Why Food?

In the middle of a particularly assiduous day working from home this week and racing to meet a deadline that day, I caught myself grating heaps of fresh ginger and garlic to marinate two glistening pink, wild caught salmon steaks. I had been thinking of the salmon since morning, intermittently through my morning cup of coffee and struggling through a dense research piece that I was writing for an academic journal. The decision to marinate the salmon steaks was almost involuntary and arguably quite unnecessary given the busyness of my day. And then, I had spent some time looking through marinades on the internet that morning and plotting my perfect and easy recipe even while wading through scores of work emails. In the midst of grating and deeply inhaling the fresh ginger, I thought of how much more productive my day could have been without the glistening salmon. Not only would I save time in preparing the marinade but I would also not have to rinse the dishes, properly stack my dishwasher and clean my kitchen after that. I consoled myself by thinking of a feature article that I had read in the newspaper that morning. “Eat fresh food and cook your own food!” the article had said. I never had thought that I had a choice to do otherwise, really. However, the prospect of lots of good Omega 3 oil in the salmon entering my body did manage to rationalize in some part my feelings of guilt about playing hooky from work with fish.

Last summer while talking to my friend R (the initiator of this blog) late at night at his house in Delhi over a delicious concoction of dark rum, fresh lime, a bit of soda and coke that he had whisked up, he suddenly said something to me that I have often remembered. “You know I am suspicious of people who don’t enjoy food. I think they are ‘niras’ in their lives,” he whispered. We admittedly may have been whispering because we were pleasantly enveloped in a lazy haze of cocktail and chat or because his three year old daughter was sleeping. I thought then that if I had to translate “niras” from Hindi, I would say that it is the absence of the life force. Recently when another friend started dating a seemingly interesting man, she was genuinely troubled by the fact that he did not enjoy food as much as she did. It signified something larger for her; an absence of sensuality, generosity, and a whole-hearted embracement of life itself.

Food forms a life force of so many of my memories and connections, a vital nerve connecting diverse people in my life over diverse spaces and times. When I first moved to Chicago in my mid-twenties and had to cook my everyday food, I realized that my body actually craved for fresh vegetables that I had grown up eating. My conversations with my mother in Kolkata became a medley of shared recipes and spices; cauliflower roast, stuffed green peppers/capsicum, eggplant in mustard sauce and cabbage with black pepper and a bit of flour. To this medley, I added my own discoveries in the US over the years and excitedly shared them with her. Roasted Brussels sprouts (who could know that they could taste so good!), the nutty Butternut Squash and the green leafy Broccoli raab with its unique slightly tangy kick. Then, there were the meat and fish dishes. One of my favorite memories with my then six year old niece in Australia is baking a yogurt cake together in Melbourne. I added the proportions of flour, baking powder, yogurt, oil, eggs, sugar and vanilla essence. She whisked them with great concentration, following my directions to get a loose mix that would be moist and occasionally licking her fingers. We both waited eagerly for the oven timer to go off, wanting to see how “our cake” had finally turned out.

Living in a small and quirky town in New England that is repeatedly in the news for its many fabulous restaurants and diverse cuisines has strengthened the significance of food in my world. My bonds with people have been a mixture of good conversation, new activities, and food. Hikes up several local hills here or walks through woody trails in Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson country are associated with fresh warm apple cider awaiting us at the end. My long walks each day, often inadvertently snowshoeing, has given me an unexpected appreciation of varieties of tea that are black, green and white. I learnt to bake from my Italian Linguist friend Ila while arguing about the importance of accents. I admired a friend from Indonesia who decided to cook a dried fish rice dish despite its strong and stubborn smell in her apartment for her birthday. I saw it as resistance to the often bland world of mainstream American cuisine and the perhaps accompanying paranoia about constant sanitary smells. When my friends E and M had us over for the holidays, they made an amazing roast beef that had cooked in the oven on low heat for ten hours. Its aroma interweaved its way through our gossip, debates and laughter. Living abroad away from “home” is often not easy and that choice comes with occasional discordant moments and interactions in our everyday lives. Inviting friends over, cracking open a bottle of good wine, and cooking and sharing some good food has translated into a space of connection and support for me through the years.

At the same time, I find myself increasingly drawn to ethical questions about food. Who grows our food? Why is the grower inevitably at the bottom of the food chain so to speak? Is it right to eat meat in the US when I know that its production is the result of a very cruel and exploitative meat industry? Do I turn vegetarian or what are the alternatives? A colleague here actually hunts his own meat, believing that it is a more humane way to eat meat! Then of course, there is the whole organic debate. The organic food movement largely benefits elite consumers in the US and excludes those who lack the resources to buy purer, more environmentally integrated food. While these questions can sometimes appear unnecessary to many of us, we probably owe it to the joy of food in our lives to at least ask these questions. In my classes on political and social theory and its connection to the world around us, my students and I sometimes explore these concerns as part of the increasingly complex and interconnected global world that we all form a part. Food is political too. Such discussions are often interspersed with interesting things I learn about my students – one makes cheese, the other is a “slow food” activist and a third lives with her boyfriend on a farm where they grow their own food.

