Comfort Food

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.

On Pragati – My favorite online magazine

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!

Post 30 – On Bangalore, cheese and the good ol’days

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.