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 one lovingly grabs 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 spesh — 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, too — 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 chilies. Spices were incorporated in 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, change colours, and we had to wait for at least a week to eat them. After everyone slept, I used to pop in one too many. It wasn't good for the tummy, I was warned, 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 toasts topped with fried eggs. In Only Yesterday, Taeko Okajima's family brings home a pineapple that nobody knows how to 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 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 is 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 my mind as I thought of writing this piece is Chaitali Pednekar, one of the owners at 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 Sunday. The variety of fish in the market would always fascinate me. In fact, 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 the conversation we'd have. My parents know my love for fish and often make my stomach an aquarium. My Goan family friends are an epitome of hospitality; as a kid, we'd visit Goa, every January, for a week, and they'd feed us with so much love. There was a lot of variety that 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 cant fix. It's the nostalgia and the love I've received from my parents and our extended family in Goa that fixes 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 then adds. Comfort food came in the form of 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 out as well as I thought it would. 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 just 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, who heads product at OnJuno. Bangalore's The Little Kitchen is 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 and kept going back as they serve aviyal, inji-puli (my favourite pickle made with tamarind, chili and ginger), fried egg, extra veggies sambar, unlimited papad for only 100 bucks. They have my heart — whoever happily gives me all the papad."
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 every day 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 yet, never get tired of eating. I always make dosa because the whole pouring batter onto the tawa and then 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 makes mundane days fun and offers 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 I also think you're never lonely with food, even when you're eating alone because a bowl of food doesn't just fill your stomach, there's a lot more that accompanies it. The aroma, the emotion, and the story. So, tell me — can you think of a better companion than a hot meal?