grandmother, in plate after plate of stale confections, in needle-sharp green chillies, deep-fried in rancid oil. I plot her revenge for her, I give myself diarrhoea for a week.

Salman Rushdie:

And suddenly, there it was, in every shop window. The White Crusty, the Sliced and the Unsliced. The small Tin, the Large Tin, the Danish Bloomer. The abandoned, plentiful promiscuity of it. The soft pillowy mattressiness of it. The well-sprung bounciness of it between your teeth. Hard crust and soft centre: the sensuality of that perfect textural contrast. I was done for. In the whorehouse of the bakeries, I was serially, gluttonously, irredeemably unfaithful to all those chapatis-next-door waiting for me back home. East was East, but yeast was West.

Mukul Kesavan:

So under Haasan’s ideological direction we had tomato soup with croutons, jellied hooves, mutton dosas, biryani, fish curried in mustard oil, prawns in coconut milk from Haasan’s time in Malabar, potatoes in a thin gruel of haldi and dahi and water, free of garlic or onions–Haasan generously wished to include a sample of vegetarian bigotry–which no-one ate, and finally, custard. Ammi and I were against the custard but Haasan insisted. Not that he liked custard–he was simply asserting our right to be Anglo-Indian.

Anuradha Roy:

In the dark leafy back garden that encircled the kitchen courtyard were neem, guava and bel trees. There was also an amra tree, another fruit that hung in the cusp of town and country–it hasn’t survived big cities and branded fruit–a green, sour fruit, with crisp white flesh that encloses a thorny seed. It could be made into chutneys but was tastiest raw, dipped in rock salt and chilli. Amra and kul-scented afternoons were the domain of women and children. In Pather Panchali, young Durga and her little brother Apu steal a bit of mustard oil and salt from their mother’s scanty supplies to make themselves a raw mango chutney, out of mangoes stolen from a neighbour’s orchard. The episode has all the thrift and danger of a bank robbery. Mid-afternoon licks of amra and kul always had that tinge of the illicit, a guilty union of self-indulgence between adult and child, whether the fruits were stolen or not.

Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay:

In the next lane, a puja was being held in the house of a rich man. When darkness fell, Apu could see a large number of guests going into the house to have dinner. What if…what if he slipped in with them? It was such a long time since he had been to a big dinner. Could he do it? Who would recognise him anyway?
Apu stood in his balcony, swinging between temptation and fear.

aparajito-apr18

(Buy A Matter of Taste, on Amazon.com.)

Some of my own essays on food:

English Vegetables, Desi Steak

Galangal and lemon grass were piled up in hillocks. The mushrooms were fresh and came in four varieties-white, dried dhingri, dried shiitake and dried, slightly dubious porcini. “Madam,” said my old faithful vegetable seller, “aur bhi fresh-fresh aaye hain, English vegetables.” I came back with the usual urban load of fancy ghaas-phoos: borkoli, snaw piss, red peepers, aspagragrass — and with a phrase reverberating in my head. English vegetables.


In The Flesh

The goat—properly a kid—trots in eagerly, escorted in by two soldiers with very young faces and very old eyes. It bleats; off in the distance, other goats answer. It is very interested in the wooden structure—two poles decorated with garlands of leaves and flowers, and it tries to eat some of the flowers, as a burly man in uniform tests the blade of a long, curving knife, crouched down beside the kid.

It is only when the soldiers pull on the rope around its thin neck and force its head down onto the crescent-shaped piece of wood connecting the two poles that the kid starts to protest.

Food: In The Flesh

Published in Seminar, 2005

Here is a partial list of animals I have eaten over the last three decades.

Goat (legs, stomach, brain, sweetbreads, kidney, liver, yes; eyes and head, never); cow (usually in the form of steaks, but also the tail in soups, the tongue, the parts inside—liver, kidneys, even heart, brain, intestines, but of the head only a small portion of a calf’s head, to be sociable), the feet in a glutinous soup somewhat like nihari; pig (the legs, roasted, the cheeks, the flesh in diverse forms, from pork chops to sausages, the blood in black pudding, the stomach and several organs in the form of haggis, the liver, deliciously, in a sorpotel); rabbit, twice or thrice, liking and repelled by its strong tang and dark, earthy taste; snake, if I am to believe the lady who fed me this rich, musty stew at a street stall in Kuala Lumpur, but I fear she was lying and it was only, after all, chicken; deer, presumably an illegally hunted specimen, in my youth at the home of a friend whose family was gun-happy and uncaring of the country’s laws; ants, in a spicy, fiery chutney, crickets, fried. This list is heavy on feet, innards and offal, but low on eyeballs and faces.

Fish (the back, the stomach, the tail, always when available, caviare or humble but equally welcome fish roe, and in loyalty to my Bengali heritage, if reluctantly, the head, often—all of it, in fact); prawns, oysters, mussels, lobsters, crabs, with and without the shells, always with relish; baby jellyfish, sea urchins and the like, on occasion, but never sea horse. I don’t know if anyone actually eats sea horses; dried sea horse is used in some alternative medicine therapies, but I found no recipes for sea horse entrees on the Net. Snails, which should show up once in the meat section for their slight resemblance to marrow and once here for the oysterish texture, I’ve eaten whenever I can get them, their taste enhanced by those tiny, doll’s house forks you use to extract the flesh.

Chickens, entire, and severally: the feet in Malaysian and Chinese soup, the beak, once and never again, the comb of a rooster, once and ditto, the breast and legs and wings, too often to count; ostrich, as steaks, three or four times, as eggs, three or four times; duck, often, in tired orange sauce and equally tired Peking duck pancake specials, once, memorably, after a shoot, in curries and sandwiches, the taste of it robust, gamey, but marred by the memory of the dying light in the shot bird’s eyes; goose and turkey at Calcutta Christmases, often but not of late, once in Canada, once in the US; pheasant, once, an unpleasant experience for an Indian unused to the practice of hanging meat until it turns ripe, gamey, rotted to our senses; partridge, several times; tiny birds whose name I have forgotten but that were served whole on toast—it would be nice to speculate that these were ortolans, but they were probably just snipe; quail, often, despite those fidgety bones; frogs, legs of (I suppose these belong with the fish, but everyone insists that frogs’ legs taste of chicken, so they’re here), a few times, without either pleasure or repulsion.

Here is a partial list of animals I have never eaten and that I would be reluctant to taste: dogs (especially puppies), horses, cats (especially kittens), guinea pigs, budgerigars, humans (perhaps one might make an exception for babies, the kind that cry at high volume), monkeys, chimpanzees, apes and orangutans, elephants, owls, nightingales, whales and dolphins, ibexes, penguins (and especially puffins, with their comically sweet faces), lizards, from the ordinary house-and-garden variety to iguanas and monitor lizards, (though crocodile steak I might eat) white mice, vultures, hoopoes, ocelots, lynxes, foxes and wolves, albatrosses, jaguars, panthers, tigers (and cubs), lions, sharks, duck-billed platypuses, kingfishers, hummingbirds and sparrows.

These lists. How arbitrary they are, how illogical in their implicit acceptance of what I will allow into my body and what I will forbid.

* * *

For 31 of my 34 years, I have been the perfect omnivore, the harassed hostess’s best friend—I will eat anything. (Almost anything—see lists—but then, very few Indians serve hummingbird, orangutans, puffins or iguanas to their guests; I have seldom been tested on my taboos.) My strongest dislikes are vegetable, not animal—stewed tomatoes, waterlogged bhindi, frozen American corn—and these were relatively few.

Of all the members of the animal kingdom, it was the mosquito that did me in. Like many Indians, and like the stereotypical army colonels of the British Raj, I have an admirable malarial tendency—the year I turned 31, I had my 30th bout of malaria, a source of perverse pride for me. I emerged from episode number 30 in the longrunning Malaria and Me soap opera, thinner, marginally more prone to the very Victorian complaint of fatigue—and with a changed palate.

It took me a while to realize that I couldn’t stomach meat any more. For the sake of my family, emphatically carnivorous, I hid this bizarre side-effect, politely attempting to eat the fried chicken, the mutton curries, the lightly steamed fish in mustard, the robust home-made kababs that were staples of my mother’s table. For the sake of my husband and a host of cheerfully flesh-eating friends, I continued to cook meat and fish long after both had turned to ashes on my palate. I went to great lengths to conceal this inadvertent vegetarianism at first, and I waited, patiently, for my palate to cease its apostasy. I found I could eat a little bit of flesh—fish, fowl, animal—through an effort of will, though I would throw up afterwards; for some reason, my appetite for prawns remained unaffected.

India is an easy country for a vegetarian. The European or American table holds meat in pride of place, vegetables as adjuncts, and it shows in the number of meat substitutes available for vegetarians—poor imitations made in soy protein or wheat gluten. The Far Eastern table gives fruits and vegetables the respect they deserve, but is unconcerned with vegan purity. Fish sauce will lace Thai meals, Japanese “vegetable” dishes will often contain a smidgeon of pork or fish for flavouring, the light stocks that Chinese vegetables are often simmered in are usually prepared from fish or meat bases. Here, we place rice and dal, or rotis and dal, at the heart of the meal. Even the classic Bengali non-vegetarian feast will have a strong line-up of vegetable fries and mashes, vegetable stews, vegetable chutneys. To stay away from meat is easy in the practical sense—it’s only on the social front that drifting towards meatlessness creates problems.

So, I became an equal opportunity offender.

