Is it taste that’s important each time we savor our favorite dishes? What do we look for in every bite? Is it the right concoction of spices and meat or vegetables? Should it be cooked and served in traditional vessels? Is it the texture and the color? Or is there something more?
I have come to realize over the last few years that there is something more than just taste. We crave the strong wave of nostalgia that brushes our mind, body, and soul like the evening breeze. If made right, that first bite brings back fondest memories of the dish. And these memories, they come with such force. Hitting you gently at first, then rushing through you, making you feel warm all over. You close your eyes and begin to travel back to that time. Disconnected from reality, you float away into your past. You chew carefully so that all senses and taste buds in your mouth are awake and active. You savor every flavor, every element in that bite as you relive a distinct memory. You take slow deep breaths while you let the taste linger in your mouth. Your eyes still closed, you spend a few seconds meditating on the taste in your mouth before you take the next bite.
Taste is not what makes it perfect. You remember a certain smell, a certain color, a certain ingredient. There is also the location, the people and the setting you ate it in. Like the red-orange of Panna Upkari made in an earthen pot. The smell of Sukkal Sungat (dried prawns) wafting through the house. The hing (asafoetida) in the Dalitoy. Kori Rotti eaten on those white Corelle plates. Most of the dishes I prefer to make it my mom’s way but there are exceptions. Again, it is not their recipe that makes it perfect. It is the people themselves and the memories that I want to relive. Like Mamama’s (maternal grandma) Vison (seer fish) fry, my aunt’s prawns hing curry with white rice, Amma’s prawn pulao, buns from Mohini Vilas, Devastana (temple) Saaru, etc. There is a picture connected with each meal in my brain. A vivid image of the scene in which I enjoyed the meal. The round steel plate, the afternoon sunlight, the wooden dining table. There are a few traditions associated with others. Like the morning after an overnight bus journey from Bangalore, breakfast always meant food from Mohini Vilas. Idli/Dosa and buns all wrapped in banana leaves and newspapers, and then tied with a string.
One can recreate every item from Thera Jevan (Annual Car Festival celebrated in Mangalore), use the same recipe even but it won’t taste the same. Because it is not just the taste that makes it right. It is the atmosphere, the mahol (ambiance in Hindi). Women in saris and jewelry, the conversations, the sticky floors, sitting cross-legged, volunteers running around with hot, heavy vessels, screaming/asking to make way.
When I was younger, I wondered why older people always reminisced about the past. “Oh, the fun we had in our days. Things have changed. Those were the good old days”, they would say. I never understood it then. I decided that these people are just stuck in the past and don’t want to accept change. Because the new days, the present seemed fun to me. I was younger, naive. Now here I am, cooking my favorite dishes just so I can taste the 90s again. Simpler times, when electronic gadgets had not yet taken over our lives and time. When I try to recreate these dishes in my little kitchen, I try to add the right spices and ingredients. I look through recipe books, ask my mom for tips. I taste test as I cook. I try to make it just right, just the way I remember it. Even after all that if I feel it is lacking a little something, I add a sprinkling of fond memories.
And that seems to make all the difference.
Sunday evening here corresponds to Monday morning in India. Every Sunday evening, in spite of the Monday blues kicking in, I get a little excited. This is because Pragati (which is currently my favorite online magazine) publishes a slew of articles every Monday. And so, on Sunday I begin to look forward to reading these new articles during the week. Since The Return of Pragati, I have voraciously consumed everything they have published. The editor of Pragati,
The editor of Pragati, Amit Varma, also hosts a podcast called The Seen and The Unseen. This is an excellent podcast and I have listened to all the episodes so far. What I like about both the magazine and the podcast is that they are simple and minimal in design. Your reading or listening experience is not crowded by unnecessary noise. Noise such as clutter and pop-ups in the case of the website, terrible recordings in the case of audio.
