Food

When I was 23 and a seemingly pesky girlfriend, I discovered Zomato and all the various voyeuristic delights it offered. In much the naïve way, I had also introduced my unadventurous boyfriend to ‘Chungh Wah’, after which he married the restaurant and took me there 4 times a week for lunch. I mournfully lost my appetite for Chinese food but soon started looking elsewhere to raid all the other cuisines I had been dreaming of. Somewhere around this time, I discovered steak and dragged my boyfriend to ‘The Only Place’.

Midway when I was struggling to eat what I had ordered, which, on the menu sounded European and true to its name, turned out to be a gooey mess of cream cheese and meat, my boyfriend led me to an unkind revelation about myself. He said ‘You only like food, but you can’t eat it. You don’t have the appetite’. My nose puckered and I was mad at him for several weeks but I couldn’t run away from what he had said. Maybe it was true; maybe I just was/am a fake foodie.

As a young girl, I always found food to be more interesting in other people’s homes and plates. Even if I would be eating the same food on my plate, it would look dull, dry even. The earliest memory I have to prove this is when I was around 8 in Mangalore; Mouma made page (conjee) and Channa gashi for dinner. We sat in the hall, all the tube lights were off and only the colours from the TV fell on our faces as we cringed to look up.

Bubbly got her dinner and started eating it with wild interest. I looked into her plate. It smelled great, like good food. I hollered at Mouma to give me the same food that was on Bubbly’s plate. She looked at me suspiciously because she knew I had absolutely no appetite for page. When my plate arrived, it looked nothing like the food on Bubbly’s plate. It was, like all my food nightmares, gooey and messy. My nose puckered.

In school, my friends had far more interesting lunch boxes than I. They brought sandwiches and other unembarrassing food. My lunch box would open up only to see my curled up face at the sight of uppitu or chitranna. I had forbidden my mother from packing egg or chicken in the box because it seemed to have offended a lot of my Brahmin friends who would assemble physical distance between them and my lunch box. Some would cover their ears in horror at the mention of chicken/mutton. Some of them are my Facebook friends, still. When I feel pathetic about myself, I go and see their marriage laden – babies infested profiles and feel immensely pleased.

Anyway, so I started to hungrily eye my friend Deepika’s lunch box in school. Deepika was a Jain girl which meant that her lunch box had the standard Roti, Raita, Dal and on some special occasions, Sabzi. I was thrilled when she opened her lunch box. We would stand by the parapet overlooking the school playground and eat. She would politely offer me some of her food and I would reluctantly refuse it, hoping she would insist and I could finally sigh and eat her food.

When it came to just food and me, I think I felt repelled by it. I didn’t like meal times. I detested the business of eating with the family, under everybody’s watch. I hated even more that I couldn’t waste food in front of strangers and relatives. I owed them an explanation, an excuse – not feeling well, too spicy, heat boils in my mouth and fever were the top contenders. Most meal times were therefore self inflicted rounds of guilt and desperation.

It must be why it took me by surprise to see myself noticing food, a lot later in life. Around 4 years ago I ate the best prawn curry and rice in Pondicherry. I think that is a kind of moment worth going back to because a) I don’t have many and b) that is the one earliest memory I have of discovering food and c) it has prawns.

We were sitting at a table by the beach, and were both starved. It is indeed quite the tale because up until that point, I had only made bad food decisions, I never could order wisely. I would order all manner of exotic sounding things and waste it. I think I must have really followed my intuition that day because I did want to eat prawn. The only other item on the menu, competing with the prawn was the fish; butter fried in lemon sauce. Eventually I picked the prawn and when it arrived, I had no idea it would be that good. I mixed a bit of rice with the prawn curry and put it in my mouth. It had a warm coconut-y flavour which kindly held back all the spices that usually make prawn curry spicy. I don’t know if it was the wind or the sea breeze or the salt on my face or in the air or the fact that we were sitting by the beach but that was some spectacular food. The prawn just sank into the coconut flavour and the spices whirled about in my mouth without stinging it in rude burns. My eyes closed in agreement to this and the whispering breeze around my ears and the crashing waves beyond it.

A lot of my food connection since then has been largely restricted to coastal cuisine. I fondly remember that evening when I ate Idiyappam and Kerala chicken curry at a modest hotel in Trivandrum. After that, I seem to have developed a delight for food even though my appetite is embarrassingly the same. Even so, I have my moments. One morning, for instance, I decided to give Dosa and Avrekai Palya (Val bean curry) an overdue chance. That is the Sunday staple breakfast at home; Dosa, Avrekai palya and batata bhaji. As a child, I had very little patience and taste for spicy food. Anything my tongue found remotely stinging would be instantly dismissed or sweetened by five spoons of sugar.