My carnivore friends saw the shift towards meatlessness as apostasy, even betrayal; many of them mentioned one of the world’s most prominent vegetarians, A Hitler, as the classic counter-example to that other prominent vegetarian, M Gandhi. The good or evil that men do may be interred with their bones, they implied, but it certainly wasn’t to be inferred in the flesh they abstained from.

Carnivores attempted cunningly to turn me back to the path of flesh, offering Lucknow’s tundey kababs, tender cuts of lamb cooked Chettinad style, fragrant biryanis richly layered with beef, pabda maach cooked with whole black cumin, Goan pomfret fried in aromatic spice pastes—in extremis, they would smuggle homemade chicken stock into the daal and declare an underhanded victory.

Vegetarians were annoyed by me, as true believers are by the half-hearted convert. Some were tolerant; they saw dietary preferences as a private, very personal choice, and if they disapproved of what was on your plate, that disapproval rarely took the form of interference, or moral judgement. Others had arrived at intolerance after years of fighting for animal rights or having to defend their own dislike of meat, which didn’t make their righteousness any more palatable.

In the first few months of turning away from meat, I faced a battery of Purity Tests. So I didn’t eat meat? How about eggs, cheese, milk? (Eggs and milk I can take or leave, but anyone who takes my Gorgonzola or Reblochon away from me will die, I promise.) Did I understand that prawns suffer (yes, but I don’t like prawns as creatures, so I don’t care), that fish die in agonies (yes, and I like fish as creatures, so I do care), do I wear fur (no), silk (yes), use leather (if I can’t find another option), use products that weren’t tested on animals (as far as possible, no), campaign against slaughterhouses (no), support chicken battery farming (no), use insecticide (yes, though it’s a homemade herbal concoction)?

I accepted my own inconsistencies, and found them mildly fascinating, as fascinating as the question of what dead flesh I would eat and what I would eschew. But after a while, every passionate vegetarian argument, every finetuned query, began to sound like the tired chorus of a worn-out song: Was I pure enough, good enough, clean enough? Was I pure or tainted, righteous or sainted? Was I slightly pure, mostly pure, potentially pure?

Malaria had made me a reluctant semi-herbivore; a bone-headed stubbornness now made me a reluctant semi-carnivore. Over the months, what had started as a disease of the palate, an inexplicable turning away from flesh, mellowed into the realization that given a choice, I preferred fruit and vegetables, the nectarine over the neck of lamb, the cauliflower-and-turnip pickle over the calf’s-feet-jelly, even, heresy of heresies, tofu over trout. Even so, I ate just enough meat—a kabab a month, a bit of maacher jhol every two months, a bite of sausage at six month intervals—to permanently disqualify me from the ranks of the pure-in-spirit vegetarian. It was childish, and from a personal point of view, distasteful: much as I missed the memory of enjoying meat, when it was present in the flesh, my stomach, my tongue, my gustatory soul rebelled.

I follow and often endorse the moral argument for not eating meat—what cow, or goat, or chicken, or flapping, oxygen-starved fish, comes willingly to the butcher’s knife, and what right do we have to take another creature’s life to satisfy our own appetites? But this, on its own, would not stop me from eating meat—when it’s been a contest between my conscience and my palate, the palate has won, every time. I understand the ecological arguments—the grain and grass it takes to feed sheep, cows and goats would feed far more people if we were all vegetarian. But that would not stop me, either. Most of us who eat meat do so for the simplest of reasons: we like the way it tastes. My body gave up on flesh, not my heart, mind or memory. Unlike Gandhi, I sensed no goats bleating in my stomach, pleading to be restored to life.

What do you do when the rebellion against flesh comes from deep within your own flesh? To have this choice at all is a luxury in India, where so many people live on the edge of starvation, where a single green chilli can be the highlight of a meal. I have always had this choice, though, and all I can do is examine its implications.

My inheritance was the secular kitchen, where forbidden food like pork and beef, and food off-limits to widows, such as onions, garlic and fish had equal space on the table with a yogi’s pavitra diet—honey, yogurt, bitter gourd, seasonal fruits. Given the insistent inclusiveness of this heritage, something I shared with only a thin layer of Indians, I felt that before I gave up meat entirely, or returned to its complex pleasures, I needed to look more closely at the nature of meat itself.

* * *

Smell, sound, sight: three memories

Smell. Ahmedabad, 2004:

Two years after the riots that tore Gujarat apart, I’m here to do an innocuous, tourist story on the state’s ancient and very beautiful step wells. I have not yet named my turning away from meat, merely registered it. The city is normal. The riot survivors have been tidied away, banished from memory, exiled from most of Ahmedabad’s busy, commercial streets. Navaratri is in full flow, and at night, the rhythms of the dandiya drive the city into motion.

The second morning in Ahmedabad, I’m up at dawn to see one of the oldest stepwells in the city. The bats are disturbed when I negotiate the steps downwards, and they flutter among the delicate stone carvings on walls like the black exhalations of sleepy ghosts. In the half-light of morning, this place is incredibly beautiful; I sit at the very bottom of the well for a long time, listening to the sounds of the azaan from the nearby mosque drift slowly downwards, breathing in the mossy air. And then I ask the driver whether he would take me to Gulbarga, the small, middle-class cluster of flats where Ehsan Jafri and a score of other Muslims were burnt alive or hacked to death as the riots raged across Ahmedabad.

To this day, I have no idea why I wanted to go there—I am no activist, just a book reviewer who does travel stories too, definitely not the kind of reporter who takes wars, riots, morgues and corpses in her stride. Perhaps this was just self-indulgent disaster tourism; but in a city that has embraced amnesia so effectively, I found myself wanting to pay tribute, if in the smallest of ways, to bear witness to what happened here.

Hardware shops are strung out in a line in front of the narrow alley that leads to the Gulbarga society. Many of them are open for business, and they look at me incuriously: they have seen too many riot tourists to care, there are no TV cameras accompanying us.

Gulbarga is approached through that narrow alley, boxed in by other societies and flats on three sides. There are no birds, no cats, no stray dogs, no humans here. The houses are small but must once have been cheerful; they were painted in different colours, lilac, apple green, bright blue.

The ground beneath my feet is spongy, and black, and still littered with glass, with shards of pottery from ceramic planters, with splinters of wood from cane chairs, fragments of paper from schoolbooks and magazines, with shreds of fabric. If there are other, more human remains here, they are not visible: if there was blood or bone or hair, it has been removed, or it’s hidden under that thick sticky coat of black, kerosene-soaked mud that I will later track into the halls of the heritage hotel where I’m staying.

It would be so easy to say that Gulbarga stinks of death, and pain, and fear. The windows of most of these homes are smashed; a broken swing hangs suspended from a chain outdoors and a black stain, denser than the rest of the tarry mud, spreads out under it. The people who lived here had no way out once the mobs came; nowhere to find shelter except in these fragile houses, and they were dragged out of there and set on fire, or beaten to pulp, some had their limbs hacked off their torsos before they died, some were burned alive, and none of that shows in the remains of Gulbarga.

The truth is that it does not smell of terror at all or of sadness. It smells of a havan; the scorched patches of oil-soaked earth are familiar to anyone who has attended that ancient Hindu rite of prayer and fire. It smells of the crematorium, yes, but it also smells the way a barbecue at a party smells the next day, ashes and the departed ghost scents of roast meat.

It is very silent here, so silent that I am first irritated when a gasping, snorting sound breaks the unnatural peace of the colony. And then I turn to see my taxi driver, the young Hindu boy who told me yesterday how the “Mohammedans” were ruining the city, is in tears, he can’t hold back his sobs, he crumbles handfuls of black, greasy earth between his fingers and he cries like a child, in great gasps. There is nothing to say; I sit there, looking at the dark brown fingers of soot on a pale pink kitchen wall, looking at the money plant still growing in a shattered Jaipur pottery planter, looking at the exercise book where there is nothing written after the words ‘A Picnic’.

Ahmedabad has incredibly delicate vegetarian food, and for the next few days, I try all the local specialties, from undhyo to patra to dapka kadhi, and behind every thali I can smell the charred, oil-soaked earth stink of Gulbarga. Then one day, several months later, I wake up to an absence, a smell that is no longer there. Gulbarga has left my olfactory memory, and will not return until I write these paragraphs, this sentence.

Sound. Kumaon Hills, 1998.

We arrive at the army cantonment up in the Kumaon Hills after a long drive, touted as a Himalayan Rally, through some of the loveliest landscapes in India. It is Durga Puja, and I have been silently missing the rituals, bustle and of course food, of this quintessentially Bengali festival. “We have arranged something special for you,” says the Colonel to our tired troupe. “A proper regimental puja.”

We shower with lukewarm, slightly muddy water; the women officers and I change into saris, salwar kameezes, the men into clean shirts, pressed trousers. Far off, a goat bleats, then another, widening into a chorus.

The “temple” is located inside a large tent, and we watch the priest go about the arti, those tiny flickering flames and the scent of camphor bringing a small whiff of comfort to the travelworn, the road-weary. Then we’re ushered outside, into a field. It is already dark, and all the stars are out, a light breeze plays up and down the hills. Even to an agnostic like me, the evening prayers have brought peace.

One of the women, the young wife of a young Captain, stirs uneasily. She is listening to the bleating of a goat, not so far-off any more. The goat—properly a kid—trots in eagerly, escorted in by two soldiers with very young faces and very old eyes. It bleats; off in the distance, other goats answer. It is very interested in the wooden structure—two poles decorated with garlands of leaves and flowers, and it tries to eat some of the flowers, as a burly man in uniform tests the blade of a long, curving knife, crouched down beside the kid.

