Monday, September 17, 2007

My food memories

I just started reading a book called Death by Pad Thai, an interesting read about people's food memoirs. It is amazing how human beings from all over the world have such an intimate relationship with food. For us, as a species, food is about so much more than filling one's stomach, unlike for the rest of the animal kingdom. It's about love, about control, emotions, competence, stress-relief...

The fact that I have a food-oriented mindset is (sadly) obvious. Apparently when I was as young as two, when mom was busy washing clothes in the loo, I polished off a whole ceramic jar of lime pickle, on one occasion, and a whole steel utensil full of either Gojju( spiced tamarind sauce) or Saaru ( lentil dish with tamarind and spices) on another. However, many of my food memories center around the summer holidays.

During the summer, mom, my sister and I would travel south to meet the family, and my favourite stop would be in Mysore at my uncle's house. My cousins and the two of us were the only kids on dad's side of the family, and we were extremely close. The age-gap was considerable - my eldest cousin was 6 years older than us 2 middle ones and we were 6 years older than my sister. But that never got in the way of a good time, and the four of us were a great gang. The tiny two-bedroom flat accommodated Grandfather and grandma, my aunt who lived with them, and maybe one of dad's sisters who would accompany us from Bangalore, my uncle and aunt and their two kids and my sister and I and our parents. It never felt crowded ( unless someone was in a hurry to use the one loo), and there were always enough beds, enough food and enough love to go around.

My grandfather would get up very early in the morning - around 5:30 - and go out to fetch the milk for coffee. I used to accompany him, the two of us walking down 100 feet road, clanking the big steel vessel for the milk. The air would be crisp and cool, the gulmohur trees overhead bursting with crimson blooms. A coffee roasting shop at the corner of our street would send out the warm, spicy scent of coffee into the morning air. We'd step carefully around numerous cow patties and walk all the way to the milk booth and back, grandpa telling me stories in his wheezy voice. When we came back, he would carefully make coffee for the entire household, pouring out the decoction he had set the previous night, heating the milk and adding measured spoons of sugar. Then he would make a separate cup of milky coffee for me and watch me gulp it down, his face alight with affection.

Every couple of days, we would all march down to the Mysore market, one of the first and most famous covered bazaars, and buy a variety of vegetables and fruit from the vendors. My parents always claim that fruit and vegetables available in the south are more flavourful and fragrant - I'll have to check that out for myself as a grown-up 'foodie'. Perhaps it was the laughter and companionship of loved ones that added the extra savour. Mom would go crazy about the flowers, and buy long strings of jasmine to put in her hair - something she missed badly in Delhi. Mangoes would be bought by the dozen - thothapuri, to be eaten with salt and chilli powder, huge malgoas, sweet and silky, fragrant banganpallis from Andhra and small, delightful badamis - to be had by themselves or made into Mango Sreekarane ( see the recipe at

Sreekarane was a family favourite, to be eaten after a meal as dessert, with the chappattis as an accompaniment or anytime as a snack. It involved squeezing all the flesh off the mangoes, and we kids would get the gottas or the seeds, with whatever flesh was adhering to them, to polish off by ourselves later. Once, when the extended family had come for a visit to the new house we had built ( 35 people in a 3 bedroom home for the summer!), my cousin and I decided to help make the Sreekarane. We craftily barely so much as bruised the mangoes before dropping them into the gotta pile, and had amassed quite a healthy stock until we were sadly discovered and chased out of the kitchen.

One of the exclamation points of the summer was eating out at restaurants, which we never did in Delhi. My cousins' next door Gujarati neighbours were very fond of all of us and their kids would be in and out of my cousins' home all day. Bhabhi and Kalyanji used to take all of us kids to Lalit Mahal Palace, which stands white and serene next to the brooding majesty of Chamundi Hill. In those days, its gardens used to run wild and we kids would have a wonderful time playing amidst all that greenery. Moreover, the outing was made extra-special because we'd go in Bhabhi and Kalyanji's car - an old Fiat which was packed to the gills with all of us - which made us feel like little Maharajas and Maharanis, so rare was car ownership.After we were finished playing, we would head for Indra Vihar restaurant - which had the added attractions of a. being a drive-in restaurant, and b. having a set of swings in the courtyard - where we invariably ordered chhole bhaturey.

