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Stories on Comfort Food & All That

Everyone loves food is a silly, little blanket statement that doesn't apply to all. For some of us, food is more than three or four meals you lovingly grab in a day. I often think about the food I ate growing up, particularly after my mom's death. Now that I don't get to eat her summer special — jackfruit curry — a recipe that my grandma handed down to her. Apparently, my grandma's mother-in-law taught her this dish, and may I say it's one of those dishes where the jhol goes well with rice and roti? I ate it just like that — steaming hot curry served in a bowl, topped with pepper. The other thing I longed for in the summers was pickled amla. My grandma and mom collected amla and sour mangoes; in a large glass jar, they'd pour spicy turmeric water; in goes the sliced mangoes, amla, and green chillies. Spices were incorporated into a muslin cloth and cast into the jar. I remember the high table on which this jar was put; I'd watch the water ferment and change colours, and we had to wait at least a week to eat them. After everyone slept, I used to pop in one too many. I was warned that it wasn't good for the tummy, but I relished the familiar aftertaste.

In Studio Ghibli movies, food is sacred. You can find the characters packing bento boxes, slurping down ramen, or eating toast topped with fried eggs. In Only Yesterday, Taeko Okajima's family brings home a pineapple that nobody can cut. When her aunt comes home and shows them how to cut a pineapple, the family gathers around her. Taeko dances around the family in joy, anticipating the taste of the fruit. Soon, plates are brought out, and slices of pineapple are served to everyone. The family doesn't relish it much; while her dad comments it's nothing special, her sister calls it a letdown, but when Taeko takes a bite, she loses it. She finishes it and says oishii (delicious in Japanese). Others in the family give her their share while the mom asks her not to force herself, and the dad warns of a stomachache. And yet, Taeko eats it as her family moves on to eating bananas and watching TV shows. The simple act of watching her chew and eat the pineapple is so fulfilling. As a child, she was neglected and sought more attention from her parents. This bothers her even as a grown-up. But as a viewer, I found Taeko truly happy when she ate that pineapple. That food made her happy. 

Food is evocative. The first person who came to mind as I thought of writing this piece was Chaitali Pednekar, one of the owners of The Willow Bake Shop, Hyderabad. When asked about her favourite memory associated with food, she quips, "My ancestors hail from Goa and moved to Bombay. As a child, my dad took me to the fish market or ferry wharf to bring fish on Sundays. The variety of fish in the market would always fascinate me. I even wanted to be a marine biologist because of this fascination. The crispy rawa fried fish with hot steamed rice and plain ghee dal transports me to the fish market visits with my dad and our conversations. My parents know my love for fish, often making my stomach an aquarium. My Goan family friends are the epitome of hospitality; as a kid, we'd visit Goa every January for a week, and they'd feed us with so much love. A lot of variety kept me happy for months, even after the visit. Even now, if I'm sad or upset, there is nothing that a well-cooked fish can't fix. The nostalgia and the love I've received from my parents and our extended family in Goa fix everything while eating fish. I am instantly reminded of the amazing people I have who love me or care about me. It's evocative, eating that meal!" 

"I wouldn't be who I am today if it weren't for those fish trips with my father, my mom's cooking, and extended family serving me food with so much love," she adds. Comfort food came as dosa for my friend, Shashank — a standup comedian and producer at Radio Mirchi. He says, "I was broke in 2017. I had quit my IT job to write full-time, and it didn't work as well as I had thought. I didn't have money for fancy meals, so I turned to dosas because they were cheap and delicious. It was quite a relief because working on an empty stomach is horrible. I've eaten idli for breakfast in Mumbai almost every day. Fell in love with South Indian breakfast in Hyderabad and haven't looked back since then."

Talking about South Indian food, another person who comes to my mind is Swaminathan Jayaraman. Bangalore's The Little Kitchen was his constant. When asked why, he says, "When I moved to Bangalore, I explored the city's food. I visited The Little Kitchen in May 2019. I kept going back as they serve aviyalinji-puli (my favourite pickle made with tamarind, chilli and ginger), fried egg, extra veggies sambar, and unlimited papad for only 100 bucks. They have my heart — whoever happily gives me all the papad."

Photo by Sreepathy Paliath

Now that I've spoken enough about eating, let me talk about the other end of the spectrum — cooking, which is equally therapeutic. My former colleague at LBB, Sreepathy Paliath, really loves to cook. He is someone who loves to cook, document, and eat. I had to know what pushes him to make elaborate meals almost daily and what his go-to dishes are. He says, "My go-to food, whenever I'm down, is dosa and anything noodles — mostly ramen. Dosa is my comfort food that I can eat three times a day and never get tired of eating. I always make dosa because pouring batter onto the tawa and making a perfect round dosa is therapeutic. And then, there's the whole chutney-making process. I think, for me, it's cooking that's more therapeutic than a particular dish in itself. The whole meal prep, cooking, and finally having the meal make mundane days fun and offer a sense of accomplishment. I make ramen a lot because it's one of those foods you can sit with for a while and be with your thoughts. You're by yourself and your noodles, and you're just slurping your lousy mood away."

My grandma often commented that food, more than anything, has the power to heal us. And that it doesn't have to be a large meal; it just has to be a warm bowl of something that warms you up in every practical sense. But you're never lonely with food, even when you're eating alone, because a bowl of food doesn't just fill your stomach; a lot more accompanies it: the aroma, the emotion, and the story. So, tell me — can you think of a better companion than a hot meal? 

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