(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.