Set dosa was another summer staple. My uncle would fetch it from a nearby hotel for breakfast, accompanied by chutney and huli. The dosas would come wrapped in layered banana leaves and be stored in a casserole dish to stay warm as successive batches had their share. We used to bring out the soft, fluffy, homemade white butter and put dollops of it onto each hot, bland, pillowy white dosa, the chutney a fiery counterpoint.

All meals were batch-processed, because there were simply too many of us for any table. Every day the grown-ups would quickly finish their meal and get out of our way. We kids preferred to be the second batch, because our meals were interminable. It used to take us two hours or more to finish because we would be so busy talking, fighting, arguing, and inevitably, shaking in uncontrollable fits of laughter until no one knew what she was laughing at any more, just that she was laughing. On one memorable occasion, my cousin was so busy laughing, she didn't notice she had poured all the contents of the salt shaker into her curd-rice until she took her first mouthful.

In the evening, a number of visitors would drop in, for my uncle's family was a social hub. My grandmother's sister ( about 3.5 feet tall!), any number of dad's cousins, uncle's friends from NIE, my cousin's friends, grandpa's clients...Hot filter coffee or sweet tea was of course available to anyone who wanted it. Apart from that we would have tongue-tingling snacks like churmuri or hacchida avalakki. We kids would watch the entire process, our mouths watering, as our moms sliced the cucumbers and cut the onions and green chillies, roasted the avalakki and blended the ingredients to produce a healthy snack that exploded in a flavourful mouthful of fiery, sour, crunchy, cool and soft all at the same time. We used to take the snack out onto the rooftop, from which you could see most of Mysore - a warren of red-tiled roofs, with the golden dome of the Palace glowing at sunset, and a tiny beacon at the top of Chamundi Hill. It was wonderful to feast on favourite recipes while enjoying the fresh breeze and the sight of the birds returning to their nests in the big peepul-banyan trees in the courtyard of the temple opp0site our house.

We would go on excursions and picnics together, either all the grown-ups and the kids, or just the four of us. Now I find it incredible that a 13 - 14 year old would be in charge of 2 eight year-olds and one toddler, and that the four of us would wander all over Mysore without coming to any harm. A favourite destination was Kukkarahalli Kere, and the four of us would start off early in the morning - around 7 - to walk all the way there - a distance of 2-3 kilometers from our house. The lake was always interesting, with flocks of birds, beatiful trees and shrubs and gardens, and tons of waterlilies clogging the lake waters. At the end of the excursion, we'd go to Ramya restaurant for breakfast, consuming vast quantities of hot idlis and vadas with coconut and onion chutney. Another picnic venue for the four of us was the Mysore Zoo, which is a beautifully green place. We'd walk there and back, and linger for hours, seeing all the animals, gathering gulganji ( bright red, hard seeds) to play Alagulimane (known as Mancala in the West), and inevitable have a whole bottle of Bejois mango drink. Chamundi Hills and Brindavan Gardens were outings for everyone, and we'd hire a van to drive there, with food packed for the day - flasks of hot filter coffee, yelakki bananas (tiny bananas bursting with sweetness), puliyogare or bisibele bhaath, curd rice and all manner of crunchy fried stuff, to keep our mouths busy all day.

After dinner, the inevitable practice was to stay up together, all of crowded into the big front room, catching up on the extended family and bringing old skeletons out of their closets while playing 28 ( a card game). The session used to go on until midnight or later, though grandfather would excuse himself to go sleep relatively early since he was a man of highly disciplined habits. Then my middle-cousin would drop off, and my sister. I was the proverbial night-owl, drinking in all the stories from when my dad and uncle were children. Finally, when everyone decided it was time they all went to bed, a nightcap would be made of Horlicks or Bournvita, the hot milk poured from one steel tumbler to another until a thick froth rose on top, which would leave a creamy moustache on my face, to be licked off at the end. Even today, the taste of Horlicks is the taste of childhood, those neverending days of sun and laughter.


PossiblyMaybeProbablyNot said...

This was like a trip down yesteryears. Of course, i can totally relate to everything you have written on this page. This only has to be an experience of Mysoreans and Bangaloreans. Incidentally, when i searched for alagulimane, the only search result was your page and then i was curious to read the content. Enjoyed it! Thank you!

bird's eye view said...

Thanks so much.

Believe it or not, but Alagulimane is apparently a game invented in Soth America by the Indians - god knows how it found its way into Karnataka!