It is only when the soldiers pull on the rope around its thin neck and force its head down onto the crescent-shaped piece of wood connecting the two poles that the kid starts to protest. It bleats, and the answering, distant bleats are more frantic. It bleats again, and again, wriggling, kicking its legs out. The burly man stands up and swings the blade easily, testing it, splitting a green coconut in two with no effort. The kid has been subdued, but its eyes are rolling and it piddles uncontrollably; I am close enough to see the froth forming at the side of its mouth. It bleats yet again, an animal, human cry, and the bleat is cut in two, severed as swiftly as its head by the blade as the burly man, having taken his stance, brings the knife down cleanly. In the distance, the other goats bleat continuously; the kid’s head bounces twice and lies still.

The young wife of the young Captain has fainted. She is a vegetarian, and she has never seen an animal sacrifice before. She eats no meat that night, but the rest of us do. The meat is warm, tender, steaming. I eat with pleasure, and my conscience is untroubled. But many years later, when my husband and I have shifted to Nizamuddin, where goats are still bought and kept in people’s gardens and homes before the ritual sacrifice on Bakrid, I hear the happy bleats of the goats, especially the young ones, and I think of the goat we met that night in Kumaon.

Sight: INA market, Old Delhi meat market, Sarojini Nagar Market, 2006:

I know these markets, I know the butcher’s shops, I have been coming to these blood-steeped alleys from the age of five, or six, accompanying my mother or my grandfather on ritual shopping expeditions. But one of the first lessons you learn as a flesh-eater who also buys and cooks meat is the art of selective vision.

We do not live at a distance from our meat, as you might in other countries; a few malls and supermarkets now offer neatly packaged frozen or fresh cuts, meal-sized portions that have none of the slaughterhouse feel about them, but this is still relatively uncommon. Most of us buy meat and fish in the flesh, up close near the blood and guts.

You learn very quickly not to look too closely at certain things. The gutters, running with blood, feathers, scraps of flesh, wattles and combs, fish scales, the plucked whiskers of prawns. The bucket of guts, gills and intestines at the fishmonger’s, the bucket of skin, feathers and innards at the chicken shop. You learn to look for certain things; redness in some cuts of meat, shading to voluptuous dark maroon in other cuts from other animals. You look for bright red gills and a firm skin in fish, but you ignore the occasionally flapping lips of a fish so fresh it still misses the water. You look for greyness in shellfish, which is bad; but in some specimens, an oceanic greeny-greyness indicates flavour. You look carefully at the leg of goat or lamb the butcher slaps down on his block, to check that the flesh is firm; you look closely at liver and kidneys, rejecting wrinkled and deformed organs; but it would be a mistake to look too closely at the butcher’s block, where years of hacking and chopping have blended the grain of the meat so thoroughly with the grain of the wood that the surface mixes animal, vegetable and mineral in one inextricable mass.

The meat market in Old Delhi is the wholesale market, and it has no time for niceties; the meat arrives often on the hoof, and while it isn’t slaughtered on the premises, it can come in so fresh that warm steam from the blood that poured out of the carcass still rises from the flanks, the legs, the chest of the dismembered animal. Three boys, apprentice butchers, squat and chat as they casually stick their hands up the rectums of goats and flick out the shit. Great masses of flies rise and settle, rise and settle, first on the blood of the carcass, then on the gleaming piles of black goat pellets. One of the alleyways is given over to heads—sheeps and goats, chiefly, some with their tongues neatly severed and tucked into the gaping mouths, and eyeballs lightly loosened from the socket. The morning I go, there are no horse’s heads on sale, though the butchers confirm that a few occasionally can be found—they are uncomfortable discussing who might buy a horse’s head, and what finished dish might be made from it, and they say it is not a frequently sought after item. It is, however, remarkably cheap.

I hope that if I look long enough at these corpses, the transformation of the living into the dead into dinner, I might experience a life-changing revulsion, be free of my ambiguity about meat and flesh, blood and bone, my reluctance to commit to one or another side of the vegetarian debate. A revelation would be wonderful, but even revulsion would be useful in this personal exploration of the sins of the flesh.

And so I look. At INA market, I notice for the first time how neatly the haunches of goat hang from the shop lintels, how cleanly the inverted hooks pass through the tendons, just above the trotters, how carefully the liver, sweetbreads, heart and kidneys of each animal has been inserted into the half-carcass so that you can inspect it for health, for the consistency and clarity of the fat, before you buy.

I notice how the fishmonger reserves his respect for the pickiest customers, the ones who understand that the best fish was breathing up to a minute ago, who will buy the small, unregarded, tasty fish with those deadly, hair-thin bones. If you lift the gills of carp at the right angle, you might spark an involuntary exhalation, a final, if illusory, sigh.

No fashion designer has yet claimed inspiration from the meat markets, but no fashion designer could improve on the beauty of the colour scheme—the gunmetal, silver gleam of fish brought into shining relief by the vivid reds, maroons and scarlet of blood and guts.

And I notice—have I been blind all my life?—how the worst position of all, if you’re a chicken destined for the table, is to be in the third row, the fourth or the fifth row, the bottom rows of the coop. The ones in the first row have just as little space, but their feathers are white shading to cream. They shit on the chickens below and the chickens below shit on the chickens underneath and in the constant jostling of chickens for living space, every now and then the dried shit on the feathers of the chickens above cascades down like dirty whitewash onto the chickens on the lower rungs.

I see all this, and my mind makes the automatic transition of all cooks everywhere in the world: I think of earthy dak bungalow curries and the aroma of chicken country captain, of chicken breasts tenderly braised with mushrooms, of spicy mutton curries fiery with red chillies, spiked with malt vinegar, of subtle fish coconut curries, of crisp-fried fish fillets with shallot. This is a strictly fleshly pleasure, the knowledge that you can take the stink and the mess of the marketplace and transform that into food that will fill the belly and make the soul hum with happiness.

One of the coops is placed on a bench; at the same level, there’s a tray of chicken feet. The butcher’s assistant adds two more feet to the tray from a freshly slaughtered bird; as he turns back, he jostles the tray a bit, bumping it closer to the coop. On the second level, getting shat on, but not so badly off as its counterparts on level three, a bird pokes its beak through the wires and discovers that it can peck at the chicken feet. It is a briefly disorienting sight, it looks like a Disney cartoon gone noir, as though the chicken is snacking on its own dismembered claws.

I have to step aside because a fresh bunch of goat carcasses is coming in; I watch as the butcher slams each haunch onto those hooks, and I wonder whether I would feel more horror if, say, those were skinned puppies being prepared for display, upside-down babies being skewered through their delicate, tiny feet. Perhaps, but what if I lived in a society where it was the custom to eat every third baby, to usefully dispose of the puppies in every litter that couldn’t be adopted? Revulsion wears off very, very quickly, as anyone who spends time in a meat market will know—it’s a question of what you’re used to.

I buy meat that I will cook, but not eat, making me an accessory to the crime in the eyes of all those good people who believe for very valid reasons that meat is murder. I could stop eating meat for the rest of my life, starting today, and still not atone for the sins committed during half a lifetime of meat-eating; I could be a vegetarian and still visit terrible harm on other people.

I have come to no useful conclusion about flesh; I know its pleasures, even if I increasingly abjure them. I know the vulnerability of the flesh, how easily it is penetrated by knife, skewer, fork. I know how close that dividing line is, between living and dead. I know that this ambiguity about flesh cuts deep and cuts close, too close to the bone.

English Vegetables, Desi Steak


Galangal and lemon grass were piled up in hillocks. The mushrooms were fresh and came in four varieties-white, dried dhingri, dried shiitake and dried, slightly dubious porcini. “Madam,” said my old faithful vegetable seller, “aur bhi fresh-fresh aaye hain, English vegetables.” I came back with the usual urban load of fancy ghaas-phoos: borkoli, snaw piss, red peepers, aspagragrass — and with a phrase reverberating in my head. English vegetables.

As opposed to desi veggies. My father-in-law had used it first, in appreciation of a dish of babycorn and red peppers tossed with hing, jeera and fried onions: “Aamar,” he had said in Bangla, on the only visit he ever made to our house, before the cancer made travel difficult, “English vegetables khub bhalo laagey.”

It was a winter evening and as I mechanically sorted, made mental menus and stashed my load of exotica away, I found myself counting the absences. The day before Diwali is when Bengali households celebrate by lighting fourteen lamps and cooking a mixture of fourteen kinds of saag. This year I’d made up the quota with the usual greens — palak, methi, lal saag; and some less usual ones — bok choy, watercress. (My conscience cavilled that watercress was not saag. I rejoined that I didn’t have all day to shop, and that watercress was peppery, green and leafy — ergo, close enough to saag not to make a difference.)

I slowed when I hauled out a bunch of carrots: orange, like the ones in the ‘phoren’ picture books for children, and tasteless, unlike the deep red, hairy, indigenous varieties that were increasingly hard to locate. Mulberries and phalsa had been equally hard to find in the summer gone by. In the fancy markets, English vegetables were easier to get than ever before; the old, desi roots-and-tubers stuff harder to come by, barring a few limited staples.

