There is a lot more to food than just tingling our taste buds.
The best people I’ve ever known are those who light up like Diwali at the mere mention of their favourite foods. A glazed look of euphoric satisfaction illuminates them. Food is not just something one fills one’s stomach with. Debilitating hunger pangs and low energy disjointedness aside, food is a need that falls just short of love. Mahatma Gandhi explained,
“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Strangely, a sluggish human may well be a glutton or a pauper.
Food has the power to enslave us with its come-hither’ coquettish advances. The aroma sets up a tantalising haze, fogging our besotted brains long before it makes an appearance. A whiff of filter coffee from a neighbour’s kitchen in a Cantonment could easily transport me to the much loved Indian Coffee House in Shimla in a jiffy. Hot on its heels would come memories of carefree days of bonhomie shared with loved ones. Food has the power to nourish souls as well as the body.
Let’s begin by talking about paranthas. If words seem inadequate then food becomes symbolic of love. Easily beating others to the top of this chart are these discs of satisfaction. What greens, corn bread and fried chicken were to Maya Angelou, paraanthhas are to folks in our parts.
See, if you are born somewhere close to the Himalayas in India
Here I mean in the sprawling plains of the North
You are bound to have gobbled down a fairly crazy number of “Paranthas”
Made of whole wheat or refined flour depending on which state you live in
Round, four cornered like miniature squares
Triangles rolled to perfection by folk song crooning grandmas or mamas
Smeared with clarified butter
Rolled and re rolled with layers of milk fat
Made on griddles turned upside down
With halwa in Nauchandi Mela
With kebabs in Lucknow
Or baked in mud ovens,the tandoori versions !
Lachhedaar slices of heaven
Stuffed till they burst their voluptuous sides
Potato, cauliflower,radish,lentils, cheese,sugar crystals,onion
Fenugreek or spinach
Crunched up into” choori”
With a lump of jaggery or unrefined brown sugar after a meal
Or simply your maternal love laced,carrom seeds and salt sprinkled
Mushy with the nostalgia from tiffin boxes in school lunch break
Or on a lethargic Sunday
Accompanied by home made mango pickle
Dipped in rich creamy clay pot prepared yoghurt
A sliced mango on the side
Hypnotically offering itself to be devoured
Paraanthhas for the turbaned gent with dollops of white butter oozing love
Or the top of the milk cream “malai “
Doused in cholesterol laden joy
Chocolate stuffed ones for the fusion crazed youth
Desi fundamental comfort food jazzed up with the west
Eat them anyway , they helped you grow
At about this time of the year I become like Mirza Ghalib and wait for the mango parties he was known to be partial to. The slight difference being that mine are solo indulgences sitting in surreptitious corners and slurping with manic concentration , letting the juice dribble with an unladylike abandon, much to the worthy colonel’s frowning amusement.
I’m eternally indebted to the Universe for letting me be born on Oriental soil. It would have been a huge loss to remain unfamiliar with the wealth of spices that line our kitchen shelves. The panacea for most ills, if we still listened to our grandmas. They spice up our lives with that extra punch of goodness.
pees raha hai waqt mujhe masaalon ki tarah
tai hai ke mehek meri lajawaab hogi (~ Rajesh Raja)
I imagined this conversation which I’m sharing with you. It was initiated by an endearing Punjabi four liner that my dad recited to me with dramatic voice modulations:
Laung te laachi naavan chale
Laachi maari tubbi
Laung dhadadhad pittan laga
Hai saheli dubbi
It loosely translates thus:
clove and cardamom went for a swim
cardamom decided to dive
clove started weeping loudly
alas! My girlfriend has drowned!
The Spice of Life
the nutmeg whispered to the mace
do you know we are cousins?
you are the slivers of the lacy outer covering and I am the fruit
the cinnamon and Clove are great pals
they are dunked into the smoking oil together
the cardamom , small and pale green nudges the big black one
are we related, she asks daintily
turning up her expensive nose at her more gawky looking relative with an identical name
why ever did our mothers name us both cardamoms ?
you look nothing like me!
racist spices! O my lord in heaven
the cumin spluttered and let off an aroma
the star anise all starry eyed !
while the asafoetida could be smelt for miles around
how even a minuscule bit can set up a stink!
don’t be upset , she said , I am great for your flatulence !
the mustard seeds flirted with the curry leaves
as the red chilly coloured in embarrassment
the turmeric had everyone dyed in her yellow hues
sunny and golden antiseptic
the pepper sneezed as she was put through the mill
she was in love with her own spiciness
the bay leaves somber and sedate
loomed large above the pot of rice
if only life would retain the flavours
of all these magic transformers
for what is life bereft of spice?
your chilly red and mine green?
(Lily Swarn is an internationally acclaimed poet, author and columnist who has won over fifty national and international awards and whose works have been translated into seventeen languages.)