In every episode of the podcast, the host talks to a guest about a certain topic. Most of the topics are about policy changes and reforms in India. The duration of the podcast is short, about 30 minutes or so. The discussion itself is civil and well-defined. They don’t stray away from the topic and the entire conversation is easy on your ears. Compare this with another podcast I listen to, Cyrus Says. Cyrus Says is entertaining and humorous. But the host interrupts the guests several times during the conversation. It gets frustrating especially when the guest is in the middle of narrating an interesting anecdote. The interruption causes them to derail to a different topic and the anecdote is forgotten. I am left wondering about what happens in the end and usually just make up a conclusion. This repeats during the entire episode. I learn the first half of a lot of stories and the mysterious second halves are forgotten and never brought up again. On multiple occasions, I could not bear listening to the entire episode because the conversation feels like a bumpy ride in peak hour traffic. You think it’s going great, you pick up speed and then you get stuck at a light and nothing moves for five minutes.
The Seen and The Unseen is a meaningful conversation between two individuals. The audio is clear and the information provided is excellent. At the end of the episode, I don’t feel stressed out. I can easily listen to the podcast while commuting. The volume levels are perfect and it almost feels like informative meditation.
The articles on their website also seem to be written in a similar vein. The website design is minimal and easy on the eyes. The articles are simple, informative, well edited, clear and easy to read. I haven’t come across any other website (about India and Indian affairs) that is such a pleasure to read. Please do recommend if you know any.
So, if you haven’t done it already, go subscribe to both the magazine and the podcast. I highly recommend it!
I would not call myself as either a coffee person or a tea person. I don’t need caffeine to wake me up. Most of the time water and some fresh air does the job. Coffee is an occasional treat that I enjoy a few times every week. But tea I seem to drink quite often. Only because my husband needs his morning cup of masala chai and I like to give him company. We enjoy our morning routine where we sip our teas in contemplative silence. It is actually my favorite part of the day. Five years ago if someone asked me to choose between tea and coffee, I would have picked coffee. No two minds about that. But my tastes have changed since then. I now enjoy both tea and coffee. What beverage I pick depends on my mood at that instant.
In spite of not being too fond of coffee or tea, I am extremely fond of coffee shops. Especially indie, local stores that have a lot of seating space. I don’t care about the coffee itself. It does not matter if the coffee is roasted and ground in front of me, or if it’s an exotic blend. I like to get a cappuccino and mull over life for a few hours at these cafes. I usually take along with me a book to read or a notebook to write on. I also enjoy watching people and unintentionally catching bits of their conversations. I feel coffee shops provide a conducive environment for any kind of creative activity.
But I don’t know what it is about the coffee shops that I love. I know a lot of people enjoy working at a cafe instead of a traditional office. I have been trying to understand why it’s so. If all I am going to do is sit alone and write or read, why can’t I just do it at home? Why do I prefer sitting at a busy cafe?
Maybe it is the smell of coffee. I do love the aroma of a good coffee. Maybe it is the music. Coffee shops tend to play the best music: the kind that is perfect for day dreaming and journal writing.
Maybe it is the monotonous background noise. The hum of the coffee grinder, the clinking of pots, pans, and mugs. Add to that a sprinkling of hushed and animated conversations with the occasional laughter. Noizio even has a track called “Coffee Shop”. It works great for days when you can’t go to a cafe.
I found an NYTimes article on this topic. It is titled “How the hum of a coffee shop can boost creativity“. This is what it says,
In a series of experiments that looked at the effects of noise on creative thinking, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had participants brainstorm ideas for new products while they were exposed to varying levels of background noise. Their results, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, found that a level of ambient noise typical of a bustling coffee shop or a television playing in a living room, about 70 decibels, enhanced performance compared with the relative quiet of 50 decibels.
A higher level of noise, however, about 85 decibels, roughly the noise level generated by a blender or a garbage disposal, was too distracting, the researchers found.
Well, that makes perfect sense to me, the noise level at a coffee shop is ideal for creative work and this has been scientifically proven. I get a lot of writing done at busy coffee shops. The first draft of this article was written at a coffee shop! Now I have an excuse to spend more time at my favorite coffee shop.
I went to watch a concert in the woods today. The music was lovely and I had a great time. This is something I wrote during the concert.
Hot summer afternoon
The breeze, soft and scarce
Amidst the trees
On the wet grass
Sunglasses, hot and burning
Like my cheeks
Waiting for the sun to go down
The other side of the trees.
The music falls and rises
With the breeze
The drop of sweat that was trickling
down the forehead
Stops and begins
A slow dance down
The side of my head
As if dancing to the music
Slow here, flat there
And then falling sharply
Like the symphony.
Doesn’t taste good?