***

Ten years ago, at the Calcutta Club, I’d eavesdropped on a conversation happening two tables away. “These Phrench Phries,” complained a man in a Bong-Yank accent, “they are bherry limp. Not like the ashol jinish, the real thing, at all.” “It is the potatoes, Alok da,” said his companion gravely. “Until India learns to grow potatoes like the Idaho variety, we cannot sample the authentic Phrench Phry.” One chewed on a relatively inoffensive steak, whose authenticity had not been called into question, while the other contemplated, with solemn displeasure, the unworthy impostor on the plate. Together they managed to convey the impression that what to my untutored palate was a perfectly reasonable alu-bhaja would never make the passing grade as even third-rank Phrench Phries.

That was before the Hindutva brigade discovered that the two ingredients you need for the perfect Phrench Phry were: a) the humble potato raised to the standard set by the Idaho variety and b) distinctly unsacred but tasty beef tallow as the frying fat. Or the Phrying Phat. Either way, it was only a short while before, for McDonalds and company, the Phat was well and truly in the Phire.

***

That evening, as I chopped red peppers, cucumber and tomatoes for a last summer gazpacho before winter set in and drove me to the comfort of hot soups and plain dal-bhaat, the German laser knives someone had gifted me felt wrong in the hand, their weight suddenly awkward. Setting them aside, I came up with a chopper set on a wooden board that a friend had brought down from New York. It made swift work of the Spanish onions and the peppers, and I remembered the pride with which he’d told me that this was the very “offset serrated blade” praised by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential.

I’d reached the tomatoes and the last of the twilight was shading into smog when the sleekly post-modern lines of my New York-imported offset serrated blade blurred into another, more familiar image. Take away the jargon, and my chopping equipment stood revealed as a boti — the raised blade set on a rough piece of board that’s ubiquitous in Bengal and most of India. The boti retails at the equivalent of $2 or less; my offset serrated Bourdain-approved blade sells for $130 in some California stores.

The kitchen stood revealed as a cross-cultural minefield. The antique Italian peppermill, a gift handed down by my mother-in-law, used by her mother in the days when the possession of such an item conveyed an aura of world citizenship on the user, is employed in our house to grind saunf and roasted jeera. The silver salad set and the silver toast rack we received as wedding presents are forlorn white elephants: there is no butler to polish them, I prefer wooden salad sets anyway, and we are a toast-averse household. Jars of dried Italian herbs sit side-by-side with various masalas, bought whole once a month, roasted at home and freshly ground. The dried Provence and other herbs taste like…crumbly green flakes. Just as we inveigh against “curry powder”, there being no such beast in the Indian culinary lexicon, I imagine a brigade of forlorn Italians raising their voices to the heavens in protest against the use of tasteless flakes instead of the fresh herbs from the garden the original recipes demand.

I know that this discomfort is inherited, a family legacy. As with bloodlines and songlines, if you follow the tangled skein of foodlines far back enough, you may discover truths about yourself. Uncomfortable truths; but truths, all the same.

***

In my mother’s house and my grandmother’s house, meals came in two varieties: Indian and English. Indian was self-explanatory: in Didima’s house, it featured the best of Bengali cuisine, with a detour down the cosmopolitan byways of a Brahmo household. In my mother’s Delhi house, the delicate spicing of classic Bengali cuisine collided with the in-your-face punch of North Indian cuisine. It was one of those marriages that worked, against all reason.

In both households, however, the English meals followed the same pattern. Vegetables were boiled to within an inch of their lives, more occasionally lightly steamed with lemon butter; glorious jeera-spiked versions of white sauce alternated ominously with “bakes” distinguished by listless curls of Amul cheese. Cabbage was served up in thick, tasteless wedges that resembled steamed cotton wool, but sometimes it received the fusion blessing of coconut and mustard seeds with a dash of malt vinegar, all added Anglo-Indian style to the crisply shredded and only barely blanched vegetable. But the crowning sleight-of-hand came with the Roast: mutton roasted on coal fires, served with tasty but gluey “gravy”. It was years before I realised that this wasn’t even mutton dressed up as lamb: it was mutton dressed up as lamb pretending to be the forbidden meat, beef.

The sacred cow occupied a slightly ambiguous position in our household. It was perfectly all right to go out to five-star restaurants and order a steak, since it was understood that hotel steak was godless, procured from an atheist cow. This polite fiction was maintained even in the face of the knowledge that most (atheist?) steak-providing cows in Delhi were actually (agnostic?) buffaloes.

In Calcutta, conversely, beef was acceptable except if you had especially religious-minded Hindu relatives coming over for dinner, and even then occasionally passed off in extremis as innocuous mutton. If the record states that we were responsible for corrupting good Hindu souls, so be it; but add that they thoroughly enjoyed what they were eating, so long as they were allowed to do so in ignorance. The sturdy Brahmo steaks Didima cooked were seasoned with crushed pepper, fried onions, grapes, and of course, a delicious guilt.

But families change, and so did mine, eschewing red meat apparently for reasons to do with cholesterol. Once I organised an impromptu family lunch — several decades after our five-star steaks and our Calcutta beefsteaks. The potato salad and curried mushrooms went down well, but the plate of steak — cooked medium-rare, so that its pink juices oozed balefully out — lay accusingly on the table while everyone politely ate the takeaway tandoori chicken we’d ordered as a backup. It was a small thing, but it pointed at a rift, indicated that at least in matters of what we were or weren’t willing to put into our bodies, my family and I had gone in different directions.

***

Between these two extremes, the Indian lunches and the English dinners, lay a third path, not moderate but iconoclastic. It was provided by my Thakurma, who travelled from household to household along with her husband until she and Thakurda established a kind of metronomic movement between my father’s house and his younger brother’s house. There were two other brothers, but one lived in inaccessible Air Force cantonments, dots on the map of India. The other had married a practising Wiccan who convinced him that he was actually the bastard of a royal family, fostered out in my Thakurma’s household. Ignoring the evidence presented by the family nose, the very distinctive protuberance that was replicated faithfully on the physiognomy of all the brothers, he elected in the interests of marital peace to disown his natural family.

Having Thakurma and Thakurda to stay was no penance: one was the source of magical stories, the other of practical wisdom. Besides, Thakurma’s culinary contributions were of the subversive kind. She cooked everything forbidden by the dentist and took absolutely no notice of family preferences, convinced — correctly — that her skill in the kitchen would overcome all resistance.

We had an early skirmish over fish, which, in repudiation of my Bengali roots, I refused to eat. A galvanised iron tub of catfish was a permanent presence in the kitchen; I named each whiskered creature and was told that the ones missing every night had gone on a trip, and never connected the maacher jhol on my plate with the straying travellers. Aside from catfish, though, I flatly refused to eat anything else from river or sea.

Wiser than my mother, who was on the losing end of a running feud with a ten-year-old’s stubbornness, my Thakurma retreated from the battlefield. When my suspicions had been lulled, she greeted me with nimkis and an addictive mashed, pickled thing that I instantly loved. It was smooth; spiced to perfection with mustard oil; had a taste that brought the sea into my mouth; I thought she’d wrought magic with the humble potato. When she confessed that I’d been eating non-catfish fish for eight days without protest, I flew into an absolute rage. It’s only now that I can acknowledge her triumph: not only did she make me eat what I hated, she made me love it. In the war between my prejudices and my tastebuds, she won.

As the years went by, the two households were tossed around. My Kaka went abroad; we spent six years shifting from house to house in Delhi while my father was posted in Calcutta. In that period of collective rootlessness, my grandparents shared our refugee status. Sometimes with us, sometimes not, depending on the size of the house my resourceful mother, lumbered with three rambunctious children, could find.

All the places we stayed in then had a common feature: the pre-shrunk kitchen. Instead of the large, roomy spaces we’d grown up with, we had to accommodate ourselves to closets with a stove bunged in. Thakurma’s repertoire of sweets, which ranged from malpoa to payesh, from sandesh to labango latika, from layered patishaptas with their filling of coconut and raisins to narkeler nadu, shrank in tandem.

Perhaps we noticed, perhaps we didn’t. My sister and I had discovered liqueur chocolates, one of the many dazzling items that we knew of only as articles brought back from the amorphous land called Abroad. My mother walked in to find her daughters replete with chocolate, but with no signs of a liqueur hangover. “There was smelly water inside,” my sister explained. “We threw it away and ate the rest.” The kitchen sink reeked of assorted liqueurs for days, until our cook poured quantities of yeast down the drain. The sink continued stinking, but now in a familiar as opposed to exotic way.

I do remember, despite the lure of biscuits from Paris (they tasted disappointingly like Britannia biscuits) and then-exotic Toblerone, that Thakurma kept up the tradition in exile with a token offering. Sometimes it was alu-bhaja for tea, flaunting their swadeshi flavour in stubborn denial of conquering alien tastes—Thakurma never ate a McDonald’s French Fry in her life, and wouldn’t have felt that she’d missed out on much. More usually, she’d pull out a battered Dalda tin which contained moas — the lightest of confections, puffed rice held together with melted jaggery. When they returned to live with us, the tin smartened up, courtesy the birth of my brother, Dalda giving way to shiny blue Lactogen.

But the habit remained; though she made patishaptas and channar-payesh once in a while, it was Thakurma’s moas that flavoured those years of our childhood. They provided a rare thread of continuity in those years of evictions and constantly changing schoolbus routes, of exoduses where my mother lead the way like a new Moses, appealing to our sense of adventure as we moved yet again, me lying in a malarial haze at the back of the lumbering black Ambassador, my baby brother stolidly holding the TV aerial out of one car window like a conquering flag and my sister perched on a pile of rugs and cushions in the front passenger seat.