So, here is to Foodnama and community and communion over food!

A Poem: My Wife’s Cooking

(re-posting from my blog, http://appapappa.com/?p=278)

My Wife’s Cooking

I come to the table preoccupied
You serve me dal with rice,
Simple to cook, done in a jiffy –
3/4th cup dal, 2 cups water,
Turmeric, and a pinch of salt –
Boil, boil, till it is done.
Then the tadka, a splatter in hot oil
Of kalonji, or red chilies maybe?
Simple, fast, easy – done!

I lose myself to the food wholly
Mashing the dal with the steaming rice
I blow on my fingers,
Bite on a green chilly
Spoon in a mouthful
Squeeze in some lemon
A slice of onion & cucumber
Another mouthful of rice with dal,
Repeat till the plate is wiped clean.

You have my attention fully now –
I smile in love, nay, devotion.
“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”,
A truer word was never spoken!
Some magic in your hands, my love
Or perhaps some love in your heart –
Your cooking is wonderful, a wonder
Your food so tasty & delicious, divine!
Like no other food in earth or heaven.

 

Question: Zaike ka Safar

A few months ago, one of my friends suggested taking an epicurean adventure across India – he referred to it as Zaike ka Safar. Now, we didn’t discuss the spots we’d hit, but somehow I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind and I would keep thinking about the idea every once in a while.

Over time, I have come up some criteria in place for the trip; however, I haven’t yet decided the mouth-watering itinerary! Here’s my criteria… I need your help!

  • The trip should be maximum of 7 days long.
  • It should be a round-trip.
  • You can catch a flight, ride a train or drive
  • There should be something to look forward to each breakfast, lunch, snack time & dinner.

So, what do you think would make the best week-long foodie trip in India? Share your thoughts!

Ahmedabad – Dhoklas, and dinner at The House of MG

Kanchuki, Nika & I got away for short break to The Little Rann of Kutch (migratory birds & wild asses!), Ahmedabad (the Sankranthi Kite Festival) and Mumbai (the Mumbai marathon) a few weeks ago.

At Ahmedabad, we stayed in a clean, friendly and cheap hotel called Hotel Volga, just off Relief Road. We checked in to the hotel at around noon and as soon as we had dropped off our bags, I hurried away to explore the restaurants near by.

Now, as you cross the road and walk towards Relief Cinema (yes – that is the name of the theater!), you will find a small hole-in-the-wall from where a matronly woman doles out the most delectable Dhoklas, Khandvis & Patras, all served with a soupy Kadhi and lightly fried green chillies. I couldn’t resist the temptation to try some, and asked her to give me a plate of Dhoklas to eat and to parcel a plate of Khandvi and Patras.

A generous mountain of Dhoklas was heaped onto a newspaper sheet, and they were moist, spongy and sweet-sour with the Kadhi, occasionally spiced by the crunch of  green chilly. I carried back the Khandvis & Patras guiltily, for I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat it all. This little excursion of mine had cost me only Rs. 30!

On the way back, I decided to go around the block from Relief Cinema, and this proved to be a great decision, for I crossed The House of MG, the only heritage hotel in Ahmedabad (interesting tidbit – the hotel gives you “carbon credits” for using less electricity, which gets you a discount on the room bill!). The hotel is known for the roof-top restaurant Agashiye, which serves a traditional Gujarati meal – I secretly decided that the nights meal would be at Agashiye.

However, that was not to be! I ate too much during the day (I ate the Khandvis & Patras, followed by a lovely lunch at a friends home) and despite drinking a potent chooran-hajam drink on Nehru bridge, I was too full from the days excesses to indulge in the multi-course affair at Agashiye.

But not to worry – The Green House at the House of MG proved a good alternative!

The Green House is an outdoor restaurant (it’s called a cafe, but it really is a restaurant) that serves a variety of Gujarati and non-Gujarati snacks. Nika got her favorite Chhola Bhatura, and Kanchuki & I ordered Rigna Nu Bhartu and the Undhiyu, along with Phulkas for me and Bajra Roti for K. The Rignra Nu Bhartu was very much like Baingan Bharta, but with less onions – good, but not special. The Undhiyu was fantastic – a medley of vegetables – yam, raw bananas, beans and potatoes – stewed in a spicy coconut and fenugreek gravy.

The accompaniments to the Bajra Roti was the highlight of the meal though – pictures really do speak a thousand words…

For starters…

And so it finally begins! Only a rough idea at the moment of what is cooking, the ingredients not all in place, and certainly not sure of how much to add of which, or when.

Only hope, the hope that something palatable turns out eventually, the hope that people like it, and the hope that what may start out as a simple honest preparation can graduate to something more elaborate – a gourmet recipe, or a buffet perhaps!

So, now to light the fire, set the pot up, throw in some stuff and let it simmer for a bit.