Fry the thing
In hot oil
If it still tastes bad
Add some cheese
And set it to broil.
I saw a video about Malleswaram on Facebook a few days back. I was at once nostalgic and also saddened. Nostalgic because Malleshwaram is special. It is where I was born and where I have spent many (maybe all) vacations as a kid. Saddened because the video reminded me about how Malleshwaram has changed over the years. Gentrification and urbanization have changed much of the population and culture of Bangalore. A few old restaurants and parks have survived the turn of the millennium. They are now famous as the relics of old Bangalore. Places such as CTR, Veena Stores, and Janatha Hotel are common on lists such as this. I hated Janatha Hotel as a kid, but now I want to visit these places. I want to eat the food there while I complain about how Bangalore has lost its old charm and how it is no longer the same. All this, while I eat authentic dosa and chow-chow bath, the same food that I thought was yucky when I was twelve. These places are all emblems of old Bangalore, the Bangalore of my childhood. But is Bangalore of the 80s and the 90s, the authentic one?
Malleshwaram is where my mother grew up. She probably reminisces about a different Bangalore . A Bangalore that is not the city I knew as a kid. It was greener and cooler, Kannada was commonplace and spoken with a lot more fervor than it is now. If you ask someone who grew up in Bangalore in the 40s or 50s, I am certain they will talk about yet another setting and culture. Four random Bangaloreans can be chosen from four different decades. They will all be equally nostalgic about the city of their childhood. Yet, their image of what defines Bangalore and what makes it special will be different.
So then, what is authentic? These are some of the definitions I found:
1. Google defines authentic as
of undisputed origin; genuine.
2. Macmillan dictionary defines authentic as
traditional or original, or very similar to this
So, which Bangalore then, is the original one? How do you judge something like that? Is it getting less authentic over the years? When was it at its best? How far back in time do you go to find the true and authentic Bangalore?
These are a few questions that have been bothering me over the last couple of days. This is not just about Malleshwaram and Bangalore. It is about our food, fashion, language, and culture. How can you say that something is traditional and genuine when, in fact, it is all a result of a continuous change?
Let us consider, for example, authentic Indian cuisine. Chilies are an integral part of Indian food today. I am accustomed to eating spicy food. Food devoid of spices is bland and uninviting. My definition of authentic Indian cuisine is one that is spicy, among other things. But chilies did not originate in India. From the Wikipedia article for Chilli pepper,
Chili peppers originated in the Americas. After the Columbian Exchange, many cultivars of chili pepper spread across the world, used in both food and medicine. Chilies were brought to Asia by Portuguese navigators during the 16th century. India is the world’s biggest producer, consumer and exporter of chili peppers. Guntur in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh produces 30% of all the chilies produced in India. Andhra Pradesh as a whole contributes 75% of India’s chili exports.
Chilies were brought to India in the 16th century! So, if you time traveled to 1400 AD and asked for authentic food, there would be no chilies in it. Or potatoes. Or tomatoes. Yet, batata song and batata humman is authentic Konkani food today. Does that mean food eaten before the 15th century is less authentic? In the 15th century, people probably looked with distaste at the idea of using chilies in food. Just like how the older population views fast food franchises such as KFC and McDonalds today. Pizza, sandwiches, and cheese are not considered as Indian food. But that might be changing. Cheese was not at all common when I was growing up. Today it is making its way into all kinds of Indian delicacies. It is everywhere. At least, that is what all the street-food videos on YouTube tell me. I see street-food vendors making dishes such as cheese masala dosa, cheese pav bhaji, cheese veg seekh kabab, etc. These dishes seem to be common across various cities in India. Twenty years hence, cheese masala dosa might be a part of authentic Indian cuisine. Just like how chilies are today.
We like to justify to ourselves and others that our idea of authentic Bangalore is the right one. We say it refers to a time when Bangalore was flourishing and at its best. The good old days. But what do we mean when we say something is authentic? What do the “good old days” really refer to? And what is the real Indian cuisine?
The idea of something being authentic and original is relative. When we talk about our idea of the perfect Bangalore or the perfect masala dosa, we are heavily influenced by our family and friends. Our memories and mental bias, make things and places seem special and great. The authentic city of our childhood is the place where we enjoyed the most. It is where we have special moments that we would like to cherish. It is the city which has places and locations that we would like to freeze in time. We want to keep them pristine so that each time we visit that place we can relive our memories. We grow up and move to new cities. We accept new cultures. But when we visit the place where we grew up, we want it untouched. Always matching the picture in our head. The picture that means something only to us and nothing to those who don’t share our memories.