***

“Would you like to see our ovens?” asked the chef of a snazzy new Italian restaurant, just opening in Delhi. “They’re wood-fired.” I heard the pride in his voice and followed gladly into the inner reaches of the kitchen. Men and women in chef’s whites, tocques clapped smartly on their heads, shaped loaves, prepared duck’s breasts for roasting, checked a brace of guinea hens. The ovens were huge, industrial sized. The doors were deliberately unpainted, in a designer way meant to indicate rustic charm. They were large, and as they clanged open, twin odours of meat, from one, and bread, from the other, were released in fragrant clouds.

A beaming assistant yanked freshly baked foccaccia out of the oven and deftly assembled accompaniments of virgin olive oil, pesto and sundried tomatoes. Another platter contained zucchini, cherry tomatoes and other English vegetables in a raspberry-vinegar reduction. “For you,” he said. “To taste.” The bread smelled divine. And I knew that if I so much as tried to take a bite, I would vomit.

Three years ago, I had accompanied my father to the electric crematorium on Ring Road, braving the raised eyebrows of well-meaning North Indian friends who felt that women had no place in that temple to death. But the woman we were about to cremate was the first feminist I’d ever met in my life; it was because of her that my mother had become a lawyer, well into middle age, instead of remaining a housewife. It was because I’d seen her writing short stories that I was trying to earn a living with hack journalism instead of marrying some rich guy and doing ikebana arrangements around the house. The least I could do was show up to say goodbye.

The electric crematorium, with its bare stage for relatives to say a few words, do a few last rites, reminded me of the many knocked-together arenas where exiled Bengalis would gather during the Pujas to put on bad, histrionic, nostalgic plays. My grandmother’s body looked very light; those who raised her bier didn’t have to strain.

She had died in the sterile, impersonal space of a hospital ward, instead of in her own bed at home. She and her husband had remained eternal refugees, first from Bangladesh and then from Orissa; the small patch of land she had tried to buy and claim as her own outside Delhi was mired in an interminable legal tangle. The only space they’d had was the space they’d carved out inside our lives, and that was huge, unpartitioned, beyond all boundaries.

I joined the avalanche of mourners who’d shown up for Thakurma’s funeral, realising for the first time how many lives she’d touched. From my father’s colleagues, who had often sat down to chat with ‘Mataji’, to the vegetable seller, to my friends, to her own friends — they were all here, in tacit tribute to a life fuller than we’d thought possible.

The furnace at the electric crematorium is built like a Dutch oven. After the final rites have been performed, the eldest son steps forward and breaks the skull of his parent with a stick. Some say this frees the spirit; a dourly realistic friend told me briskly that this prevents the skull from exploding in the intense heat of the flames. “One doesn’t want,” she said, “bits of one’s brains going off any old where.”

My Thakurma lay on the platform in front of the oven. There was a final muttered prayer, a clang, the platform slid first forward and then with surprising speed, backward as the door to the furnace opened. She went in head first, her eyes closed, and before the door swung shut again I saw her head and then her torso haloed by flames.

On the plate held out by the assistant chef, I imagined I could smell wood ashes, burning flesh, crisped bones. His smile was beginning to slip a little; the staff was beginning to look a trifle questioning. In place of the focaccia, I thought I could see my Thakurma’s fair, wrinkled, only slightly mottled flesh, beginning to sear. The door of the restaurant’s brand-new, state-of-the-art wood-fired oven clanged again, as someone pulled out the duck breast au jus.

I took a deep breath and inhaled scents from the past: the talcum-and-damp-newsprint smell of old age, incense, the harsingar flowers Thakurma used for her daily puja, the faint aroma from the John Exshaw brandy she drank in ladylike quantities, that last whiff of burning hair and flesh.

“Thank you,” I said, tearing a chunk off the Italian bread. I dipped it in olive oil and ate, not knowing quite what I was devouring — flesh, flour, a memory, the present. Whatever it was, it stayed down.

(Published by Outlook in 2003)

On being fed by friends

Traditionally, it’s the women who do it. Mothers, aunts, grandmothers, wives, sisters, daughters, pouring their love and their frustrations into what they put on the plate; the extra sandesh, the meal that took six hours to cook and a week to plan.

Then we grew up, and moved out, and there were no more Mashimas or Nanis to supervise our kitchens, our tables. We learned to fend for ourselves, to pick out our own clothes, professions, sexual preferences and politics. Many of us worked very hard to escape the iron tyrannies of our respective family backgrounds, grown-ups in a constant state of teenage rebellion. Some left, to have their passports stamped with an independence that was among the many foreign luxuries that didn’t make their way to India. Some stayed and carved out a schizophrenic freedom, leading ghare-baire lives: one role for the home, one for the world.

But as we graduated from cheese-tomato-sauce sandwiches to seven-course catered or flamboyantly home-cooked meals, this one thing didn’t change; in times of trouble, we fed our friends, were fed by them.

Chicken in black pepper:

What you need for this one-pot meal is lots of roughly ground black pepper and lots of boneless chicken, also salt. Not too much oil; just make sure that the one big cooking pot you have is at the right heat, which is to say very hot. Let the black pepper sizzle, releasing its aromas. Add the chicken. Saute. Add water, add more black pepper and salt; simmer till done; serve on unmatched plates with newspaper for a tablecloth. This was what you cooked when you’d outgrown Maggi noodles, couldn’t afford real cooking, but could afford real friends, good conversation. One pot, thinned with enough water, thickened with enough banter and laughter, would stretch well into the long nights and tide you over the barsati power-cuts, the water shortages, the credit card debt and the thankless gruntwork of the jobs on the first rungs of a very long ladder.

Mangoes:

In Calcutta, mixed with flattened rice (cheera, poha) that had been soaked but not cooked and allowed to steep in plain yogurt or leftover mishti doi. Cheere-doi was what you ate when khichdi was unaffordable; the next stage would be cups of tea and cigarettes because you couldn’t afford real food, not till the tuition payments or the anorexic salary cheque came in next month. The mangoes—you need pulpy, sweet-tart ones for this dish—were what transformed humble cheere-doi from the quintessential poor-man’s-fodder to something that hinted at future sumptuousness, untold wealth. Even half a mango, or the scrapings off the stone, added to cheere-doi, would make you feel rich; to have that sweetness added to the daily struggle.

In Delhi, one Alfonso could stretch to milkshake for four, in the not-rich, not-poor days. Or it could be what a friend, just back from making a difficult decision, hollowed out inside, accepted when she couldn’t accept the invitations to talk: mango, sliced, on a plate, and quietness, and the company of a few friends was needed more than sympathy and verbal sharing. In later years we could buy them by the case. But that one mango you bought to share with three other friends, that first mango of the season, it tasted so good.

Soba noodles with prawns, buckwheat noodles with beef, cucumber and chili, miso soup:

In a time of some slight sadness and personal trouble, one of those dark winters that all of us go through at some time or the other and eventually emerge from, blinking into the light, my palate craved clean flavours, and my hands needed to keep busy.
This is what I cooked, for friends and office colleagues, over and over again, quiet, unspectacular meals that promised nourishment and lightness rather than gourmet entertainment.

Miso soup, with tiny cubes of tofu, seaweed stirring in the cloudy broth and rising to the surface. Cold soba noodles, in homemade stock with a sharp cleansing lemongrass tang, lightly steamed prawns. Buckwheat noodles or green tea noodles, heaped with thinly sliced meat or shiitake mushrooms, basil, mint and cilantro adding their freshness, red bird’s-eye chillis tamed between slices of vinegary-sweet cucumber.

There was nothing original about these meals, but they served their purpose; to ferry one across a bad time, into a better time. The satisfaction in making them was not the satisfaction of skill; it was of getting the timing right, the balance of ingredients right, and now it comes to me that cooking these very easy, very ordinary dishes were just a promise of future serenity, the possibility of balance.

Pasta, three ways:

Pasta has almost replaced khichdi or sambhar-rice as our version of comfort food. Years ago, a friend newly struggling with domesticity, adjusting to her first kitchen, made gigantic bowls of pasta with Kissan’s tomato ketchup and bits of paneer. Sensing that this might not be enough, she stirred in two packets of Haldiram’s dalmoth. It was the first time she’d ever cooked and it was the first-ever adult housewarming she’d had. In later years, she’d serve the usual staples, our decade’s version of aspic and Caesar salads: clever pasta salads with avocado and shrimp, perfect linguine in homemade marinara sauce, farfalle with pine nuts and chorizo.

For now, there was this: undercooked pasta, raw to the tongue and dangerous to the tooth, the metallic tang of bottled ketchup, the dalmoth miserably mixing with the paneer. We watched her beaming as she set this out on a tablecloth crocheted for her by an aunt. We dug in, and asked for second helpings. It was as horrible as we’d feared, but she was so pleased, to be a hostess in her own home for the very first time.

Men who’ve been on their own do pasta really, really well. It’s not just their “girlfriend” dish; it’s what they pull out for old, good friends when there hasn’t been enough time to do the fancy bachelor dinner or to pick up cheese-salami-Kalamata olives. And perhaps they do know this, but they never entirely understand how relaxing it feels to be treated like a guest, to lean against the kitchen counter and watch someone else chop the onions and sauté red peppers and mushrooms for a change. To be cooked for, rather than cooking for: it’s a gift. We love it when they make the effort with the Moroccan-chicken tagine or the extra-special dal-gosht their mother taught them, but we love this too: pasta, cooked al dente, the sauce simmering alongside, ready and plated in half an hour, with or without a salad and good bread alongside.