It took me a while before I realised that the right kind of spice can be just as pleasing as sweet itself. I am trying not to sound too Gordonsy here but there is a kind of meditative throbbing in the left overness of spicy food on your tongue. Like the kind only a partially cooked plain dosa can rescue. Or like the explosion of heat in your ears from eating spicy lemony chitranna (lemon rice) that only the crunchy groundnuts in it can save. Or like harassing your tongue with Vali Ambat (Malabar spinach Sambar) that even the graceful red rice cannot salvage. On a bad day, I immediately cheer up at the sight of Dal, batata upkari and seeth (Lentil curry, potato fry and rice)

But I wasn’t always here. It took me a long time to learn how to like home food. I think the preamble to this journey was that one day when I was on some sort of food ennui and everything I thought of eating filled me with disgust and nausea. The only thing that brought me out of this misery was a plate full of page, gosalla upkari (Ridge Gourd Stir Fry) and mango pickle. Although to be fair, Ash had the same items on her plate and something about the way she was humming with every bite she took made me eat it. I must have really liked it because my ennui disappeared and has never once come back.

I think I’m no foodie but I am just happy that I started to enjoy home food and that my appetite seems to have developed some meek taste for food beyond my preferences.

Thiruvananthapuram

Traveling with the family has always been a messy affair for me. Dad has unhindered access to me and what I wear and what I eat and how I live; the comments ensue, the match begins. But this happens only now, although oddly enough it seems like there’s a history that’s older than me when I think of all the disagreements we have had. Our travel sprees were a lot different when I was younger. And so were the disagreements.

Back then, I must have been crouching in the back seat, playing referee to the two voices in my head – one his, one mine; making them disagree. In short, waiting to grow up so I didn’t have to travel with them to temples and other violent places children should never be taken to. 

Traveling all of South India with a joint family in a matador will therefore only remain a blur that I accidentally found while groping in the dark, looking for something else. Somebody mentions a beach, a temple or a hotel and I find myself donning my best cat behavior trying to locate the blur in my memory, now whizzing like a housefly to be caught, an answer to be found, a page to be filled up.

We covered the temple cities in less than 4 days, stopping very briefly at Trivandrum, which until last year I firmly believed I had never seen. Last November, I discovered the blur in my memory that was Trivandrum and everything did not come rushing back as I had hoped it would. It took me a while to realise that I was seeing 2 versions of a city. One of which is imposed on you by temple going freak shows in the family who turn a blind eye to everything else the city offers. The other is when you catch a passing glimpse of yourself, in a moving vehicle, a showroom, a granite wall, and you smile in whispers and curse your family, when you are out exploring the city all by yourself.

I saw myself, away from home, away from temple people, away from the prying eyes of my father, wearing shorts, carrying nothing but a little bag and waiting to be lost. I walked around the hotel, smiled at all the slopes, coconut trees and little brick homes that gave me all kinds of Mangalore flashbacks. I took random turns, and found out that it is not easy to get lost in this city. Either that or I was too scared to go all the way out and be lost. 

At the turn of every corner, I smelled fish curry and coconut oil, a smell that I shamelessly associate Trivandrum with even today. The city made me see and feed the small foodie I was beginning to take note of in me. It outperformed the beach person that I was throughout my life.

I gorged on idiyappams and Kerala chicken curry in Statue hotel, downed jars of Pankaj Island Ice Tea, scooped chemmen fry with mounds of red rice and fish curry at Mubarak, judged soggy bits of meen pollichathu and forced its taste to match with the taste I thought it ought to have had, wolfed down puttu and prawn curry at Black pepper, all the while trying hard to drown the voices and faces of my part mallu-part mangy mother and her relatives. I could hear them echo loudly behind me. ‘Ti amgel vari khaoche’ – ‘She eats like us’.

Trivandrum’s streets are a marvel in themselves. An India coffee house, that looks like the leaning tower of pisa parked hazily around buses and bikes comes zooming back when I try to retrace my tour around the city. The buses looked easy to climb into unlike the whistling, red ones in Bangalore that are hostile bloody dynamites. At the far end of the street that I call Trivandrum is a little place that serves Biryani chaya – butter beer if I may. At the risk of getting kicked, I am going to say, drink it to know it. 

So when I go to Trivandrum, it is also to devour the best rice and kerala fish curry in the name of all that is fancy at Hotel Villa Maya, which, true to its name stands tall and quiet; unknowing of the city bustling all around it. I am no food expert but the food there is both sleep-inducing and exploding with taste.

This is how I remember Trivandrum, in its streets and food, in its friendly looking buses and pankaj island ice tea, but surprisingly very little in its beaches. However, nothing screams more Trivandrum than that familiar smell of fish curry and coconut oil when I check into its hotel.