Kids growing up in Bangalore today, I am sure, love the place. In ten years, Bangalore will change again. (If this article is to be believed, Bangalore will be a dead city in five years.) Ten years later, if humans are still around, we can ask them about good ol’Bangalore. They will most definitely refer to the Bangalore we see today. Not the Bangalore of the 80s or the 60s or the 40s.
The point of all this is that change is the only thing that is constant. Languages, food, and culture as we know today, are all a result of constant change. They have evolved as people have moved across countries and continents. They have been influenced by wars and trade. And they continue to change. Nothing is truly authentic. If you go back in time to when the humans were hunter-gatherers, the authentic food was raw or burnt meat and berries. We should not develop rigid ideas about authentic food, tradition, and culture. We must embrace change and experiment and try new things. But in the process, we must not forget who we are or where we came from. Or how something as amazing as cheese masala dosa came to be. We must remember, learn and share all these stories of change.
I was looking through my older posts on the blog this morning. I came to realize that I don’t write as many poems these days as I used to. My blog was my corner of the internet to post poems and the occasional rant. Now it is the other way around. I rant more and write the occasional poem. I don’t feel like writing a poem as much as I used to.
I began wondering about this. I wanted to understand what had changed in the last year that made me write fewer poems. I thought about it for a while and I came to realize that there were two main reasons for this change.
One, over the last year I have become more comfortable writing articles (rants) on the blog. When I started blogging I wasn’t so sure. Why would anyone want to read these articles about nothing? But I decided that they help me with my writing skills (I think!). As a result, there have been more such articles.
The second reason is the most important one. The amount of time that I spend in quiet contemplation has reduced. What is this quiet contemplation, you ask? It is the time spent thinking and dreaming. Some would call it idle time or time wasted doing nothing. They are right, of course. Except that, here, doing nothing only refers to physical inactivity. The mind, on the other hand, is free to travel and cook up ideas, stories and poems. The mind is free to recollect and revisit emotions, conversations, books, and articles. The mind is free to go over anything that can inspire a few creative verses.
Such time is best enjoyed in silence and solitude. Until I graduated last May, I had a lot of time for quiet contemplation. As a graduate student, most of the time is spent studying and working on projects. Putting off papers and projects till the deadline is what students do. This frees up time. To justify the procrastination, one has to put effort elsewhere. For me, it was poetry. But since I started working, I’ve had little time to sit and do nothing. I moved closer to work and this cut short my travel time. Traveling alone is a huge catalyst for poetry and creative writing.
Writing is not easy. You cannot show up one day and expect the words to flow. A lot of writers lock themselves up in a room for a few hours every single day. By making it a habit, they improve their writing, and vocabulary over time. Early morning and late nights work well for writing. At least, they work well for me. I can even create similar environments during the rest of the day by playing soothing music in a quiet room. But I haven’t been doing any of that. Because I don’t have enough time. Rather, I haven’t been making sure I have enough time. And hence, the number of poems that I write in a month(good or otherwise) has reduced.
To get better at something, you have to make it a habit, do it every day. There is no easier way. You must allocate some time each day to just sit and write. One great poem usually follows many not- so-great ones. To churn out great work, one needs practice. Practice makes you perfect. If not perfect, it will definitely make you better.
Spending time in quiet contemplation is not just for writers. This time works well for anyone. It is relaxing and refreshing. Our lives are busy and we want to be as productive as possible. Doing nothing is not considered to be productive. But the mind needs this time. It is like a detox, cleansing of your thoughts.
You can incorporate quiet contemplation into your daily routine in many ways. For example, while watching the sun rise or set, sitting in a park, a cafe, or by the window. When done without gadgets it works great for the mind. I know it works for me. It is not easy to sit idly these days, but it is worth it the effort.
An Old Poem, One of my favorites.
Calls me closer
The gentle surface
of my palm
feels the curves and bends,
used to tiles and carpets:
relaxes against the cold and rough
It brings me peace,
hold so much
and through them
I see the light
That I came here for.