You grow up, and you get to know chefs. And some of them become friends, and some of those friends will call you over because—why? They want to cook that night. Or their kitchen’s trying out new dishes. Or they want to introduce you to someone they think you’ll enjoy meeting. And you find yourself loving the tomato-mozzarella appetizers, the scallops and the Gorgonzola-cheese tenderloin, but slowing down for the pumpkin-stuffed ravioli.

You don’t do restaurant reviews any more, but that ravioli reminds you of a time when your city was just beginning to discover its palate, and when diners faced with ravioli stared at it in blank dismay and asked for macaroni-cheese, not this flattened momo stuff. It reminds you of the reactions to Indian nouvelle cuisine—where did the butter chicken go? Or the reactions to delicate Cantonese Chinese or the introduction of lethal Sichuan peppers: this was so not the chopsuey we knew and loved. Or sashimi, even, where people shuddered at the thought of eating raw fish. And what you love about your chef friends is that so many years later, some of them famous, some of them TV superstars, this is still what it comes down to for them. The love of feeding people, of making them taste something once new, now familiar, and feel replete.

Whether it’s Madhu Menon making braised pork for a crowd, or Ritu Dalmia—on this occasion—leaning her elbow on the table, watching our expressions, our reactions as we settle into the kind of openness and comfort that only good food can bring about among strangers, this compulsion to make people happy at the table is a chef thing. I’ve had stunningly inventive meals and spectacularly memorable ones. But there’s nothing like settling down to a meal where the chef’s goal isn’t to impress you—it’s to make you happy.

The ravioli is handmade, plump, buttery, the walnuts flash-fried to crispness, an elegant restaurant dish. And yet it comes from the same family as the store pasta I’ve eaten in so many friend’s kitchens: food intended to restore and comfort, cooked with simplicity and love.

Food: Following Fish

(Published in the Business Standard, June 2010, in the food column)

The arguments against fish are many, especially in a north Indian city like Delhi. Fish is bony — often, in fact, the tastier the fish, the bonier it is. Its fragrance is persistent, and for some, too pungent to handle. Meat is relatively easy to understand; the subtleties of buying fish change from coastline to coastline and can take a lifetime to master.

I rarely order fish in Delhi, which is in keeping with my position of mild apostasy on fish — heretical in a Bengali family. While my sister ate her way through fishheads, whole gunmetal pabda and chunks of hilsa, I had to be fed fish by stealth: mashed, in a fiery mustard chutney. It was only as an adult that I realised why I didn’t like fish — the dislike stemmed from a kind of austere, demanding love.

Eating freshly caught and flash-fried bhekti in the Sunderbans on a river boat was a pleasure; I tucked into karimeen with gusto in Palakkad; tackled a tiny, grimly bony but delicious fish curry in Goa; and ate my way through the fish platter at the once-legendary Ananthashram in Bombay, demanding second helpings. It was the freshness that counted; my palate will tolerate mediocre hamburger or frozen prawns, but seems to jib at anything less than absolutely fresh, perfectly cooked fish.

For all fish apostates — or inadvertent gourmands — I have one recommendation: read Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast (Penguin, Rs 250). This is not just good travel and food writing — as Samanth travels in search of hilsa in Bengal, toddy shop fish curry in Kerala, trawls through fishing communities and examines the live fish treatment for asthma in Hyderabad, he will revive your curiosity and your appetite.

Having a great fish meal requires a lack of embarrassment on the part of the diner (unless you’re eating the standard sole fillet in butter sauce, or sashimi), and while some clubs, restaurants and five-stars serve good fish, your best meals are likely to be in far more humble places. Canteens in Mumbai, shacks in Goa, toddy shops in Kerala, hole-in-the-wall outlets in Kolkata can and do offer meals that rival anything you’d find in the fine dining line.

Eating at Narayan’s in Mangalore, Samanth falls in love with the restaurant’s trademark masala, “the masala that aggregated in fried lumps on the circulating tray like spicy, red snowdrifts”. The thali is served; he works his way through the seer, sardines and ladyfish, then stands next to the kitchen — “simply sniffing at the frying masala on the tawa, deep-breathing fanatically, trying to fill my lungs with enough aroma to last the day”. Travelling in the Kanyakumari district, he meets food maven Jacob Aruni, who introduces him to fish podi, a dried fish powder used like the gunpowder podis, mixed with rice and ghee.

Aruni’s dried mackerel podi, writes Samanth, “looked like powdery jaggery, speckled white in places with coconut, and it had a deep, spicy aroma, shot through with the strong presence of fish. Tasted raw, it races to the back of your throat and proceeds to set your tonsils on fire… They were mackerel with character, bursting out of their envelope of spice like strong actors out of a crowded script.”

When he’s not learning how to eat hilsa, or searching for the perfect, elusive fish curry of childhood memory, Samanth is a wonderful guide to the changing, threatened lives of today’s fishermen, to boat-building yards and the diverse histories of the Portuguese and the Dutch in India.

Two days after reading Following Fish, I found myself in one of Delhi’s small, local markets, searching for hilsa roe and mackerel. The places where you get great fish, rather than cottony, deep-freeze fillets with all the appeal of wilted lettuce, in this city are few but worth browsing, from Andhra Bhavan to Gunpowder, Ploof to Pan Asian, Dakshin to Ai. But if you don’t find yourself drawn to the fishmarkets and then to the spice merchants, and then back to your kitchen to cook after reading Following Fish, I will undertake to travel to Hyderabad and swallow a live murrel, despite my lack of asthma.

Food: India’s national dish


(Published in Outlook, January 11, 2010. I had a wonderful sparring match with a foodie friend where we both agreed that India’s national dish should be dal–but that since there’s no chance of agreeing on what kind of dal, I said I’d stick with the choice of the masses.)

In Looking Through Glass, Mukul Kesavan exhibited the classic cunning of the Indian intellectual. Faced with the question of naming a national dish, his narrator ducks and suggests instead a tricolour banquet, with delicacies drawn from various regions across the country.

It’s a clever and diplomatic solution, given the alternative. Scotland’s national dish, haggis, pays obeisance to that country’s sheep-rearing past, by stuffing sheep’s intestines with oatmeal, mixed meat and blood. (Scotland’s unofficial dish is technically vegetarian, but is considered culinary barbarity—Mars bars, coated in batter and deep-fried.)

Foie gras is for political and other reasons not officially part of France’s heritage, but in 2005, the country announced that goose livers, however unpalatable to the animal rights brigade, were to be considered part of its proud culinary heritage—by law. And several countries across the Middle East proudly claim credit for being the first to serve sheep’s eyeballs to (suffering) visitors. (They’re mentioned in passing in the Arabian Nights.)

If we were to follow suit, we might find ourselves ransacking the Nimat-namah and other medieval cookbooks for peacock recipes, economically combining the demand for a national dish with the presence of a national bird. There’s an ancient Rajput recipe for goat stuffed with peacock, while the ingredients for a banquet in Jahangir’s time lists the quantity of gold leaf required to coat a hundred roasted peacocks, along with helpful suggestions on how to place the feathers back on the cooked bird for maximum presentation points.

But tricolour peacock pate or biryani is destined never to grace our August 15 tables. In one sense, it fulfils all the requirements of a national dish: it’s an equal-opportunity shocker, guaranteed to offend vegetarians of all religious persuasions, environmentalists and bleeding heart liberals. Given the fragility of these sentiments, a wise writer of this sort of article would hastily remove it from her hypothetical menu, before the guardians of India’s cultural traditions start rumbling ominously.

Why do we need a national dish in the first place? It’s a good question. Given that this is a country where a tiny shift in dialect can be enough to split a state, and where arguments continue over whether clubs in the 21st century shouldn’t wake up to the fact that the British have left the building and allow its members to sport dhotis, the debate over what would be the perfect national dish is bound to be fraught. And in India, given the number of contenders from biryani-pulao to tandoori chicken to bhelpuri to dosas and parathas—and the infinite variety of regional variations—we could spark off the desi version of the Boston Tea Party: the Indian Chai and Curry Riots.

Even Wikipaedia, that unfailing source of dubious information and debatable facts, sensibly shies away from naming India’s national dish in its otherwise long list of what’s on the world’s tables—though it does, tentatively, offer chai/ lassi as our national drink. (Thereby offending, and uniting, kapi drinkers across the country, whether they take their brew French-press style or in time-honoured filter fashion.)

This should be simple enough. Given that biryani, pulao and khichdi are part of the Indian palate, and that a rough three-fifths of the world’s nations have some kind of rice dish as their national favourite, surely we can anoint some combination of rice-and-veggies or rice-and-meat? Not so. Aside from the fact that wheat-eating regions will have their sentiments damaged, there’s the tricky question of which recipe you choose. The classic, plain vanilla dal-and-rice khichdi has over 60 variations. Choosing a Lucknawi biryani over the Hyderabadi kacchi biryani over say, a classic coastal seer fish biryani is beyond my capabilities—and we haven’t even got to the pulaos yet.

The same issues crop up with almost every dish you might offer. Bhelpuri is present in most regions of the country, as is its predecessor, the humble dalmoth mixture—but Bombay claims the bhel, which makes it far too urban a dish, and it is almost absent from the further reaches of North India. The ubiquitous bread omelette seems, at first glance, to be a unifier—it’s the hostel food of necessity across the country—but it contains eggs, alienating most of sattvik and pavitra India, and is, to the best of my knowledge, unsanctified by tradition and unmentioned in the Vedas.

The samosa seems promising—but then we would have to acknowledge the possibility that it’s actually the sambusak, brought into India by marauding traders who borrowed this from their travels along the spice route. Even the khichdi is tainted by the British insistence on adding flaked fish and hard-boiled eggs to a much drier rice-dal blend, and renaming it kedgeree. It’s hard to escape the alien taint, whichever way you look.

History revisionists, and apologists for the tendency of heartland Bharat to ignore the North-East, might urge that we adopt either the momo or chowmein, both of which have travelled well around the country, and been forgiving of adaptation. Chowmein, in particular, should please the post-liberalisation generation. Instant noodles were for a brief while in the 1980s the most identifiable, and affordable, signal of a new modernity, and feminists might argue that Maggi did more to free women from the drudgery of domestic work than a thousand scholarly rants. But chowmein isn’t as ubiquitous across India as, say, the equally alien import of the pizza is in America: it fails the Railway Station test, which requires that any national dish be by and large available at most of the stations of the cross from Kanyakumari to Kashmir.

Given the complexities of the problem, why can’t we do without a national dish? The answer, in one word: curry. As generations of Indian food historians from the venerable K T Achaya onwards have pointed out, there is technically no such dish as curry. There’s a curry leaf; there are different kinds of curry powders and masalas, though these must not be confused with the post-Raj abomination known as Madras Curry Powder; and you might admit at a pinch that to curry a dish is to use a combination of specific cooking techniques.

The problem is that given our reluctance to anoint a national dish, we’re stuck with a non-existent version—the phantom Indian curry. In the popular foreign imagination, a dish of curry is pretty much the way the ambassador to Jahangir’s court, Thomas Roe, described it: a mess of spices in an inexplicable gravy. Roe redeemed himself by noting the plethora of sauces that went into the makings of different kinds of curry, but to the world at large, “curry” conveys the sense of a kind of spicy, mouth-burning hodge-podge.

The UK adds insult to injury by dubbing any Indian meat dish with a fiery, coconut-infused gravy a “vindaloo”, causing the ghosts of Portuguese seafarers past to turn in their graves. And a recent survey in the UK revealed that chicken tikka masala rivals fish n’ chips in popularity as the national dish. This might seem like the revenge of the empire, but consider this a moment: the CTM was invented by a cook in a Bangladeshi restaurant and its main ingredients include Campbell’s tomato soup. To settle for curry, conjuring up in most minds this bastardised concoction, would be to insult India’s centuries-old culinary tradition most grievously.

That leaves an insidious staple, as popular as the bread-omelette, more ubiquitous than the chowmein, found in pre-Mughal if not quite Harappan India. The dosa has crept into our lives in a quiet revolution, a stealthy and entirely bloodless coup. It can be found in dhabas in the Himalayas, stuffed with exotic ingredients in five-star restaurants—no one has yet invented the black truffle dosa, but some of us bet that this is only a matter of time. It can be stuffed with paneer, or with chicken and keema fillings for the unregenerate carnivore, but it’s the masala dosa that flies its flag across India.

And best of all, it is guaranteed to offend everyone equally north and south of the Vindhyas; the true Chettinad or Syrian Christian purist finds the masala dosa an abomination, and the North Indian culinary enthusiast is horrified at the pan-national appeal of this South Indian invention. You can even, experimenting with spinach and carrot fillings, create a suitably tricolour masala dosa, while retaining the potato stuffing that is the trademark of the true Udipi stalwart. We can continue to argue over the rest of the menu for a genuinely nationalist Indian banquet, but for the moment, the dosa gets my vote.

Apologies and a nibble: English vegetables, desi steak

(Haven’t had time to update the blog for a while–my apologies. Here’s a place-holder–an essay on food, written in 2003, that I thought I’d lost. Enjoy.)

Galangal and lemon grass were piled up in hillocks. The mushrooms were fresh and came in four varieties-white, dried dhingri, dried shitaake and dried, slightly dubious porcini. “Maydum,” said my old faithful vegetable seller, “aur bhi fresh-fresh aaye hain.” I came back with the usual urban load of fancy ghaas-phoos: borkoli, snaw piss, red peepers, aspagragrass — and with a phrase reverberating in my head. English vegetables.

As opposed to desi veggies. My father-in-law had used it first, in appreciation of a dish of babycorn and red peppers tossed with hing, jeera and fried onions: “Aamar,” he had said in Bangla, on the only visit he ever made to our house, before the cancer made travel difficult, “English vegetables khub bhalo laagey.”

It was a winter evening and as I mechanically sorted, made mental menus and stashed my load of exotica away, I found myself counting the absences. The day before Diwali is when Bengali households celebrate by lighting fourteen lamps and cooking a mixture of fourteen kinds of saag. This year I’d made up the quota with the usual greens — palak, methi, lal saag; and some less usual ones — bok choy, watercress. (My conscience cavilled that watercress was not saag. I rejoined that I didn’t have all day to shop, and that watercress was peppery, green and leafy — ergo, close enough to saag not to make a difference.)

I slowed when I hauled out a bunch of carrots: orange, like the ones in the ‘phoren’ picture books for children, and tasteless, unlike the deep red, hairy, indigenous varieties that were increasingly hard to locate. Mulberries and phalsa had been equally hard to find in the summer gone by. In the fancy markets, English vegetables were easier to get than ever before; the old, desi roots-and-tubers stuff harder to come by, barring a few limited staples.

***

Ten years ago, at the Calcutta Club, I’d eavesdropped on a conversation happening two tables away. “These Phrench Phries,” complained a man in a Bong-Yank accent, “they are bherry limp. Not like the ashol jinish, the real thing, at all.” “It is the potatoes, Alok da,” said his companion gravely. “Until India learns to grow potatoes like the Idaho variety, we cannot sample the authentic Phrench Phry.” One chewed on a relatively inoffensive steak, whose authenticity had not been called into question, while the other contemplated, with solemn displeasure, the unworthy impostor on the plate. Together they managed to convey the impression that what to my untutored palate was a perfectly reasonable alu-bhaja would never make the passing grade as even third-rank Phrench Phries.

That was before the Hindutva brigade discovered that the two ingredients you need for the perfect Phrench Phry were: a) the humble potato raised to the standard set by the Idaho variety and b) distinctly unsacred but tasty beef tallow as the frying fat. Or the Phrying Phat. Either way, it was only a short while before, for McDonalds and company, the Phat was well and truly in the Phire.

***

That evening, as I chopped red peppers, cucumber and tomatoes for a last summer gazpacho before winter set in and drove me to the comfort of hot soups and plain dal-bhaat, the German laser knives someone had gifted me felt wrong in the hand, their weight suddenly awkward. Setting them aside, I came up with a chopper set on a wooden board that a friend had brought down from New York. It made swift work of the Spanish onions and the peppers, and I remembered the pride with which he’d told me that this was the very “offset serrated blade” praised by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential.

I’d reached the tomatoes and the last of the twilight was shading into smog when the sleekly post-modern lines of my New York-imported offset serrated blade blurred into another, more familiar image. Take away the jargon, and my chopping equipment stood revealed as a boti — the raised blade set on a rough piece of board that’s ubiquitous in Bengal and most of India. The boti retails at the equivalent of $2 or less; my offset serrated Bourdain-approved blade sells for $130 in some California stores.

The kitchen stood revealed as a cross-cultural minefield. The antique Italian peppermill, a gift handed down by my mother-in-law, used by her mother in the days when the possession of such an item conveyed an aura of world citizenship on the user, is employed in our house to grind saunf and roasted jeera. The silver salad set and the silver toast rack we received as wedding presents are forlorn white elephants: there is no butler to polish them, I prefer wooden salad sets anyway, and we are a toast-averse household. Jars of dried Italian herbs sit side-by-side with various masalas, bought whole once a month, roasted at home and freshly ground. The dried Provence and other herbs taste like…crumbly green flakes. Just as we inveigh against “curry powder”, there being no such beast in the Indian culinary lexicon, I imagine a brigade of forlorn Italians raising their voices to the heavens in protest against the use of tasteless flakes instead of the fresh herbs from the garden the original recipes demand.

I know that this discomfort is inherited, a family legacy. As with bloodlines and songlines, if you follow the tangled skein of foodlines far back enough, you may discover truths about yourself. Uncomfortable truths; but truths, all the same.

***

In my mother’s house and my grandmother’s house, meals came in two varieties: Indian and English. Indian was self-explanatory: in Didima’s house, it featured the best of Bengali cuisine, with a detour down the cosmopolitan byways of a Brahmo household. In my mother’s Delhi house, the delicate spicing of classic Bengali cuisine collided with the in-your-face punch of North Indian cuisine. It was one of those marriages that worked, against all reason.

In both households, however, the English meals followed the same pattern. Vegetables were boiled to within an inch of their lives, more occasionally lightly steamed with lemon butter; glorious jeera-spiked versions of white sauce alternated ominously with “bakes” distinguished by listless curls of Amul cheese. Cabbage was served up in thick, tasteless wedges that resembled steamed cotton wool, but sometimes it received the fusion blessing of coconut and mustard seeds with a dash of malt vinegar, all added Anglo-Indian style to the crisply shredded and only barely blanched vegetable. But the crowning sleight-of-hand came with the Roast: mutton roasted on coal fires, served with tasty but gluey “gravy”. It was years before I realised that this wasn’t even mutton dressed up as lamb: it was mutton dressed up as lamb pretending to be the forbidden meat, beef.

The sacred cow occupied a slightly ambiguous position in our household. It was perfectly all right to go out to five-star restaurants and order a steak, since it was understood that hotel steak was godless, procured from an atheist cow. This polite fiction was maintained even in the face of the knowledge that most (atheist?) steak-providing cows in Delhi were actually (agnostic?) buffaloes.

In Calcutta, conversely, beef was acceptable except if you had especially religious-minded Hindu relatives coming over for dinner, and even then occasionally passed off in extremis as innocuous mutton. If the record states that we were responsible for corrupting good Hindu souls, so be it; but add that they thoroughly enjoyed what they were eating, so long as they were allowed to do so in ignorance. The sturdy Brahmo steaks Didima cooked were seasoned with crushed pepper, fried onions, grapes, and of course, a delicious guilt.

But families change, and so did mine, eschewing red meat apparently for reasons to do with cholesterol. Once I organised an impromptu family lunch — several decades after our five-star steaks and our Calcutta beefsteaks. The potato salad and curried mushrooms went down well, but the plate of steak — cooked medium-rare, so that its pink juices oozed balefully out — lay accusingly on the table while everyone politely ate the takeaway tandoori chicken we’d ordered as a backup. It was a small thing, but it pointed at a rift, indicated that at least in matters of what we were or weren’t willing to put into our bodies, my family and I had gone in different directions.

***

Between these two extremes, the Indian lunches and the English dinners, lay a third path, not moderate but iconoclastic. It was provided by my Thakurma, who travelled from household to household along with her husband until she and Thakurda established a kind of metronomic movement between my father’s house and his younger brother’s house. There were two other brothers, but one lived in inaccessible Air Force cantonments, dots on the map of India. The other had married a practising Wiccan who convinced him that he was actually the bastard of a royal family, fostered out in my Thakurma’s household. Ignoring the evidence presented by the family nose, the very distinctive protuberance that was replicated faithfully on the physiognomy of all the brothers, he elected in the interests of marital peace to disown his natural family.

Having Thakurma and Thakurda to stay was no penance: one was the source of magical stories, the other of practical wisdom. Besides, Thakurma’s culinary contributions were of the subversive kind. She cooked everything forbidden by the dentist and took absolutely no notice of family preferences, convinced — correctly — that her skill in the kitchen would overcome all resistance.

We had an early skirmish over fish, which, in repudiation of my Bengali roots, I refused to eat. A galvanised iron tub of catfish was a permanent presence in the kitchen; I named each whiskered creature and was told that the ones missing every night had gone on a trip, and never connected the maacher jhol on my plate with the straying travellers. Aside from catfish, though, I flatly refused to eat anything else from river or sea.

Wiser than my mother, who was on the losing end of a running feud with a ten-year-old’s stubbornness, my Thakurma retreated from the battlefield. When my suspicions had been lulled, she greeted me with nimkis and an addictive mashed, pickled thing that I instantly loved. It was smooth; spiced to perfection with mustard oil; had a taste that brought the sea into my mouth; I thought she’d wrought magic with the humble potato. When she confessed that I’d been eating non-catfish fish for eight days without protest, I flew into an absolute rage. It’s only now that I can acknowledge her triumph: not only did she make me eat what I hated, she made me love it. In the war between my prejudices and my tastebuds, she won.

As the years went by, the two households were tossed around. My Kaka went abroad; we spent six years shifting from house to house in Delhi while my father was posted in Calcutta. In that period of collective rootlessness, my grandparents shared our refugee status. Sometimes with us, sometimes not, depending on the size of the house my resourceful mother, lumbered with three rambunctious children, could find.

All the places we stayed in then had a common feature: the pre-shrunk kitchen. Instead of the large, roomy spaces we’d grown up with, we had to accommodate ourselves to closets with a stove bunged in. Thakurma’s repertoire of sweets, which ranged from malpoa to payesh, from sandesh to labango latika, from layered patishaptas with their filling of coconut and raisins to narkeler nadu, shrank in tandem.

Perhaps we noticed, perhaps we didn’t. My sister and I had discovered liqueur chocolates, one of the many dazzling items that we knew of only as articles brought back from the amorphous land called Abroad. My mother walked in to find her daughters replete with chocolate, but with no signs of a liqueur hangover. “There was smelly water inside,” my sister explained. “We threw it away and ate the rest.” The kitchen sink reeked of assorted liqueurs for days, until our cook poured quantities of yeast down the drain. The sink continued stinking, but now in a familiar as opposed to exotic way.

I do remember, despite the lure of biscuits from Paris (they tasted disappointingly like Britannia biscuits) and then-exotic Toblerone, that Thakurma kept up the tradition in exile with a token offering. Sometimes it was alu-bhaja for tea, flaunting their swadeshi flavour in stubborn denial of conquering alien tastes—Thakurma never ate a McDonald’s French Fry in her life, and wouldn’t have felt that she’d missed out on much. More usually, she’d pull out a battered Dalda tin which contained moas — the lightest of confections, puffed rice held together with melted jaggery. When they returned to live with us, the tin smartened up, courtesy the birth of my brother, Dalda giving way to shiny blue Lactogen.

But the habit remained; though she made patishaptas and channar-payesh once in a while, it was Thakurma’s moas that flavoured those years of our childhood. They provided a rare thread of continuity in those years of evictions and constantly changing schoolbus routes, of exoduses where my mother lead the way like a new Moses, appealing to our sense of adventure as we moved yet again, me lying in a malarial haze at the back of the lumbering black Ambassador, my baby brother stolidly holding the TV aerial out of one car window like a conquering flag and my sister perched on a pile of rugs and cushions in the front passenger seat.

***

“Would you like to see our ovens?” asked the chef of a snazzy new Italian restaurant, just opening in Delhi. “They’re wood-fired.” I heard the pride in his voice and followed gladly into the inner reaches of the kitchen. Men and women in chef’s whites, tocques clapped smartly on their heads, shaped loaves, prepared duck’s breasts for roasting, checked a brace of guinea hens. The ovens were huge, industrial sized. The doors were deliberately unpainted, in a designer way meant to indicate rustic charm. They were large, and as they clanged open, twin odours of meat, from one, and bread, from the other, were released in fragrant clouds.

A beaming assistant yanked freshly baked foccaccia out of the oven and deftly assembled accompaniments of virgin olive oil, pesto and sundried tomatoes. Another platter contained zucchini, cherry tomatoes and other English vegetables in a raspberry-vinegar reduction. “For you,” he said. “To taste.” The bread smelled divine. And I knew that if I so much as tried to take a bite, I would vomit.

Three years ago, I had accompanied my father to the electric crematorium on Ring Road, braving the raised eyebrows of well-meaning North Indian friends who felt that women had no place in that temple to death. But the woman we were about to cremate was the first feminist I’d ever met in my life; it was because of her that my mother had become a lawyer, well into middle age, instead of remaining a housewife. It was because I’d seen her writing short stories that I was trying to earn a living with hack journalism instead of marrying some rich guy and doing ikebana arrangements around the house. The least I could do was show up to say goodbye.

The electric crematorium, with its bare stage for relatives to say a few words, do a few last rites, reminded me of the many knocked-together arenas where exiled Bengalis would gather during the Pujas to put on bad, histrionic, nostalgic plays. My grandmother’s body looked very light; those who raised her bier didn’t have to strain.

She had died in the sterile, impersonal space of a hospital ward, instead of in her own bed at home. She and her husband had remained eternal refugees, first from Bangladesh and then from Orissa; the small patch of land she had tried to buy and claim as her own outside Delhi was mired in an interminable legal tangle. The only space they’d had was the space they’d carved out inside our lives, and that was huge, unpartitioned, beyond all boundaries.

I joined the avalanche of mourners who’d shown up for Thakurma’s funeral, realising for the first time how many lives she’d touched. From my father’s colleagues, who had often sat down to chat with ‘Mataji’, to the vegetable seller, to my friends, to her own friends — they were all here, in tacit tribute to a life fuller than we’d thought possible.

The furnace at the electric crematorium is built like a Dutch oven. After the final rites have been performed, the eldest son steps forward and breaks the skull of his parent with a stick. Some say this frees the spirit; a dourly realistic friend told me briskly that this prevents the skull from exploding in the intense heat of the flames. “One doesn’t want,” she said, “bits of one’s brains going off any old where.”

My Thakurma lay on the platform in front of the oven. There was a final muttered prayer, a clang, the platform slid first forward and then with surprising speed, backward as the door to the furnace opened. She went in head first, her eyes closed, and before the door swung shut again I saw her head and then her torso haloed by flames.

On the plate held out by the assistant chef, I imagined I could smell wood ashes, burning flesh, crisped bones. His smile was beginning to slip a little; the staff was beginning to look a trifle questioning. In place of the focaccia, I thought I could see my Thakurma’s fair, wrinkled, only slightly mottled flesh, beginning to sear. The door of the restaurant’s brand-new, state-of-the-art wood-fired oven clanged again, as someone pulled out the duck breast au jus.

I took a deep breath and inhaled scents from the past: the talcum-and-damp-newsprint smell of old age, incense, the harsingar flowers Thakurma used for her daily puja, the faint aroma from the John Exshaw brandy she drank in ladylike quantities, that last whiff of burning hair and flesh.

“Thank you,” I said, tearing a chunk off the Italian bread. I dipped it in olive oil and ate, not knowing quite what I was devouring — flesh, flour, a memory, the present. Whatever it was, it stayed down.